Rape, Torture and Humiliation in Women's Prisons: A Global State of Crisis

Human Rights

"The strategy used in women's prisons now is one of humiliation rather than rehabilitation," said Jane Evelyn Atwood in her 2007 Amnesty International video documentary, "Too Much Time." For nine years, Atwood photographed and documented the conditions for women in 40 women's prisons worldwide including the US, Europe and Eastern Europe.

In numerous locations around the world the plight of women in prison is going unheeded.

Conditions of improper touching by persons of authority, sanctioned sexual harassment, unnecessary strip searches, lack of proper medical attention or proper food exists in numerous global prison locations. In addition to this, psychological coercion and/or threats of sexual assault by persons in authority create a constant, unending and intense universal pressure on many incarcerated women.

"Women in prisons all around the world are at risk of rape, sexual assault and torture," said a recent June 2008, Quaker UN Office -- Human Rights and Refugees Publications report.

In some of the most grueling prisons in the world, women in Afghanistan are commonly punished for "moral crimes." These crimes of morality are considered crimes against the dignity of the family. Many of the crimes include adultery, running away from a husband after abuse, having a relationship without being married or refusal to marry. Women who have made public charges of rape have also been known to have been placed in detention at the same time only one wing away from their assailant. Elopement with someone else not chosen by the family after a dowry has been paid is another legal reason for arrest.

The unheated women's section in the crumbling penal facility known as Pul-e-Charkhi, in the capital city of Kabul, was a place where women were often denied their most common basic needs. Known for its extreme torture and 1970s war atrocities, women and their children whe were housed at Pul-e-Charkhi were kept together in crowded unlit, often unsanitary rooms. Medical treatment and proper nutrition was almost non-existent. Conditions of severe hardship in the prison, including sexual assault with fear of reprisal, has caused numerous women loss of all personal dignity. In many instances the extreme conditions at Pul-e-Charkhi encouraged numerous suicide attempts among women prisoners.

In April 2008, women prisoners were moved from Pul-e-Charkhi to a new facility in Kabul. Even though the walls are new, the women are still only given one hour of sunlight each day. Continuing administrative denials in the mismanagement of Afghanistan prisons points to a need for vast improvement.

The desire to direct prisons to approve and manage facilities that exist strictly "for punishment only" crushes any future hope for programs that might focus on rehabilitation.

Afghan women prisoners, suffering from extreme poverty and lack of education, are trapped along with their children inside Afghanistan's system of criminal jurisprudence. Without fair and equal representation, or any legal recourse to their needs, women flounder as they stay locked up for years under charges that would not stand up one day in most legal courts systems around the world.

In Pakistan, "The number of women in prison at any moment...soared from as few as 70 in 1980 to as many as 4,500 in 1990," said Human Rights Watch in a 1999 report. Women in Pakistan are charged under the "Hudood Ordinances," ordinances enacted in Pakistan in 1979 after General Zia-ul-Haq brought a decade of military rule to the country.

Under the current Pakistan Penal Code, women can be charged for a variety of crimes relating to extra-marital sex, or "zina." Misrepresentations of rape crimes under the laws of zina have caused women in prison in Pakistan to be charged for numerous crimes they have not instigated or caused.

Many women in prison in Pakistan who have alleged they have been raped have been charged themselves under "Tazir" law if the rape cannot be prosecuted. Punishment under Tazir law can include incarceration up to twenty-five years, a fine and 20 lashes with a whip. Human Rights Watch, along with many women's rights activist groups inside Pakistan have been appealing for years for these Hudood Ordinances to be repealed and replaced with just and fair legislation.

In the US and Canada, many African American, Native American and Aboriginal Canadian women are often severely marginalized as they are disproportionally jailed. "Suicide rates among women (prisoners) are more than twice as high as in the general Canadian population," said a 2004 report from CAEFS -- Canadian Associations of Elizabeth Fry Societies. Native American women, too, have a higher than average rate of suicide in penal institutions as a result of racism and ethnic isolation.

According to the US Dept of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, "African American women (with an incarceration rate of 205 per 100,000) are more than three times as likely as Latinas (60 per 100,000) and six times more likely than white women (34 per 100,000) to face imprisonment."

Dangers of violence against women inside prison is a matter of grave concern for most women prisoners in the US. A century old story of violence and beating in the State of New York paved a path that is still being endured by many imprisoned US women.

In January 1825, Rachel Welsh arrived at the Auburn Correctional Facility in New York State (US). One year after her arrival and six weeks later after delivering her baby inside the prison she was dead. On investigation, it was discovered that Rachel had received intense whippings and beatings. Beatings she received while incarcerated. Even with this evidence of abuse, state commissioners at the time determined the result of her death was not connected to these beatings.

"Women are the fastest growing prison population world wide and this is not accidental," said Kim Pate, at the July 2005, Melbourne, Australia conference -- "Is Prison Obsolete?". The global acceleration in the imprisonment of women is proof that women are at increasing risks of incarceration. With this comes increasing risks for abuse, neglect and sexual assault while in prison.

As the US leads the world in the building and management of prisons, it also leads the world in the largest number of national crimes per capita. On June 30, 2007 criminals in the US have reached a record number of 2.3 million. The numbers for women prisoners are also startling. According to the Institute on Women and Criminal Justice (2006), the number of women in US prisons has risen 757%, from 1977 to 2005. The December 6, 2005 statistic for women prisoners by the US Bureau of Justice is 104,848 incarcerated women nationally.

US women who are charged with violent crimes, including murder and attempted murder, have many times landed in prison after violently fighting back from years of unbearable domestic rape and/or psychological abuse. The cycle of abuse does not always end against these women inside prison facilities.

A recent Aug 26, 2008 report, by the US Deptartment of Justice Review Panel on Prison Rape, gathered statistics from public hearings held in Spring of 2007, outlining that, "Rapes in prisons can be reduced if the prison staff adopts a zero tolerance attitude toward such crimes and developed a system that identified and protected inmates who could be potential victims."

Ongoing injustice in the US prison system often only offers out-worn policies with little protection.

Impartial prison rape investigations which are completely fair and unbiased are very rare today in most global women's prisons.

In May 2006, a politically motivated law enforcement operation in Atenco, Mexico resulted in the detainment of 47 women in Mexico's Santiaguito State Prison. On the way to the prison (a trip that should have taken two hours but instead took six), 26 of the 47 women arrested later made charges that they were placed under extreme sexual torture, intimidation and rape.

"In the case of women from San Salvador Atenco, the fact that more than 3,500 police officers participated, and that the women had their faces covered during their detentions and attacks, makes it extremely difficult to identify those individuals responsible," said Amnesty International in an August 2006 report made before UN CEDAW.

"From our point of view, the detained women affected in the police operation were victimized in multiple ways, not only because of the conditions in which the police intervention was carried out, but also because of the sexual abuse and violence they experienced while in police custody, solely because they were women," continued Amnesty International's report.

Today, the charges of sexual torment against the women detainees of Atenco are in legislative limbo. A number of police, directly involved with the case, have either had their charges dropped or greatly decreased.

"Life in prison is difficult physically as well as morally: you have to work hard, even too hard, so that sometimes there is no time even for simple things like bathing and laundering. But you simply must hold on. The main thing is not to let yourself go, not to lose interest and the will to live, otherwise you are overcome with a wave of prison indifference, not caring where, when and how you live, solely concerned about petty matters such as whether you have tea and smokes, only looking to the end of each day," said author, Liudmila Alpern, on the Orlov Penal Colony in Russia in 2004.

Known as a stop-off for the Soviet NKVD/KGB deportation of Estonian prisoners on trains to Siberian gulags in the 1940s, and a place where prisoners were routinely and gruesomely tortured, many Estonia prisons are still in a vast state of disrepair and decay. "Prison conditions remained poor," said the US Department of State on Estonia in 2007.

The first modern prison to be rebuilt in Estonia in 2002, Tartu Prison, houses women who are in remand, awaiting trial, for what can be up to one year. Instances of children, under the age of three, staying with their mothers inside the prison has been documented.

In spite of its new building, Tartu prison policies have far to go.

A 2006 report on conditions at Tartu Prison by the Quaker Council for European Affairs states, "Remand prisoners are entitled to one shower a week. They have to pay for toiletries (toilet paper, shampoo, soap, sanitary towels) themselves. The adult prisoner that we spoke to said that she found it difficult to afford these things. . . Remand prisoners have no direct contact with NGOs and cannot go to the church services at Tartu. However, prisoners can arrange to speak with the chaplain if they want to."

Even with efforts for prison reform in Estonia, all adult women remand prisoners in Tartu Prison have no access to work or education. Women are still only allowed to enter areas away from their cells, for one hour a day. Some prisoners try to deal with the 23 hours of cell lock-up by staying asleep day after day. Sleeping this way in surroundings of incarceration can and does lead to severe depression and can result in attempts of suicide.

"A person may be held in pre-trial detention for 2 months; this may be extended up to a total of 9 months by a court order. Occasional violations of these norms are the result of a poorly trained police force which is being reorganized," states a 2008 report on the protection of human rights by the Estonia Institute.

A universal trend of excessive hardship and lack of advocacy exists with women trapped inside the Tartu Prison in Estonia. Penal institutions in Canada, Austrailia, Russia, Mexico, Bolivia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States also have great needs for programs that will bring improvements for women prisoners. Women are too often left juggling harsh and unrelenting conditions in prison. Left without voice or power, without legal advocates, without opportunity or education.

This story first appeared on Women News Network.

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