The Tragic Pattern Of Abuse of Women in Prison

A landmark study conducted for the Illinois Department of Correction released last month found that the state’s female prisoners are treated too harshly —often called names like “crazy” and “worthless” by prison staffers —and disciplined unreasonably. Not coincidentally, the same study also found that women’s rate of recidivism was 50 percent, higher than Illinois’ overall rate.

Abuse and crime are connected. Abuse brings women to prison—and more abuse in prison ends up bringing them back.

I should know: I served more than six years in a maximum-security women’s prison in Connecticut. Guards would call me and other women a number of names: the b-word, slang for genitalia, dumb. Two played a game of target on me and another inmate with snowballs. I watched as one inmate inadvertently bumped into a guard on the walkway—as we have all done in our lives—and was taken to solitary confinement for assaulting him.

Unsurprisingly, rates of female recidivism in Connecticut have remained stable while rates of reoffending by our male counterparts have gone down.

If it’s happening in Connecticut and Illinois, then it’s likely happening in other places, too—and not infrequently. Women are the fastest growing correctional population in the country. A recent study from the Vera Institute of Justice shows that the female jail population of women has grown 14 times since 1970. The female prison population continues to expand at twice the rate of men.

Eighty-six percent of jailed women surveyed in the Vera Institute study reported a history of sexual victimization. According to the Illinois study released last month, 98 percent of the state’s female prison population experienced physical abuse, 75 percent had been sexually abused and 85 percent had been emotionally abused. Abuse is a better predictor of incarceration than race (64 percent), than socioeconomic status as measured through employment (60 percent), or than educational attainment measured by having earned a high school diploma (37 percent)—the usual co-conspirators who take women down.

It only makes sense that if abuse raises the likelihood that a woman’s self-esteem will dip so low that she either uses drugs or sees little downside to breaking the law, then more abuse heaped on her while she’s incarcerated might contribute to her breaking the law again. Yet the abuse of female prisoners continues.

Women don’t just face the “prison industrial complex”—the explanation for mass incarceration that economic conditions induce people of color to commit crimes and enter confinement where their labor is exploited—but instead face a “prison abuse complex” in that their untreated victimization puts them at higher risk for incarceration.

We lock them up not to get them to work, but to accept responsibility for events they’ve suffered. Instead of economic benefit, we extract silence and blame from female prisoners when they land in a carceral setting—where taking responsibility is the only way out and tends to absolve their abusers, even if only symbolically. As a result, we don’t feel like we need to do more to prevent women from being abused because they’re ‘bad’ anyway. It’s hard for a woman to claim her story as a victim when she’s looking like a perp in an orange jumpsuit, damaging her credibility in others’ estimation.

That’s one reason why researchers haven’t already made the connection between abuse from guards and subsequent reoffending: Many prisoners aren’t believed when they file reports and grievances about what is said and done to them in prison. The only reason why guards’ unprofessional behavior was verified in this public report is that the officers admitted to it during interviews with the researchers. That alone can show how entrenched the culture of abuse is in a women’s prison—verbally abusing an inmate wasn’t something to be ashamed of.

Prison staff have already been taught that they can’t abuse their wards. They do it anyway because there are few consequences for guards who abuse inmates. No matter who reported an officer for outrageous behavior, the pattern of verbal abuse—and abuse of power—continued. If the behavior of prison guards is contributing to crime and recidivism and endangering even innocent members of society, then they must be stopped when it’s determined that they are abusing inmates in any way.

It may be that the way to catch a female offender population up to the gains being made by their male counterparts is making correction officers do their jobs and removing them from service when they don’t. Reducing crime and incarceration just might be that simple.

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