The Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, unveiled last month by co-sponsoring Senators Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren, would ensure that female federal prisoners are guaranteed unprecedented access to what’s needed for rehabilitation—including free phone calls, overnight visits with family and free sanitary products. The fact that specific needs of female inmates—the fastest-growing correctional population—are being addressed is, in and of itself, a huge step forward. But the legislation doesn’t address an essential element of what’s needed to enshrine the rights of women in prison: accountability for the abuse officers inflict upon them.
A Justice Department inquiry into the Julia Tutwiler Prison in Alabama—one that concluded that abuse was widespread—found that female inmates were continually subjected to sexual and verbal abuse. Approximately 55 percent of the 223 women who wrote the letters that kicked off the investigation complained about vile and harassing language.
The reports sounded familiar to me. I was both victim and witness to the same in Connecticut.
Normally, letting guards get away with abuse of female inmates owes itself to traditional “he said-she said” analysis—whereby women who report these events are called liars. But the failure to discipline or prosecute guards for mistreating female inmates can’t always be attributed to a lack of evidence or credibility. Instances of verbal abuse have been admitted by officers. Guards interviewed in a study in Illinois conceded that they called female inmates “worthless” and “crazy”. One particular employee in the Tutwiller investigation confessed he would call the inmates “dope whores” and other sexually degrading names.
There’s no reason for these prison staff not to admit these transgressions, given the fact that they’re unlikely to be punished for them. For all the abuse uncovered in places like Tutwiller, only two perpetrators were permanently terminated at the Alabama women’s prison. Two more were fired but got their jobs back.
Even sexually assaulting an inmate brings few consequences. Nationwide, only 46 percent of guards who were found to have sexually abused an inmate—meaning that the facility investigators were satisfied that a crime occurred—were referred for prosecution. Only 27 percent of them were ever arrested, and a measly one percent were convicted. A full 15 percent of guilty guards kept their jobs.
The effects of abuse are well-documented. Verbal abuse damages a woman’s self-concept and can almost rewire the brain. Sexual abuse puts a woman at much higher risk for mental illness. In a study that released just last month, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that women in custody were four times more likely to be suffering severe psychological distress than men in the same situation. And what’s worse is that these effects are being heaped on women who were already abused: Researchers estimate that anywhere between 50 and 98 percent of female prisoners have trauma histories.
The impact of these findings shouldn’t be underestimated. The last nationwide recidivism study of released prisoners found that about one-quarter of women released from prison were arrested for a new crime within six months, one-third within a year, and over two-thirds five years after release. While some states have reported decreases in men’s recidivism rates, rates for women remain stable and without improvement in states where they’ve been updated, like Connecticut and Illinois.
This doesn’t mean that Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act can’t help the problem. Just last week, on the heels of its introduction, the Bureau of Prisons issued a policy memo assuring that all prisoners will get quality sanitary products in adequate supply for free—putting one component of the legislation into action before it could even be debated on the floor. Inconsistent access to what inmates need—things like these free pads and tampons, access to phones, and freedom from segregation—often facilitates abuse. Guards aren’t placed in prisons just for surveillance; they’re also internal gatekeepers. That gives them power they can misuse.
By overriding the discretion these staffers have to approve or deny access to various aspects of prison life, the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act can curb some of the abuse. But the bill won’t eliminate mistreatment of incarcerated women unless it delivers real and rapid consequences to guards who abuse women and offers protection from retaliation for those who report these acts. For women to have dignity in prison, institutions must model the same responsibility for bad behavior that the criminal justice system bestows upon them.