JUL/AUG 2001


by Phillis Engelbert

Women constitute the fastest growing population of inmates in the United States. This trend is largely fueled by the "war on drugs," in which female drug couriers are caught in the web woven by law enforcement officials allegedly trying to trap big-time dealers. Women prisoners, most of whom are convicted of non-violent offenses, routinely face abuse at the hands of male guards. Their minor children, left motherless when their mothers are placed behind bars, are the "invisible victims" of the United States’s criminal justice system.

As of mid-1998, there were 83,000 women in prison throughout the country, accounting for 6.4 percent of the total prison population, and 63,000 women in jails, accounting for 10.8 percent of the total jail population. (For statistical purposes prisons are state and federal government facilities in which people serve sentences typically longer than one year; jails are local government facilities in which people await trial or sentencing, or serve sentences of less than one year). These numbers represent a significant increase over June 1997, when 78,000 women were incarcerated in prisons and 60,000 in jails. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of women behind bars grew by a whopping 516 percent between 1980 and 1998—about double the incarceration rate of men. The United States now has about ten times more women in prison than the combined nations of Western Europe (with approximately the same total number of women in the population).

As of 1997, the greatest proportion of women in prison, 40 percent, were there for drug offenses. Twenty-seven percent were imprisoned for property offenses (such as theft and writing bad checks), 25 percent for violent offenses (two-thirds of those violent acts were directed against "intimates" such as husbands, boyfriends, or close relatives), and the remaining 8 percent for a variety of other offenses (such as prostitution).

The typical female prisoner is poor, lacks formal education, has a history of being sexually and/or physically abused, and suffers from substance abuse. More than half of women in prison were unemployed at the time of their arrest. African American and Hispanic women are disproportionately represented. Slightly over half of all female prisoners are African American, while this group constitutes just 14 percent of the U.S. population. African American women are incarcerated at a rate eight times greater, and Hispanic women at a rate four times greater, than white women.

War on drugs targets women

The principal factor responsible for the increase in female incarceration is the "war on drugs." The crackdown on drug possession and sales, begun in the 1980s, imposes harsh minimum sentences on anyone caught with even a modest quantity of drugs. Rather than reduce the availability of drugs by punishing the drug-running kingpins, as the policy’s authors promised, the program instead has placed large numbers of small-time users and dealers—many of them women—behind bars. Of the 40 percent of women behind bars for drug offenses, about one-third of them were guilty of possession (not sale). Those women are typically given harsh sentences because, unlike many of the male drug offenders, they have little or no information to offer prosecutors in exchange for leniency. The reason for that trend is that women are either not involved in drug rings or are involved only marginally. Women in drug operations are typically assigned to be "mules," or couriers, and have little knowledge of the larger operation.

Incarceration of women destroys families

Although women constitute just a small percentage of the nation’s prison population, the impact of their incarceration on society is magnified by the effect on their children. Between 60 and 70 percent of women incarcerated in prisons or jails during the 1990s had children under the age of eighteen (for a total of about 200,000 children). (These figures are thought to be a low estimate as many women hesitate to report the existence of children for fear of government intervention in their custodial arrangements.) According to a 1994 survey by the U.S. Justice Department, more than 70 percent of mothers lived with their children prior to incarceration. In contrast, about 64 percent of male offenders in the 1990s were fathers of children under eighteen and approximately half of those men lived with their children prior to incarceration. In the year 2000, the Department of Justice revealed that approximately 1.5 million children—accounting for 2 percent of the country’s children—had a parent in state or federal prison.

Typically when a father goes to prison, his children remain in the community with their mother. When a mother goes to prison, however, the vast majority of children end up in the care of a grandmother or other relative or in foster care—only about 25 percent end up with the father.

Most states have laws outlining the process for termination of parental rights upon incarceration. Additionally, many incarcerated women are held in rural areas far from the cities where their children live. This factor alone makes it impossible for many mothers to receive visits from their children. A 1994 study revealed that 60 percent of children who were separated from their incarcerated mothers by distances of more than 100 miles never made it to the prison to visit.

Children, particularly daughters, of incarcerated mothers sustain severe emotional trauma due to the loss of the mother. The only mechanism to minimize the trauma is frequent contact and visitation. In addition to difficulties of poverty, illiteracy, and substance abuse that plague many of their parents, children of the incarcerated often see their future limited by their parent’s incarceration. Among female juvenile offenders in Iowa in 1999, for example, 64 percent had mothers who had been arrested or incarcerated. In Texas that figure in 1999 was 61 percent; in Hawaii, California, Colorado, and Florida around 50 percent; in Ohio 44 percent; and in Arizona 27 percent.

Child welfare experts blame the delinquency of children of incarcerated mothers on "the system." "We forget that when we take a child away from a mother, we put the child in an under-funded state program," stated Warren Hurlbut, superintendent of the Rhode Island Training School, in an October 1999 U.S. News & World Report article. "These kids are not going to ideal situations ... and they are not getting help."

Echoing Hurlbut’s sentiment is James R. Milliken, presiding judge of the juvenile court of San Diego County. According to Milliken, foster care can be worse for a child than staying with a drug-addicted mother, and in addition, more than three years in the foster system leads to permanent psychological damage for any child. In 1990, the Recommendation of the Eighth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders stated: "The use of imprisonment for certain categories of offenders, such as pregnant women or mothers with infants or small children, should be restricted and a special effort made to avoid the extended use of imprisonment as a sanction for these categories."

Sexual abuse of women in prison

International guardians of human rights Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations Special Commission on Violence Against Women, have condemned United States prisons for the existence of prevalent sexual abuse of female inmates by correctional staff. Much of the trouble stems from the fact that many existing prisons in the United States are in violation of international standards of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners which forbid male guards to supervise women’s prisons. A 1997 study of forty states found that, on average, 41 percent of officers at women’s prisons are men.

In many states, male guards have the legal right to touch female inmates anywhere on their bodies (including their breasts and genitals) when conducting searches and to observe them using the toilets and showers. The ultimate authority of male officers over female inmates creates a situation ripe for abuse. The sexual abuse documented in U.S. prisons ranges from sexually suggestive statements, to prurient viewing, to groping, to rape.

According to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, sexual abuse violates both the right to be treated with respect for human dignity and the right to privacy—two rights to which all human beings are entitled. And the rape of an inmate by prison staff is considered, under international law, an act of torture.

Abuse in Michigan prisons

In 1995, the U.S. Justice Department conducted an investigation into women’s prisons in Michigan. They found evidence of widespread rape and other forms of sexual abuse of prisoners by guards. In a letter to Michigan Governor John Engler dated March 27, 1995, the investigators wrote the following: "Nearly every inmate we interviewed reported various sexually aggressive acts of guards. A number of women reported that officers routinely ‘corner’ women in their cells or on their work details in the kitchen or laundry room and press their bodies against them, mocking sexual intercourse. Women described incidents where guards exposed their genitals while making sexually suggestive remarks."

The U.S. Justice Department, in their report on Michigan prisons, also wrote that guards, during pat-down searches, abused women by "routinely touching all parts of the woman’s body, including fondling and squeezing their breasts, buttocks, and genital areas in ways not justified by legitimate security needs."

In 1996 and 1998, Human Rights Watch issued two reports detailing the sexual abuse of women prisoners in Michigan and the retaliation women received for cooperating in exposing the abusers. In 1998, Governor Engler denied permission to tour women’s prisons to Radhika Coomaraswamy, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, appointed by the Human Rights Commission. In 1996, women prisoners sued the Michigan Department of Corrections for the abuse and won extensive changes and monetary judgment. Part of the judgment required the removal of male guards from women’s prisons throughout the state. Male guards are challenging this portion of the judgment. In late 1999, the state legislature passed a law excluding prisoners from the protections of the states civil rights acts; the law went into effect March 10, 2000. The question of whether the law applies to cases pending at the time it went into effect, as well as the law’s constitutionality, are currently being considered in the courts.

Abuse in California prisons

In 1997, Amnesty International received a letter signed the "general population" of the Valley State Prison for Women in California regarding sexual abuse by male guards. "...We don’t like being pawed on by male correctional officers under the pretense of being pat searched," stated the letter. "No, we do not have a voice that will speak about how we are treated by the male officers, as if we were their private harem to sexually abuse and harass. Not to mention the emotional and verbal abuses when being addressed as bitches, niggers, wet backs, or any of the other racial or sexual slurs that the abusive officer’s tiny mind can conjure." That same year, the Federal Bureau of Prisons paid $500,000 in a legal settlement to three female inmates in California who claimed they had been raped, beaten, and "sold" by guards for sex with male inmates.

Psychological impact of abuse

For the more than one-half of all female inmates who experienced sexual abuse prior to incarceration, the assaults on their bodies and their dignity by guards—from violation of privacy to rape—compounds the psychological and emotional trauma they are already suffering. The loss of control over one’s body often leads to humiliation, hopelessness and rage. In 1998, female prisoners in New York filed suit to stop searches of women inmates by male guards. The plaintiffs claimed that their health had suffered as a consequence of having male officers "sexually grope and fondle the prisoners ... and/or make sexual and obscene comments about the women’s bodies." The women also reported being afraid to complain because of expected retaliation.

In 1993, a Washington state circuit court sided with women inmates who filed a lawsuit charging abuse by male guards. "The intrusive, probing searches at issue here," wrote a judge assigned to the case, "permit men in position of ultimate authority to flatten the breasts of women who are powerless and totally subject to their control, to knead the seams of their clothing at their inner thighs, and then thrust their hands inward and upward into their crotches. Such conduct is offensive in the extreme to all women, regardless of their prior sexual history."

Many women in prison feel powerless to stop the sexual abuse. Women who file complaints routinely experience retaliation by guards, in the form of intensified sexual attacks, placement in solitary confinement, or other types of punishment. The U.S. Justice Department determined from its 1994-1995 investigation into Michigan’s women’s prisons that "many sexual relationships appear to be unreported due to the presently widespread fear of retaliation and vulnerability felt by these women."

Allegations of sexual assault are also difficult to prove. In many cases there are no witnesses to an assault and it comes down to the word of the guard against the word of the prisoner. The prison administration almost always sides with the guard. As Elizabeth Bouchard, an inmate in Massachusetts’ Framingham Prison, stated in a Boston University radio station interview on October 16, 1998: "Most officers will tell you, ‘go ahead and tell—it’s your word against mine. Who are they gonna believe? I’m an officer, I have a badge on, I’m in a superior position to you.’"

Human Rights Watch conducted a study of the sexual abuse of women prisoners at eleven state prisons throughout the country from March 1994 to November 1996. In their report, entitled All Too Familiar: Sexual Abuse of Women in U.S. State Prisons, the organization wrote: "Our findings indicate that being a woman prisoner in U.S. state prisons can be a terrifying experience. If you are sexually abused, you cannot escape from your abuser. Grievance or investigatory procedures, where they exist, are often ineffectual, and correctional employees continue to engage in abuse because they believe they will rarely be held accountable, administratively or criminally. Few people outside the prison walls know what is going on or care if they do know. Fewer still do anything to address the problem."

What you can do

To voice your concern about the growing population of women prisoners, the conditions they face behind bars, and the fate of their children, write to our state and U.S. legislators. Ask them to explore alternatives to incarceration and to support human rights and civil rights for prisoners. Keep in mind that legislators have grown used to thinking that being "tough on crime" wins votes. Inform them that many people do not support this philosophy, that an enormous amount of resources are being wasted on incarceration, and that it’s time for a more thoughtful and progressive approach to criminal justice. To learn more about efforts underway to reform the criminal justice system, visit the Critical Resistance website at www.criticalresistance.org. R

U.S. Senate: Sen. Carl Levin, 459 Russell Bldg., Washington DC 20510, 202-224-6221; 313-226-6020. Email: senator@levin.senate.gov

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, 245 Dirksen Bldg., Washington DC 20510, 202-224-4822; 517-336-8500. Email: senator@stabenow.senate.gov

U.S. House of Representatives: Rep. Lynn Rivers, 1724 Longworth Bldg., Washington DC 20515, 202-225-6261; 734-485-3741. Email: lynn.rivers@mail.house.gov

Michigan Senate: Sen. Alma Wheeler Smith, P.O. Box 30036, Lansing, MI 48909, 517-373-2406. Email: senasmith@senate.state.mi.us

Michigan House of Representatives: Chris Kolb, Michigan House of Representatives, P.O. Box 30014, Lansing, MI 48909-7514, 517-373-2577. Email: chriskolb@house.state.mi.us

John Hansen, Michigan House of Representatives, P.O. Box 30014, Lansing, MI 48909-7514, 517-373-1792. Email: jphansen@house.state.mi.us


Amnesty International USA. United States of America: Rights for All. London, England: Amnesty International Publications, 1998.

Amnesty International USA. "Not Part of My Sentence": Violations of the Human Rights of Women in Custody. New York. March 1999.

Human Rights Watch Women’s Rights Project. All Too Familiar: Sexual Abuse of Women in U.S. State Prisons. New York: Human Rights Watch, 1996.

Greenfeld, Lawrence A., and Tracy L. Snell. "Women Offenders." U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs. December 1999 (revised October 3, 2000).

Human Rights Watch Women’s Rights Project. Nowhere to Hide. New York: Human Rights Watch, 1998.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2001. [Online] http://www.hrw.org/wr2k1/index.html.

Locy, Toni. "Like Mother, Like Daughter: Why More Young Women Follow Their Moms into Lives of Crime." U.S. News & World Report. October 4, 1999. Pages 18-21.

Young, Diane S., and Carrie Jefferson Smith. "When Moms are Incarcerated: The Needs of Children, Mothers, and Caregivers." Families in Society. March/April 2000. Pages 130-141.



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