By Morgan Fisher
The U.S. prison system has always bewildered me. You take a person who has broken the law and you stick them in an institution where they become a number, stripped of their freedom and privacy, incredibly limited in access to the society that lies out of their reach. It’s intense, it’s scary, and it’s chilling how little we know about what actually goes on inside those prisons. The movies I’ve seen and the little knowledge that I do have about the prison system are all centralized around the incarceration of men. So what about women’s prisons?
Non-violent women are being incarcerated more and more as the “War On Drugs” continues. Now, according to The The Sentencing Project, a third of women put in prison are there for drug offenses. Because many of these women suffer from substance abuse, you would think that perhaps there might be services available to get them the help they need to overcome their addictions. Sadly, that’s far from true in many instances. Instead, their long history with drugs, mental illness, and abuse (both physically and sexually), make them easy targets for assault by prison guards.
The American Civil Liberties Union states that 85 to 90 percent of incarcerated women in the U.S. have been domestically or sexually abused at some point. This appalling statistic brings about the sobering reality that these women are severely at risk to fall victim to this type of violence again.
In Alabama, the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women has discovered that 36 percent of the staff members in the institution have been responsible for some form of sexual assault. Correction officers within the prison often withhold privileges or even basic necessities (such as tampons and toilet paper) until the inmates perform sexual favors for them. Officers have also been found offering prisoners the chance to provide sexual favors in order to avoid punishment.
This twisted and disgusting reality exists in women’s prisons all over the country. Women are coerced into sex for favors and are powerless to prevent it. They can’t complain, because they’re afraid no one will believe them. They often can’t fight it, because the guards are stronger. Memories of domestic and sexual violence in their pasts are triggered and leave them frozen and afraid.
At the Birmingham Work Center in Alabama, Olivia Osborne sued Vincent Cheatham, Shirley Smith, and Kim Thomas, a prison guard, the warden, and the Alabama Corrections Commissioner, respectively. In 2011, Osborne claimed that Cheatham used to shove, grope, and abuse her, leading up to when, 6 weeks later, he proceeded to rape her, which he continued to do for the next four months. As an attempt of covering up this scandal, the warden, Smith, put Osborne on birth control for her “irregular periods,” but the truth came out during the trial when Smith admitted that it was to prevent pregnancy. I wasn’t able to find out how the trial concluded, but reading about this horrendous experience being brought to light was definitely a crucial reality check for me about what goes on behind the bars of the U.S. women’s prisons.
While researching this chilling phenomenon and the victimization that these women endure, I found myself wondering something else along the lines of this issue: how many of the women in the prison system are currently there because they defended themselves against their abusers? Obviously murder is a subject that no one wants to see justification in, but what happens to women who kill their significant others because they are being abused by them? That throws an extreme curve ball in the world of the justice system.
According to Bitch Magazine, 93 percent of women in California who are currently jailed for killing their significant others had been previously abused by them. In New York, 67 percent of women incarcerated for murder had been abused by the people they killed.
So how do we reconcile this? How do we break this vicious cycle of women trying to escape the cycle of abuse, only to be punished, shackled and sent to prison, and then sexually assaulted by people with the ability to make them feel completely subjugated and powerless? And furthermore, why are so few people aware of these atrocities?
The more research I found about this, the more I became absolutely baffled at the complete and total dehumanization of women in the prison system. Yes, women who have been incarcerated committed some sort of crime. Yes, punishment is important to maintain the codified balance of right and wrong in our society. But just because these people did the things they did does not mean that they are any less human. They still have the right to say “no” when confronted by an abusive officer. And the officers who see prison inmates as anything less than human deserve to face the same punishments that the system advocates for those they assault..
As more lawsuits come up about these issues, we’ve begun to see an increase in the fight to fix them. Marissa Alexander, who was arrested for firing a warning shot to attempt to get her abusive husband to stop hurting her, is currently getting a new trial, so that her 20-year sentence will hopefully be repealed. Olivia Osborne will hopefully get the correctional officer who took advantage of her tried and convicted. These atrocious acts have started to receive media attention, slowly, finally. The dehumanization of the women in the U.S. prison system is finally coming to light, and it’s a terrible thing that it’s taken this long, but at least we’re beginning to make some progress.
The University of Idaho is striving to shed more light on this topic. The UI Women’s Center is producing three fundraising performances of Eve Ensler’s play, Any One of Us”: Words From Prison, which features personal narratives of women from prison discussing the brutal and sobering experiences they’ve faced. The play will show on February 12th, 13th, and 14th at 7 PM in the International Ballroom at the Bruce M. Pitman Center. Tickets are $8 for students, but no one will be turned away for inability to pay. Come see the play next weekend. Hear first-hand stories of real women who have endured incarceration, two of which were written by women in Latah County. Funds raised by the show will benefit the community organization Alternatives to Violence of the Palouse, as well as the global V-Day campaign, which provides funding to help end violence against women around the world.