America has a female prisoner problem. And the problem isn’t with the women; it’s with the nation’s justice system itself, according to critics who point to rampant sexual assault and other indignities forced upon the tens of thousands of females locked up in the US.
Just last month, 15 female inmates at the Federal Correctional Complex in central Florida filed a lawsuit against several prison guards, claiming some of the inmates were sexually abused, harassed, and assaulted regularly for as long as six years, according to The Tampa Bay Times.
The report alleges multiple accounts of rape in a warehouse, an empty semi-truck with only a mattress, and “blind spot” areas around the prison. Inmate Lauren Reynolds alleges she was targeted by a guard within one month of arriving at the prison.
“After the first time Officer Daniel Kuilan forced himself on Reynolds, she said he told her not to tell anyone or she’d be in trouble and sent to another facility with fewer work and education privileges,” The Tampa Bay Times reported. “Reynolds said she was raped by Kuilan for six months — every Wednesday at a warehouse before her work shift began.”
It’s not just Florida. Cases like this happen all over the country. Take the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey where a suit “alleges a dozen conditions that allowed for sexual assault” which violate the prisoners’ civil rights, an NJ Spotlight article states.
At least eight officers have been charged with sexual abuse since 2015, although there may be more. According to the DOJ report, “the result of an investigation that began in April 2018, found systemic problems at Mahan that allow sexual abuse to occur undetected and undeterred and that discourage prisoners from reporting abuse.”
A prison guard at the Albion Correctional Facility in New York recently pleaded guilty to having sex with two inmates. Reports state how one officer at the Internal Florida Department of Corrections would give inmates cigarettes in exchange for oral sex. A guard at the federal women’s prison in Aliceville, Alabama, originally lied — and was then found guilty — about sexually assaulting two inmates multiple times.
Sexual assault isn’t the only torture many female prisoners are forced to endure.
“The indignity behind bars is tremendous,” Michele Goodwin, the Chancellor’s Professor at the University of California, Irvine and Director of the Center for Biotechnology & Global Health Policy, said on a call with reporters this week.
Goodwin has visited juvenile justice centers, jails, and prisons, and remembers being amazed by the medical neglect and “the normalcy of women being denied all sorts of things that by law they were entitled to.”
Take Arizona prisons as one example.
“The cost that you have to pay for ice when you’ve been injured, you actually have to pay for the ice,” Goodwin said. “The ice…the way in which they put salt or dish soap in it, because the punishment is that you shouldn’t be able to cool yourself down by sipping on the ice. This is in Arizona where it gets very hot.”
Then there’s the problem of inmates trying to stay in touch with their families. Goodwin says it’s “horrific” that many American prisons force parents to spend as much as $15.00 or even $20.00 for just a minute or even a few minutes on the phone with their children or other loved ones.
“And there’s a chain of events that go with this…there is research that shows that children of incarcerated parents fare worse than children who have experienced a parent’s death,” Goodwin said. “So now imagine that parent – who wants to be in touch with his or her child – and the suffering of that child, because that child can’t hear from his or her mom, because that mom cannot afford it. Right? It is these kinds of appendages to these kinds of systems that are truly horrific.”
These horror stories are why Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) – along with Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Karen Bass (D-Calif.) – have been pushing the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act on Capitol Hill.
The legislation would mandate prisons provide female prisoners more visitation opportunities with their babies, would prohibit the Federal Bureau of Prisons from charging inmates for making phone calls, and “create an ombudsman at the Justice Department to monitor certain violations in prisons.”
Advocates say without these changes in federal law, female prisoners will continue to face sexual assault on top of all the other indignities the US criminal justice system heaps on already vulnerable inmates.