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Abuses of Women in US Prisons

Updated on January 17, 2015

Women Behind Bars

While there are approximately more than 2.5 million people incarcerated in the US today, the number of women in prison is a relatively small number by comparison - only about 200,000, as per the American Civil Liberties Union. However, there are a number of differences between male and female prisons regarding the reasons for incarceration as well as the hardships endured while incarcerated.

Many women in prison are mistreated by guards or other prison staff, physically, emotionally, and sexually, and denied basic human rights. Unfortunately, there is little recourse for these victims to find justice for what has been done to them, and things do not appear to be improving.

News Report on Abuse in Women's Prisons

As of a study conducted in August 2014, nearly a third of all female prisoners worldwide are incarcerated in the United States, according to the International Center for Prison Studies, This statistic broken down more in depth mean that there are more than 201,000 women prisoners in the US, or about 8.8 percent of the total American prison population


Abuses Within the Prison System

In a stark contrast to incarcerated males, a large majority of incarcerated women are jailed for non-violent offenses. In fact, the number of women in prison has grown exponentially within the last 20 years, and according to conservative estimates, about 20% of women in prison are actually first-time offenders.

It has been argued that the number of incarcerated women rising so greatly corresponds greatly to the increase of the US's War on drugs and harsher penalties for offenders. This means that mothers, sisters, and daughters who may be suffering from an addiction problem are simply incarcerated, rather than given treatment. Many women in prison have suffered from some kind of substance abuse issue as well.

Additionally, a wide majority of incarcerated women have reported that they have suffered abuse or sexual assault in the past, before even entering the prison system. When they are abused again within the confines of the prison system, this often leads to extreme issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), trauma, depression, or occasionally, they become so broken that they actually become somewhat complacent to being mistreated. The cycle of suffering is only exacerbated when they are forced to suffer the same abuses within a facility that is supposed to be 'safe' for them that they suffered in the outside world. The mental turmoil this causes many inmates is indescribable.

Male Prison Guards

Recent studies show that, in state and federal facilities for incarcerated women about 70% of all prison guards are male. This has led to numerous problems and reports of violence, abuse and inhumane treatment. Records from facilities across the US are riddled with reports of prisoners being coerced into exchanging sexual favors with guards in exchange for services or even basic human needs. Prisoners are often groped by guards during routine body checks as well, and there have been countless reports of inappropriate comments or actions taken by guards who supervise female prisoners while showering, or while on the toilet.

Insight on Abuse at Women's Prisons

The Lack of Proper Statistics

The most disappointing and tragic part of these matters lies in the fact that we may never have a proper statistic on the number of women who are mistreated while in prison. Many officials within the prison who receive complaints against the guards or other officials tend to believe their own employees, rather than the convicts. As people incarcerated within the prison system, they are often seen as not being 'credible.' The officials who receive these reports often try to sweep the complaints of abuse under the rug to prevent their facilities from gaining a bad reputation.

The Obstacles in the Way of Justice

Additionally, many women refuse to report the abuse under threat of having certain liberties taken away, or risking further mistreatment if they are not taken seriously - which is sadly often the case. According to the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, prisons and jails must report any and all allegations of abuse and sexual misconduct to the government on an annual basis. Unfortunately, as per the 2011 estimate, only about 10% of all the reports of misconduct were actually substantiated. However, these reports do not indicate whether or not these complaints were ever actually properly investigated, or if they were simply dismissed.

Due to the overwhelming obstacles prisoners must face in order to report rape or abuse, it seems little wonder that they would refrain from speaking out - particularly if they fear retaliation. This means that we do not now, now might we ever, have an accurate idea of the extent to which women in prison are mistreated by the guards meant to protect them.

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Women in an overcrowded prison in California
Women in an overcrowded prison in California | Source

Silencing the Victims

In an effort to keep their victims silent, the prison guards often research the prisoner's personal file, which they have unlimited access to and are often encouraged to review before dealing with a prisoner. These files often contain reports and complaints made by other prisoners or guards regarding the inmate's behavior. According to PrisonPolicy.Org, it has been widely reported that guards often use the information contained in these files to threaten or coerce the inmate into either participating in an action, or keeping quiet about one. The guards may threaten to take away their limited allowances or leisure time, as well as visitation time with family or friends.

When the Punishment Doesn't Fit the Crime

Despite the numerous confirmed reports and allegations of abuse against these officers, the accused guards are rarely punished for their abuse of power. In a Department of Justice survey, the number of sexual assaults reported in women's prison rose to over 8,000 - an 11% increase from the previous survey. However, about 90% of those reports were labeled 'unfounded' or 'unsubstantiated.' In an even more depressing turn of events, out of the total number of cases which were substantiated, only about 1% of the offenders were actually prosecuted for their crimes.

The Current State of Things

It does appear in the modern prison system that justice will not be found behind prison walls. Non-violent, first time offenders are often mistreated and considered 'non-credible' when they bring allegations against their assailants. However, the guards who have committed assault, battery, blackmail, and many other abuses of power generally get off Scot-free. Their offenses may have been significantly worse than those of the prisoners they monitor, in both a legal and moral sense, yet they continue to earn a living by taking advantage of others. Meanwhile, the single mother who was caught with a few ounces of marijuana is now a victim of a sexual assault she will never receive justice for.

It appears that, in American prisons, the true monsters are the ones outside of the cells.


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