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Women Behind Bars Are Deprived of Their Basic Rights

For incarcerated women, there is little justice to be found.

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This week, a CCA prison guard, Anthony Shay Townes, was expected to go to trial in Albuquerque on 23 criminal charges, including rape, kidnapping and bribery/intimidation of numerous women incarcerated at Camino Nuevo Correctional Facility in Albuquerque. Townes is alleged to have committed the crimes last year and has been locked up on a $500,000 cash-only bail since October 2007. Incredibly, when Townes was interviewed by detectives in October, he stated that if the women who alleged multiple abuses had his DNA, "they probably took it out of the staff bathroom." The facility was shut down in April and then reopened as a "high-needs" juvenile detention facility in September. Since Townes’ arrest, the New Mexico Corrections Department has instituted new policies, including the requirement that guards double up when working with fewer than three prisoners at a time, and that female guards should conduct inspections of women’s cells whenever possible.

Progress is being made to try to make the criminal justice system more "gender-responsive," but the change is very slow in coming. In the meantime, girls and women locked up in the system often come back to their communities sicker, more miserable and more alienated from their families -- and from society as a whole -- than before. The result is predictable: The majority of female ex-prisoners in New Mexico eventually end up being rearrested, at great cost to the taxpayers. What’s more, the women who end up spending their lives cycling in and out of captivity live out their days and nights in what Watterson called a state of "forced dependency" that she found illogical when the expectation is for "people to come out of prison as independent, law-abiding, responsible citizens."

"I am tired of being in a cage and being treated like an animal," is how one Native American prisoner at the Grants women’s prison explained her existence to me. What she described, in that one sentence, sums up the common experiences of people locked away in places where we can’t see or hear what’s going on, even though our hard-earned dollars pay for each and every day they spend behind bars.

What she described, as well, is what happens when criminal "justice" is implemented as retributive punishment versus the ideal of rehabilitation and restoration. Unfortunately, this approach just generates the same old results: more money spent, more jails built, more bodies locked behind bars. New Mexico has already seen enough of this to know it’s not working. The criminal justice system can be reconceptualized and restructured to address more of the underlying reasons why people engage in self- and/or socially-destructive behaviors.

For New Mexico, this isn’t just a timely opportunity to earn national distinction of an entirely different kind, it’s also an opportunity to map out a safer, saner and more stable future for the people who live in and who love this land.

Silja J.A. Talvi is an investigative journalist and the author of Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System (Seal Press: 2007). Her work has already appeared in many book anthologies, including It's So You (Seal Press, 2007), Prison Nation (Routledge: 2005), Prison Profiteers (The New Press: 2008), and Body Outlaws (Seal Press: 2004). She is a senior editor at In These Times.

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