Friday, December 08, 2006

Cruel, Not Unusual By Sara Paretsky

"I felt a strong contraction and I knew that the baby was coming. I
asked for the doctor and worked the leg chain around so that I could lay
down again. The doctor said yes, this baby is coming right now.

Because I was shackled to the bed, they couldn't remove the lower part of the bed for the delivery. My feet were shackled together, and I couldn't get my legs apart. The doctor called for the officer, but the officer had gone down the hall. No one else could unlock the shackles, and my baby was coming but I couldn't open my legs."

If you think this is a report from a Kosovo war crimes trial, you're wrong: Maria (not her real name) was an inmate at Cook County Jail in Chicago, my hometown.

I read Maria’s statement while doing research on women in prison for one of my books . I read other reports, too, and met with women who had done time. I wasn’t expecting a world of sweetness and light. What I learned is that nightmarish childbirth accounts are just part of the story. There are also wrenching child-custody losses, lack of drug rehab and vocational programs and, most shocking of all, routine sexual abuse by prison guards.

This abuse is particularly shocking, when you consider what experts are saying these days: that the sexual abuse of women is a thread that may tie women to poverty and lead them to prison in the first place.

It’s not the only reason that some women abuse drugs, or fail to find work, or end up behind bars. But it’s a strong contributor for the 154,000 women who make up almost 10 percent of our prison population. Welfare case-workers are only starting to realize the extent of childhood sexual abuse that may lie in the background of their most intractable clients, while groups like Amnesty International are starting to see the connection between sexual abuse and what sends women to prison.

Eighty percent of these women are drug addicts. Almost all have children under the age of eighteen.

Although African-Americans make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population, 75 percent of women inmates are African-Americans: as a country, we prosecute African-American women at seven times the rate we do white women.

Almost sixty percent of these women are illiterate, but we won’t do literacy training while they’re in prison.

And only 31 percent are in prison for violent crimes. Half of all women inmates are in prison simply for possessing drugs. In a perverse form of the glass ceiling, women in the drug world are almost always users or small-time couriers; they rarely are dealers or major money players. Under mandatory sentencing guidelines, they could reduce or avoid prison time by turning in a bigger player. But they rarely know bigger players.

Most disturbing of all is this: At least half of the inmates will turn out to have been sexually abused as children. (Typically, they will receive no psychotherapy for this.) And nearly all of them will experience sexual abuse while they are behind bars.

According to reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other groups, male guards may verbally insult them, observe them while showering, masturbate openly in front of them, reach inside their clothes and touch their genitals, even rape them.

If the women complain they can end up in solitary confinement where they could be systematically assaulted. (A year ago in Florida, a woman hanged herself in her cell, despairing, in a note left to her mother, that no one in the prison cared about the intense sexual abuse to which she was
subjected. )

If a woman resists, guards sometimes write up "tickets" saying she is violent or uncooperative, which can lengthen her time in solitary and keep her from getting parole. And they can take away her privileges, including the right to see visitors.

When women finish their sentences, what will their lives be? Most will still be illiterate, few will have learned any skills, almost none will have been treated for addiction.

As for the 2200 women who give birth annually in prison, many may -- as Maria did -- lose custody of their children. Under a provision of the welfare reform law, if a woman is in prison for more than 18 months after her baby's birth, she loses her parental rights: Incarceration itself is deemed abandonment of the child.

Yet the hope of making something of themselves so they can give their kids a better life is one of the few positive motives for women behind bars.

It costs anywhere from $30,000 to $75,000 a year to keep a person behind bars. Conservatively, that's about $6 billion a year we're spending to lock up—and, apparently, abuse—these women, most of whom are non-violent offenders.

The only people who benefit from that $6 billion a year are those who live in dying towns, prison-construction and management companies and the politicians who court their dollars and their votes. That's an outrage. It's an injustice. Unfortunately, it's not a crime.


Bourgeoisophobus said...

Even if many of the behaviors these people are incarcerated for are eventually decriminalized, for six billion dollars the government will soon come up with another class of criminals -- tobacco smokers, for instance, or possibly people who use certain combinations of contraception and genetic testing.

Libby Hellmann said...

Probably the most emotional signing I ever did was at a women's correctional facility in Racine, Wisconsin. Their book club invited me to talk about some of the themes in An Image of Death,which included enforced prostitution, diamond smuggling, and the dearth of options for women at some points in their lives.

I can't speak to the abuse issues, but these women did seem committed to getting their lives together and living clean. Of course, this was a minimum security facility, and I was probably dealing not only with the "model" prisoners, but they were showing me what they wanted to show me.

Still, what I took out of it is the razor-close similarity between them and me. Had life treated me differently, I could have been there -- with a few changes, they could have had my life.

And yet they seemed surprisingly resigned to their lot. Resigned and -- at the same time -- cautiously hopeful.

I still think about them.

Marcus Sakey said...

I actually did a lot of research on prison for THE BLADE ITSELF, as the effect of incarceration is a major theme. There are some startling facts out there:

* America imprisons more people than any other nation, with close to two million inmates.

* Many states spend more money on jails than schools.

* Amnesty International actually condemns the American prison system.

* Seventy percent of inmates are illiterate.

* 200,000 are mentally ill.

* Black men in America are born with a one in four shot of serving time at some point, and serve longer sentences for the same crimes.

* Insult to injury, in many places former felons lose certain Constitutional rights; in some southern states, as much as thirty percent of the entire African-American population has permanently lost the right to vote.

I don't have a solution, but man, it's time we acknowledge the problem.

ab said...

This blog makes me cold with anger. What can be done to stop this worse-than-Abu Ghraib state of affairs? Why not issue a Committee for the protection of prisoned women? A tribunal..?

Thanks for writing this post. Sometimes I like you a lot, Paretsky.

ab said...

Marcus - those figures are devastating.
But this post was about women, wasn't it?

Ali Karim said...


This post confirmed my worst fears.

Man's inhumanity to man knows no bounds - unbelievable


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