Rape Crisis in Womens Prison

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #4 in February 2007]

Illinois prison staff frequently sexually abuse women in prison. [1] Human Rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as well as Illinois newspapers and formerly incarcerated women, have documented these abuses.

Legal advocates have also carefully documented the extent of sexual abuse in Illinois’ prisons. As part of a 2004 civil rights case brought against the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) alleging a guard’s rape of a female inmate, Chicago attorneys Alan Mills and Margaret Byrne sent surveys about sexual assault and harassment to women incarcerated in Illinois. Mills and Byrne’s survey faced many obstacles. First, the IDOC attempted to block the survey from being sent. Then, it claimed that the mailing and response process would place an undue burden on the agency. Finally, the idoc pressed for the right to review the names and information disclosed by the respondents. Although a judge denied idoc’s request, inmates censored themselves out of fear. Byrne noted, “Many women were afraid to respond because they had seen other women who reported [assaults] get put into segregation [isolation]. They called the survey ‘the seg survey. ’”

Despite these considerable difficulties, the survey highlighted the multiple forms of widespread abuse faced by female inmates in Illinois. Almost 15% of the survey’s seventy respondents said that idoc staff had forced sexual activities on them—that is, they were raped or sexually assaulted. Two women noted that idoc staff had sexually assaulted them more than ten times. About 23% of the women stated that IDOC staff had offered money, food or privileges in exchange for sexual favors , and almost 10% of the women noted that staff had done this to them on more than three occasions. Two women reported that an idoc staff person had pressured or forced them into sexual activities with another prisoner. About one in seven reported that IDOC staff had threatened loss of privileges, physical attack or placement in isolation if the woman refused sex with the staff.

Reported abuse extended beyond physical assaults. About fifty of seventy women reported that iIDOC staff had called them names, such as “slut,” “whore,” “cunt,” or “bitch.” More than 35% of the women noted that staff had verbally abused them in this way more than ten times. Only 25% of the women reported that they had never been subjected to verbal abuse. For survey respondents, the verbal abuse they experienced was just one part of a more general atmosphere of sexual intimidation.

More than half said that male IDOC staff members had watched them showering or using the toilet; many described this as common, often accompanied by verbal harassment. About one in every seven women reported that a male idoc guard had strip searched her. It is against international human rights standards for male staff to strip search female inmates. Even idoc policies limit such searches to emergencies.

In 2004, Gail Smith, Executive Director of Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers, presented an affidavit in this case, stating: “Over the last 18 years, I have repeatedly heard from women who have been subject to retaliation after complaining about such harassment and assaults.” For example, one woman told Smith that shortly after making a complaint against a guard, the guard’s friends mentioned that they knew where her son was living. They impliedthat harm could be done to her son if she pursued the complaint. Smith saw the bruises and swollen face of another woman who had been assaulted by a guard. This survivor told Smith that after making a a report against a guard, he entered her cell repeatedly at 4 or 5 am and woke her up. Another woman was so traumatized after a guard raped her, and officers harassed her after she filed her complaint, that she attempted suicide.

In addition to threats of mistreatment and retaliation from individual guards, IDOC’s own protocols for handling sexual assault cases make women reluctant to report rape. In the past, when a woman in prison reported that a guard had raped her, idoc placed her in the isolation/punishment unit (“seg”). According to idoc, she had just admitted a crime: sexual contact with a guard. Women’s and prisoners’ rights activists have succeeded in changing Illinois law so that any instance of sexual contact between a guard and an incarcerated person is now considered a crime on the part of the guard. Despite these changes, IDOC still sends a woman into isolation when she reports rape. Now, instead of labeling this as punishment for a crime, idoc labels this administrative or investigative detention and claims this is necessary to protect the incarcerated woman and to carry out a proper investigation. However, many women hesitate to report sexual assaults because the day-to-day experience of administrative detention is essentially the same as punishment in seg, In the aftermath of an assault, isolation is especially traumatic because it imposes additional restrictions on a woman’s movement, communication with people inside and outside prison, job assignments (and therefore access to money), and attendance at classes or groups. idoc procedures further discourage women from reporting rape by issuing disciplinary tickets if an idoc investigation does not turn up sufficient evidence to corroborate the woman’s claim. These tickets can extend a woman’s sentence. Finally, IDOC rape investigations are neither thorough nor objective. Attorneys for prisoners have reported idoc interference with collection of evidence in sexual assault cases, both through routine bureaucratic delays and more direct manipulation of evidence.

IDOC policies and practices make it extremely difficult for advocates and researchers to talk to women in prison, and for survivors to report rape to prison staff or anyone on the outside. The anti-sexual assault movement has not responded well to these challenges. Rape crisis centers, often the best source of information on sexual assault, have conducted almost no outreach into prisons, and usually do not provide services to people who are incarcerated. For example, none of the thirty rape crisis centers belonging to the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault (icasa) focuses on sexual violence against incarcerated women. The extensive icasa webpage has only three references to sexual assault in prison, only one of which addresses female prisoners. [2] Anti-rape center staff are overworked and may lack funding to accept expensive collect calls from prisoners. Prisons are mostly in rural areas, while there are more anti-rape agencies in urban areas. Furthermore, anti-rape agencies have frequently been controlled by white, middle class feminists who have tended to see the criminal legal industry as a potential source of relief from violence, rather than as a source of violence.

Although it would be helpful to have full and detailed reports on prison staff sexual assaults, we don’t need more data to take action. People on the outside need to protect our sisters inside and to stop the ever-expanding prison industrial complex from stealing more loved ones from our communities. Chicago communities are deeply harmed by the abuses that the state and its agents perpetrate through the prison industrial complex. As of 2005, Illinois incarcerates 41,848 men and 2,821 women. Sixty percent of those incarcerated are African American/Black, 28% are European American/White, and 11% are Latino. Most Illinois prisoners come from Chicago, and thirty-four percent of people who return to Chicago when leaving prison go to six of Chicago’s seventy-seven neighborhoods: Austin, Humboldt Park, North Lawndale, Englewood, West Englewood, and East Garfield Park. [3] These communities bear the weight of our society’s reliance on the prison industrial complex as a tool to maintain economic and racial privilege. The sexual violence that the prison industrial complex inflicts on women deeply wounds these six Chicago neighborhoods, where mothers, partners, daughters, and sisters traumatized and stigmatized by prison struggle to regain their roles as workers, activists, artists, neighbors and friends.

When an IDOC staff member sexually attacks a woman, the assault is part of a comprehensive system of intimidation, abuse and control. Alan Mills commented that when you’re in prison, “Your entire life depends on the guards…. You don’t have any other source of food, water, light.” Additionally, because family members, bosses, partners, pimps, acquaintances, coworkers and strangers have physically and sexually abused many women before incarceration, women prisoners often suffer from post-traumatic stress and rape trauma before entering prison. [4] Guards use their power to create heightened levels of terror for women already suffering from past abuses.

This terror is amplified by the general prison environment, which already compromises a woman’s basic survival needs. IDOC does not provide an adequate amount of food. Provisions are not nutritious, meals are served at unusual hours that may conflict with a prisoner’s work, school, sleep or family visits. Sometimes less than fifteen minutes is allowed for going through the chow line and eating. Most women on the inside are always hungry. One formerly incarcerated woman explained to me how male guards use this situation to sexually exploit and abuse female prisoners: “A guard will buy some candy out of the snack machine and put it in view on his desk. It’s like setting a mousetrap. He’ll wait until one of the female prisoners comes along and is willing to have sex with him in exchange for the food.”

What can people on the outside do to stop rape by IDOC staff? Many of us support abolition of prisons in favor of systematic social changes to promote economic human rights, civil liberties, freedom from oppression, functional communities and community-based interventions for those who harm others. The dream of a society without cages may seem as far away to us as the abolition of slavery once seemed in the US, but we can attain it. However, working for abolition does not eliminate the need to stop the human rights abuses happening to our sisters and brothers in prison right now. There are several steps we can take:

1. We need to coordinate efforts to push idoc to provide adequate food, clothing, medical care, telephone access, and basic needs, so that women are not forced to endure rape in ex-change for gaining access to basic necessities.

2. We must collectively fight the practice of strip searching. Strip searches are assaults that humiliate and terrorize inmates.

3. We need to press idoc to stop punishing women who report rape, and interfering in investigations of the reports.

4. We need more communication between people on the outside and people on the inside. Prisoners can’t call 1-800 numbers, cell phones, or any individual or organization that refuses collect calls. We need hotlines that are accessible to prisoners, outreach to women and men inside, and stronger relationships between prisoners, formerly incarcerated people, prison ab-olition groups, and antiviolence organizations.

5. We need systems of screening and reviewing idoc staff, as well as for holding them accountable to standards.

6. We can advocate for idoc to comply with inter-national human rights standards that bar men from guarding women in their living quarters.

7. Organizations that work for peace and antiviolence, for economic justice, and for human rights need to increase their focus on people in prison.

Those of us fighting abuses in prison must expand our coalitions. We need to work alongside social justice and social service organizations to address the needs of currently and formerly incarcerated people. Some battered women’s shelters do not want to accept women with criminal records as residents. Organizations that provide housing assistance frequently bar those with criminal convictions. The stigma and shunning of prisoners and former prisoners happens in many ways in our communities. We cannot create real human rights in our communities if we don’t aim to secure human rights for everyone.

1 This article describes sexual abuse perpetrated by male prison staff against incarcerated women. Although beyond my scope, other forms of rape in prison need serious attention, such as rape perpetrated by female guards, rape of male prisoners, and prisoner-on-prisoner rape. Stop Prisoner Rape is a national organization that addresses sexual violence against men and women and can be contacted at http://www.spr.com or 3325 Wilshire Blvd. , Ste. 340. Los Angeles, CA 90010. Phone: (213) 384-1400.

2 http://www.icasa.org

3 La Vigne, Nancy G. , Cynthia A. Mamalian with Jeremy Travis and Christy Visher. A Portrait of Prisoner Reentry in Illinois. Washington, DC: Urban Institute Justice Policy Center, 2003.

4 Greenfield, Lawrence and Tracy Snell. Women Offenders. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1999.


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