Posts Tagged ‘rape’


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.”


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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Thirteen-year-old boys are a typical bunch. Most spend their free time hanging out with their buddies and playing sports, roughhousing to explore the limits of their rapidly-growing bodies. They are not quite children and certainly not men; they hover somewhere between, with a few kids growing up just a bit too soon while others never seem to leave childhood behind.

In 1989, when Joe Sullivan was 13, he broke into an elderly woman’s home, robbed it with two friends, and allegedly returned later to rape her. Sullivan admitted to the burglary but denied that he sexually assaulted the 72 year-old. After a trial that lasted a mere day, he was convicted to life in prison without the possibility of parole-a teenager condemned to begin and end his adult life locked behind bars.

Clearly, Sullivan was not a typical 13 year-old. He planned at least one serious crime with two accomplices, both older friends of his. This seems to be the case of a young man falling in with the wrong crowd, one that steered him toward the kinds of trouble that most teenagers avoid. When you bring the rape charge into consideration, it launches Sullivan into the realm of an adult as rape is a very severe, intentional infliction of harm-but in Sullivan’s case, should he pay an adult punishment?

Let’s assume Sullivan is guilty of the rape for which he was convicted. Facts to consider: He was 13 years-old. He may have been influenced to do it by his older friends. The rape was not notably brutal or violent (for sexual assault). If kept in a juvenile facility until the age of 25, he would have served 12 years in prison, nearly two years more than the national average sentence for adults convicted of rape.

So why is Sullivan still behind bars twenty years later? As Adam Liptak of the New York Times points out, since 1989, no one-adult or juvenile-in the United States has been sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for the crime of rape. Furthermore, only eight people in the world are serving life sentences for crimes committed at the age of 13, all of them in the U.S.

These judicial trends suggest people simply aren’t comfortable condemning the youngest teenagers to life behind bars forever. It’s a harsh price to pay for someone in the earliest throes of puberty, someone who can’t drive a car, vote, or see an R-rated movie without a guardian. The seriousness of rape can’t be ignored, but creating a sentencing system for juveniles that denies the possibility for parole contradicts the most important goal of the penal system-rehabilitation. Can we really stand to throw away people’s chances for changing their lives when they’ve barely just begun them?

Sullivan’s case is aided by indications that he may not have gotten a fair trial. The lawyer who defended him has been disbarred in Florida, and DNA evidence collected at the scene was not presented at the trial. This is a prime opportunity for the Supreme Court to make precedence and rule that 13 year-olds are ineligible for life sentences without the possibility of parole. While they are certainly capable of making grave mistakes, teenagers should not have to pay an adult, permanent price, especially if their crimes do not involve taking the lives of others.

Write or email Bill McCollum, Florida’s Attorney General, and show your support for Joe Sullivan:

Office of Attorney General
State of Florida
The Capitol PL-01
Tallahassee, FL 32399-1050

**Update: According to the Equal Justice Initiative‘s report “Cruel and Unusual: Sentencing 13- and 14-Year-Old Children to Die in Prison,” there are currently nine individuals serving life without parole for crimes committed at the age of 13.  They also note that Joe Sullivan is mentally disabled and currently confined to a wheelchair because of medical problems.

Click here to read an editorial in the Detroit Free Press advocating against life sentences for juveniles.**

Photo copyright Glenn Paul.

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