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Archive for May, 2009

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Prison isn’t easy for anyone. Though male inmates suffer plenty of abuse from guards and other prisoners, female prisoners are especially vulnerable to sexual assault and medical neglect. Inmates rely on guards for everything– from basic needs like food and hygiene products to medical care– and guards have the power to take these rights away at any time for any reason. Because of this power imbalance, women prisoners are sometimes coerced into trading sex for additional food, privileges, or to avoid punishment. A significant contributor to this power imbalance is gender disparity between guard and inmate populations; in federal prisons, 70% of guards are male.

In 1996, The Progressive documented the case of Robin Lucas, a female inmate in California who was transferred to solitary confinement in a men’s correctional facility after getting in a fight with another inmate. Over a period of two months, she was attacked three times by male prisoners whom a guard granted unfettered access to her cell at night, culminating in an attack by three men who handcuffed and raped her.

Unfortunately, Lucas is hardly the only woman who has endured sexual misconduct or assault in prison. According to Amnesty International:

Records show correctional officials have subjected female inmates to rape, other sexual assault, sexual extortion, and groping during body searches. Male correctional officials watch women undressing, in the shower or the toilet. Male correctional officials retaliate, often brutally, against female inmates who complain about sexual assault and harassment.

In addition to sexual abuse, women prisoners are often subject to medical neglect and discrimination as well. Female inmates have been refused routine treatments like mammograms and Pap smears (which are only available in half of state prisons for women) as well as care for serious conditions such as HIV/AIDS. Furthermore, pregnant inmates are routinely shackled, sometimes even during labor. Lesbian and bisexual prisoners are often targeted as victims because of their sexual identity; Lucas, a lesbian, was taunted by male guards about her sexuality before they allowed male inmates to rape her, saying “maybe we can change your mind.”

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Read Salon Magazine‘s “Locked Up in America” series for more stories from women who have been abused and mistreated in prison.

See a photo pictorial about women’s experiences in prisons here, and read more facts about women in prison from Women in Prison: A Site for Resistance.

To read a history of women’s resistance in prisons, check out Resistance Behind Bars by Victoria Law, who’s interviewed in the most recent issue of Bitch magazine.

**Update: July 16, 2009– The State of Michigan will pay $100 million to 500 female prisoners who were sexually harassed and raped by Michigan prison guards.  The verdict comes seven months after the Detroit Free Press ran a five-part story on Tori Bunton, a Michigan inmate who was repeatedly raped by prison guards and awarded a $3.45 million settlement. **

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