Women Behind Bars

No Dignity, No Hope

According to a recent report by a study group of the Pew Charitable Trusts, more than 1 in 100 Americans is currently behind bars. When the figures are broken down by age, sex and race, the statistics are as stunning as a slap in the face: 1 in 9 black males aged 20 to 34 is incarcerated. One in 72 of all males is in jail or prison. One in 96 of all Hispanics is doing time. The Pew Center found that 1 in 746 women is incarcerated, but broken down by age and race, 1 in 100 black women aged 35-39 and 1 in 297 Hispanic women are doing time, compared to 1 in 355 for white women in the same age group.

But according to other recent studies, the fastest growing prison demographic is women. Silja Talvi, in her new book, a[euro]oeWomen Behind Bars", notes that the number of incarcerated adult women has jumped 757 percent since 1977, nearly twice the growth rate for men. And most of these women are mothers, Talvi writes.

Almost two and one-half million children have a parent in prison. Many women are incarcerated while pregnant, or become pregnant (usually by a male correctional officer) while imprisoned, and deliver their babies in shackles. Then their babies are taken away from them.

Talvi neither exploits nor minimizes the abuse of women (and men and juveniles) behind bars. She forcefully presents it for what it isa[euro] a violation of human rights pervasive throughout the state and federal prison systems. In the rest of the Western world, which has far fewer women behind bars in the first place, women prisoners are guarded by other women. That's the way it used to be here too. Male correctional officers in women's prisons were generally assigned to the perimeter and the gate, or were senior supervisors.

But as civil rights legislation, such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, provided for equal rights according to sex, a correctional officer became a gender-neutral job position, and men moved into closer contact with women in prison, with predictably unintended consequences. Today, one in four women reports being sexually abused while in prison or jail. Formal complaints against officers or other inmates, however, are frequently rebuffed as fabrications or consensual encounters, discouraging reporting. Fear of retribution also contributes to a low official reporting rate.

Instead of discouraging abuse by punishment abusers, correctional facilities take a preventive approach, practically eliminating any psychological sense of privacy with bright lights, metal mirrors and surveillance cameras, even in showers and cells.

The guards need not actually watch the inmates; rather, the inmate is made to feel as if she is under constant surveillance and is supposed to behave accordingly. She dose not, however, feel safer as a consequence of these constant intrusions.

And while female-on-female sexual assaults occur, Talvi reports only about a half-dozen of her interviewees confided that they were forced into a sexual situation with another inmate or female guard. The vast majority of sexual contact and sexual violence in womens prisons happens when male correctional employees exploit the gender and power differentials inherent in a female custodial setting, she says.

The sexually intrusive or abusive nature of these experiences in prison has a devastating impact on a women's likelihood of achieving a healthy and successful re-entry into society, posits Talvi. That is hard to dismiss. Prisons in general are mentally and physically unhealthy places.

Talvi recounts the story of one women she met at Central California Women's Facility who was sentenced to life in prison for a $200 unarmed robbery. When Gina Muniz was first taken to the L.A. County Jail, she began to bleed, all over herself and her cell. Deputies were so disgusted they threw whole rolls of toilet paper, a precious commodity in the jail, into her cell. It was eight months before she got a proper examination and was diagnosed with Stage II cervical cancer.

Falling into depression after the death of her father, she began to use cocaine. Eventually she became dependant on it. With traffic misdemeanors as her only criminal record, she pleaded guilty to the robbery, expecting s short sentence. Instead, she got life, a sentence she said she did not understand until she was processed at CCWF.

In Muniz's case, life meant her life. Medical decisions made at some level in the process dined her the necessary hysterectomy, radiation, and chemotherapy that could have.

For more information on Women Behind Bars Contact Gilbert Garcia today at 936-756-3333. 

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