Slaves to the system

For vast numbers of women behind bars, prison is a hell of sexual terror.


Nina Siegel
September 1, 1998 1:23PM (UTC)

These are boom years for penal America. In 1970, federal and state prisons held less than 200,000 inmates. By 1997, that number had increased more than fivefold, to 1,159,000. Local jails held 637,000 more prisoners. In all, 5.5 million people were either on probation, in jail or on parole at the end of 1996 -- almost 3 percent of all adult residents in the country.
Among industrialized nations, only Russia, a society experiencing massive economic and political convulsions, has a higher incarceration rate.

Much of our country's skyrocketing increase in incarceration is because of the war on drugs. In 1983, only one in 10 inmates was in jail for a drug offense; in just six years, incredibly, that figure had risen to one in four. In 1996, 23 percent of state prison inmates and 60 percent of federal prison inmates were drug offenders.

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The swollen prison population is also disproportionately African-American (51 percent of federal and state inmates) and Hispanic (15 percent). Almost one-third of all black men between the ages of 20 and 29 are under the control of a correctional institution.

Nor is our national mania for locking people up, with its devastating impact on the justice system (where tales of hopelessly overcrowded court calendars and burned-out judges no longer even raise an eyebrow) and minority communities, achieving its purpose of slashing crime rates. According to the Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., incarceration increased 92 percent between 1985 and 1995, but overall crime rates remained unchanged. And despite the widely publicized drop in murder rates in recent years, the violent crime rate was still 14 percent higher in '96 than it was in '85.

In short, America has a prison crisis. And if the health of a society is measured not just by its shining achievements but by its darkest secrets, the crisis extends beyond the prison walls.

Today Salon launches a series on American's prison crisis with a report on the endemic sexual abuse of female prisoners by male guards within the U.S. correctional system, which houses 138,000 women. Future reports will include an in-depth look at a Pennsylvania death row, a report on the rise of high-tech prisons and an examination of the causes of America's prison explosion.

-- The editors



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BY NINA SIEGAL | Robin Lucas was asleep on a rickety bunk on Sept. 22, 1995, when she
heard the steel door click and saw the silhouettes of three large men
entering her cell. Before she could make out their faces, they had forced
her arms back and handcuffed her from behind. Then they were upon her. They
beat, savagely raped and then sodomized her for hours. When they got
up to leave, one of the men stopped, retraced his steps and urinated on
Lucas' brutalized body.

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Lucas had self-surrendered at the Federal Correctional Institution for
women at Dublin, Calif., on Feb. 24, 1994, prepared to serve a
30-month sentence for conspiracy to commit bank fraud. That morning, she
had gotten up, taken her last bath, put on blue jeans and desert boots -- a
friend advised her to wear sturdy shoes -- and entered her kitchen, where
family members were arguing about what to make for her last breakfast. She
felt a pang of joy as her relatives assembled around her, and she told them
not to worry, everything was going to be OK.

"My whole attitude was positive," says Lucas. "I looked at this as a time
for me to grow, to better myself, to learn all I could learn while I was
there, to get physically fit and to come home and put that behind me and
move on. That's how I looked at it -- an extended version of summer camp."

In many ways, it was like summer camp. Lucas spent the first 17 months in
lightweight federal lockups, first at FCI Dublin, then at Geiger in
Spokane, Wash., and then back to Dublin to the minimum-security
facility next to the FCI, known as Camp Parks. She worked as a landscaper,
electrician and clerk in the prison commissary, drove trucks and forklifts
and cut hair in the prison salon. Although she was earning 12 cents to 29
cents an hour, substantially less than the $40 hourly wage she'd been
making at the hair salon she owned before her conviction, it was OK with
Lucas. "I was just doing my time," she says. Prison officials treated her
like a model inmate, allowing her to work unsupervised outside the prison
during the day.

But in August 1995, at Camp Parks, Lucas got into a fight with another
inmate, and because the camp didn't have its own lock-down, she was sent
across the street to the men's Federal Detention Center and placed in a
special housing unit, familiar to all inmates as "the hole." She was
locked in her cell 23 hours a day; her neighbors on either side were male
inmates awaiting trial or sentencing for violent crimes, such as domestic
violence, sexual assault and murder. It was there, in the 18th month of
her sentence, that Lucas' nightmare began.

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The atmosphere in the men's detention center was vastly different from that in the women's camps. Few, if any, female officers were assigned to the unit, and
all aspects of Lucas' private life, including showering, using the toilet
and changing her clothes, were exposed to the male guards and other
prisoners. Male inmates were allowed to roam the corridors and harass
Lucas and the few other women detained at the center, propositioning her
with offers of contraband such as alcohol and drugs in exchange for sex.
Lucas refused, and tried to pass the hours reading books and planning her
life after prison.

On her third night in the hole a guard opened her cell door and let a man
inside. The setup was immediately clear, and as the man moved toward her,
Lucas put up a fight. He smashed her head against a wall, cutting open her
forehead, and, afraid of the blood, he fled. There was no way of telling
time in the hole, and Lucas didn't know how many days or weeks passed before the second attack. This time, a man climbed into her bed. Luckily, she was able to fend him off too.

She made a complaint to the facility's captain, who asked her to write an
affidavit fingering the men involved. She requested an immediate transfer,
but nothing happened. No one moved her out of the hole, no one took the key
from the guard, no one protected her. Instead, someone leaked her
statement to her assailants. Then came the Sept. 22 attack. Throughout
it the three men threatened her life, called her a "snitch" and told her to
"keep her mouth shut."

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Lucas and I are sitting on the cold concrete basement floor of a board and
care facility for the developmentally disabled she now manages in Tiburon,
Calif., as she assembles a gleaming new lawn mower she bought to tame
the property's few patches of green. It is in this concrete room with a low
stucco ceiling, and two file boxes filled with letters from friends in
prison, that Lucas feels most at home. An African-American woman with eyes
set wide apart, kinky hair cropped short, broad shoulders and an expression
that is by turns stern and personable, Lucas speaks with a deep, steady
voice.

"I'm still institutionalized in some ways," she says, standing and
crossing to a desk placed diagonally between two concrete walls. "Four
o'clock was count at the prison, and I still sometimes stand up then."
There are many habits of prison life as well as memories that will fade over time, but others, like the assaults, will be impossible to forget. "I made a
mistake that cost me 30 months of my life," she says, "but I'll be doing
that time for the rest of my life."

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There are some 78,000 women in more than 170 state and 10 federal prisons
for women nationwide, plus another 60,000 who are doing time in thousands
of county jails across America. Perhaps Lucas' story seems like an extreme
example of custodial misconduct, but attorneys who work with incarcerated
females say that the vast majority of the more than 138,000 women in U.S.
prisons and jails today have been exposed to some form of sexually related
intimidation or assault by correctional officers while serving their time.
This means rape; it means coerced sex in exchange for cigarettes, tampons
or phone calls to their kids; it means guards who stand outside showers,
cells and bathrooms leering and making lewd remarks about the women's bodies; it means guards who stop women in the halls, in the cafeteria, on the yard to perform pat-searches that include groping of breasts and groins; and it means guards who corner women to conduct strip-searches 30 times a day.

The horrors of life in men's prisons are already part of our common
currency -- prison fights, riots, prison gangs, inmate-on-inmate rape, the
threat of contracting HIV. Our lens on women's prison has a softer focus,
largely contrived by B movies in which tough, curvy broads with sharp
tongues and snake tattoos start cat fights in the cafeteria. A few trays
are thrown and peas tossed, but in the end, the matronly guards restore the
order. It's titillating, lurid, harmless. The truth, of course, is much
more alarming.

When women enter prisons and jails they essentially become invisible.
Statistically, women inmates are much less likely to be visited by their
friends and family, in part because their facilities are in remote
locations. Women have less money at their disposal than most men when they
enter prison, since the crimes that land them in prison in the first place
-- drug offenses, theft and welfare fraud -- are crimes of poverty. Slave
wages for their labors behind bars don't help them achieve any level of
self-sufficiency, even to buy basic goods like aspirin or toothpaste.
Stripped of their rights, money and contact with the outside world, they
are powerless, helpless and easy to manipulate.

Add male guards, with little training and absolute power, to that
equation, and you've got a potentially lethal combination. Unless the
prison administration takes an organized, active role in discouraging
sexual misconduct, it is known to run rampant. And why not? No one is
watching. The inmates have no reliable means of voicing complaints. And
even if they did, who is going to believe the word of a convicted felon
over a correctional officer anyway?

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As a result, women behind bars are
saddled with an added level of punishment, which is, of course, not
sanctioned by any prison system, but is so overlooked and so common as to
be essentially institutionalized.

The sheer magnitude of the problem is hard to fathom. "I have never worked
with a single woman in prison or jail who has not reported some form of
sexual harassment or abuse," said Ellen Barry, who has spent 20 years
working as an attorney and advocate for inmates and is now co-chair of the
National Network for Women in Prison and director of Legal Services for
Prisoners with Children in San Francisco. "Sexual abuse and a climate of
sexual terror -- the fear of being daily harassed and assaulted by male
guards -- is pervasive throughout the entire prison system."

Lucas and two other Dublin inmates, Valerie Mercadel and Raquel Douthit,
filed a class-action suit in U.S. District Court in August 1996, alleging
that they were "sexually assaulted, physically and verbally sexually abused
and harassed, subjected to repeated invasions of privacy and subjected to
threats, retaliation and harassment when they complained about this
wrongful treatment." They sought unspecified damages and changes to
correctional procedures and staff training to protect other inmates. Lucas
was released from prison in July 1996 and returned to her home in Tiburon.
The other two women were transferred to different facilities. These three
women's highly publicized, successful suit has helped bring some of the
most lurid forms of abuse to light, but there are many women who've been
subjected to similarly horrendous acts, whose voices we've never heard.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other women represented in
class-action suits across the nation have similarly horrific
stories. Right now, the U.S. Department of Justice has two federal suits
pending against the departments of corrections in Michigan and Arizona,
alleging sexual misconduct on a broad scale in their facilities. In recent
years, similar legal actions have been brought on the state and county
level against the District of Columbia, Colorado, Louisiana, Georgia,
Washington state, California and the jail system in Santa Clara County,
Calif.

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In December 1996, Human Rights Watch, the international human rights
watchdog agency, published a report called "All Too Familiar: Sexual Abuse
of Women in U.S. State Prisons." It painted a grim picture of life in
11 state women's prisons in the District of Columbia, California,
Georgia, Illinois, Michigan and New York. "We found that male correctional
employees have vaginally, anally and orally raped female prisoners and
sexually assaulted and abused them," states the report. "We found that in
the course of committing such gross misconduct, male officers have not only
used actual or threatened physical force, but have also used their near
total authority to provide or deny goods and privileges to female prisoners
to compel them to have sex or, in other cases, to reward them for having
done so."

The findings and recommendations of the Human Rights Watch report were so
scathing, in fact, that they prompted a rare visit by the United Nations
rapporteur on Human Rights, who began a tour of America's women's prisons
on May 20 to look into sexual abuse of women behind bars.

Brenda V. Smith, senior counsel and director of the Women in Prison Project
of the National Women's Law Center in Washington, D.C., said the U.N.
investigator will find substantial evidence of violations of inmates' civil
and human rights. "I would say that every jurisdiction has a problem with
it," she says, "and to the extent that they say they don't have a problem
it is a problem." Again and again, those who have investigated conditions in women's prisons walk away with the same conclusion: In women's state and federal prisons, and in women's jails nationwide, sexual misconduct, assault and harassment are ubiquitous and persistent facts of life.

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One might ask why men are hired as correctional officers in female
facilities at all. Ironically, one of the reasons cited most often is
equal opportunity employment. If men were forbidden from working in female
institutions, would that limit women's employment in the men's prisons,
which make up 94 percent of all prisons nationwide? In the 1970s, female
prisoners in New York state filed suit against the department of
corrections, arguing that male guards should not be stationed in women's
units at night, or be allowed into certain other private areas of the
prison. Attorneys for the case, however, stopped short of arguing that men
should be barred from working in women's prisons altogether.

"We felt it was a balancing act between the 14th Amendment right to be free
from employment discrimination vs. the First Amendment right and Eighth
Amendment right" to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, said
Barry.

Another part of the answer arises from the weird logic of sexual politics
behind bars: Some advocates for women in prison argue that some interaction with men, as long as it is tightly regulated, is better for female inmates'
long-term well-being than no contact at all with the opposite sex.
Other advocates say they are increasingly frustrated by those arguments.
Debra LaBelle, the lead attorney on a Michigan suit against the department
of corrections, said she has now decided that men should be prohibited from
working in female facilities, because no matter how much training and
investigation is done to cut down on misconduct, the cases of harassment
and abuse continue to pile up. "I resisted going there for a long time, but
now I don't know another solution," she says.

Attorneys such as LaBelle chafe at the fact that in some states -- 14 to be exact -- it is still not even illegal for guards to engage in sexual activity with inmates. Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia
expressly criminalize sex or "sexual touching" between prison staff and
inmates, according to Widney Brown, a researcher with the Women's Rights
Division of Human Rights Watch, while many of the remaining states
dictate only that guards not be "over-familiar" with prisoners, a law that is
extremely vague and difficult to enforce.

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California, which boasts the largest number of incarcerated women in the
nation, and the world's two largest women's prisons, criminalized sexual
contact by guards with prisoners in 1994. But female inmates will tell you that
hasn't done much to change the way guards in the state -- more than half of
whom are men -- treat women in their custody.

Elly Cruz wears her dark brown hair in layers shrouding her large brown
eyes, button nose and mouth neatly lined with maroon lipstick pencil. She
sits uncomfortably, hands tucked between her crossed knees, in the downtown
San Jose, Calif., office of Amanda Wilson, a civil rights attorney who helped her
file suit against the Santa Clara County Department of Corrections in
August 1996.

Soon after she arrived at the jail, in January 1995, one of the
correctional officers told Cruz that he "liked" her. This was not news. The
guard often followed her on the yard. He had obtained her home phone number
from her custody file and memorized it. He watched her shower at least 14
times and hovered over her while she slept at night. Cruz informed the
captain and several officers, and asked to be transferred.
She was moved to another part of the jail -- but then he was too. He
continued to pursue and harass her, physically restraining her several
times to share his sexual fantasies, forcing her to play weird little word
games that demanded that she answer with sexually explicit terms. Although
Cruz didn't rebuff him outright, since he wielded a gun and a baton, she
kept her distance. But that didn't work.

"He started getting angry, and I started getting scared," says Cruz, her
bottom lip beginning to quiver. She canvassed prison staff for support,
asked repeatedly to be moved again and told her friends to make sure that
she was never alone. But one day, he cornered her, grabbed her by the arm,
handcuffed her to a door and pushed her to the ground. Then he stood over
her and, with a steely voice, said, "I can do anything I want to you, don't
you know that?"

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Then he let his hands roam free. "I just sat there with my hands behind me,
I just went blank, I didn't even feel him touching me," she says, beginning
to cry. "I felt so sick, I just felt so sick because the truth was that he
could do anything he wanted, and nobody was going to believe me."

Cruz was finally moved -- to the adjacent men's jail. There, she was in
lock-down while male inmates passed her cell and watched her whenever they
wanted. She later became the lead named plaintiff in Cruz vs. Vasquez, a
class-action suit against the Santa Clara County Department of Corrections,
alleging "a pattern and practice of sexual assaults, intimidation, abuse,
threats of violence, sexual harassment and other violations of law." The
case was settled in 1996, and the court ordered several changes in jail
policy and facility design. But little has changed, says Wilson, whose law
firm, the Public Interest Law Firm, recently filed a request to add another
50 plaintiffs to the suit.

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Although many women, like Lucas and Cruz, suffered violence in isolation,
their experience is one that's shared by many female inmates, both
individually and in groups. At the Santa Clara County Jail, for example,
scores of women have been repeatedly humiliated in mass strip-searches set
up by male guards or with male guards looking on. Donna, a former inmate
who did not want her last name used, describes such a search:
"You're brought into a room, and there's a big window so the guards can see
you," she says. "There are four or five women and you're all lined up and
made to disrobe. If you happen to be menstruating, that's too bad. You'll
just have to bleed on yourself until this is over. Then they say, open your
mouth, lift up your tongue, pull your hair back, pull your ears forward.
Put your hands forward, expose your underarms, expose the palms of your
feet, squat, cough three times, stand up and bend over at the waist, expose
your buttocks and vaginal area and then stand there until they tell you to
get dressed."

At the Santa Clara jail, women were also pulled out of lineup and
strip-searched in this way in full view of kitchen workers, grounds crews
and even visiting attorneys and relatives. Prison officials say these
searches are necessary to rout out contraband, but civil rights attorneys
say their primary purpose is intimidation. "It's about power," says Wilson.
"And because of the lack of response [from higher-ups], guards seem to have
the attitude that they can do anything."

Rick Kitson, public information officer for the Santa Clara County
Department of Corrections, said the class-action against the jail system is
currently being reviewed for summary judgement and that a judge has ordered
the defendants not to comment on the case."I couldn't comment on the specifics, but I can say that in fact the county
is vigorously contesting the charges and for those individuals where there
have been sustained findings and accusations, the Department of Corrections
has vigorously pursued the full force and measure of the law to prosecute."

It's not just guards. Allegations of sexual abuse and harassment have been
filed against prison ministers, doctors and male nurses, low-level
administrators and even wardens. Sexual degradation and humiliation of
women by staff is so ingrained in the culture of many women's prisons that
it seems to have become an accepted mode of control in the custodial
environment. In Washington, D.C., for example, quid pro quo sex with
inmates was such a recognized part of the job for 20 or 30 years, says
Brenda V. Smith, senior counsel of the National Women's Law Center, that it
was considered an "attractive feature of the work environment."

The assumption: Once a woman enters a federal or state facility, she
gives up all her rights, not only to her freedom and
daily tasks, but to her body and to ward off sexual advances.
Complicating the problem, of course, is that many women in prison have just
left the streets, where the same thing was expected
of them, whether they were prostitutes or addicts who gave up their bodies
in return for drugs. At the same time, a huge proportion of women serving
time have already been sexually victimized in their lives. According to
Human Rights Watch, anywhere from 40 to 88 percent of incarcerated women
have been victims of domestic violence and sexual or physical abuse either
as children or adults. They have already been "conditioned" to believe
that they deserve such treatment, and to remain silent, and the prison
system plays on that vulnerability to intimidate them and keep them in
line.

With those subjugative factors in place, it takes an extreme situation and
an uncommonly strong and self-confident woman, like Lucas or Cruz, to tear
down the wall of silence. "There's no reason to believe this was an
isolated incident," said Lucas' lawyer, Geri Lynn Green, of her client's
assault. "What was isolated about it was that someone came forward."

If anything, the problem is only becoming worse as the ranks of
incarcerated women swell at an alarming rate. Today, the rate of increase
of the female prison population has far outstripped the rate of men
entering the system, and since 1980, the number of women in prison has
risen by 400 percent. To keep up with the expanding population, the
system needs more prisons. Since just 1990, the United States has built 16 new
women's prisons, requiring the accelerated training and hiring of thousands
of new guards. Not only has this made it more difficult for corrections
departments to adequately train new recruits, says Brown, but it has
disrupted the old, more civil, order of life in women's facilities.

"When younger guards get out of line, it used to be there were older
guards who would tell them not to do that," she says. "When you have
prisons that are staffed by all new guards, there's no culture in place
that says that no, it's not OK to do this with the women."

Jenni Gainsborough, public policy director for the National Prison Project
of the American Civil Liberties Union, argues that the proportion of
incidents of sexual misconduct may not be increasing at all, but that there
are just more women who are talking. "One of the reason we're hearing about it now is that there are more women in prisons, more male guards guarding them and more prisons," she says.

When asked to respond to allegations of sexual misconduct by prison staff
under its control, the U.S. Department of Justice says it "takes very
seriously all allegations" of sexual misconduct. "Every allegation is
reviewed and, where warranted, referred for criminal prosecution."
Considering the large number of allegations, the number of actual
prosecutions hasn't been overwhelming. According to the Justice
Department's own records, only 10 prison employees in the entire federal
system were disciplined in 1997 for sexual misconduct, and just seven were
criminally prosecuted.

In March of this year, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reached a settlement
agreement with Robin Lucas and the other two Dublin inmates, agreeing not
to house any more female inmates in the men's detention center, to create a
confidential mechanism for reporting sexual assaults and to hire a
consultant to review the prison's staff training programs. They also
awarded the three women $500,000 to split. But the system has still not
taken any of its employees to task for admitting male
inmates into the cells of female inmates at night -- for a fee.

The Justice Department claimed that an extensive investigation by its
inspector general's office "did not establish sufficient evidence to prove
under the standards for prosecution that any specific individual violated
federal criminal law," and the U.S. Attorney's office in San Francisco and
the Civil Rights Division in Washington, D.C., agreed.

No grounds for prosecution? Have they looked at Robin Lucas' face, to see
the thick scar near her hairline where her head was smashed against her
bunk, and the smaller scars on her arms and torso? Did they listen when she
told them about how she still bleeds from her rectum? Perhaps they are
conveniently hiding behind the fact that they never sent a doctor in to
examine Lucas after the rape, never took blood samples from her cell and
never collected any evidence on her behalf. Still, one has to wonder how a
case that is worth $500,000 to the Federal Bureau of Prisons warrants no
criminal charges against the assailants involved.

It's those kinds of questions that wrack Lucas' brain when she thinks
about her share of the money.

"Is that what I had to go through?" she says. "Is that my compensation?"
She has used some of the funds to renovate the board and care home and to
buy certain amenities, like the new lawn mower. In May, she also used some
to help her pay for a trip to Phoenix, where she tried out for the WNBA.

I follow Lucas through the narrow corridors of the basement and out to the
small backyard where she shoots a couple of hoops and talks about the
Justice Department's response to her claim. "These guys take an oath to
protect and keep order," she says, missing her shot. "He broke that oath.
But they're saying he didn't do anything wrong. That just fucks me up." She
misses another shot, walks back toward the now-assembled mower and jerks
its chord, eliciting a violent roar.

"If I would have known that would have happened to me I would have ran,"
she shouts over the rumbling of the motor. "I would have ran to the ends of
the earth."


Nina Siegel

MORE FROM Nina Siegel

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