May 29 2012

Unfortunately Sexual Violence against Women Prisoners is More of the Same….


This weekend, Melissa Harris Perry featured Bryan Stevenson to talk about the Equal Justice Initiative’s recent investigation and federal complaint about sexual violence against incarcerated women at Tutwiler prison in Alabama.

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The investigation uncovered that prison guards and correction staff at Tutwiler regularly harass, abuse, and rape women prisoners. Stevenson is quoted in the Huffington Post as saying that women who reported the abuse to administrators would find themselves punished for their troubles:

“Many of them reported encounters with the warden that they characterize as abusive, threatening and intimidating,” Stevenson said. “The women report that when you complain, you are placed in segregation and are subjected to very aggressive treatment by investigators and other staff. It is not an environment that encourages people to come forward with instances of abuse.”

I have written that women prisoners have been subjected to sexual violence since the earliest days of the penitentiary. I quoted Randall G. Shelden’s (2010) description of how female prisoners were treated in the 19th century:

“The conditions of the confinement of women were horrible — filthy, overcrowded, and at risk of sexual abuse from male guards. Rachel Welch became pregnant at Auburn while serving a punishment in a solitary cell; she died after childbirth as the result of a flogging by a prison official earlier in her pregnancy. Her death prompted New York officials to build the Mount Pleasant Prison Annex for women on the grounds of Sing Sing in Mount Pleasant, New York in 1839. The governor of New York had recommended separate facilities in 1828, but the legislature did not approve the measure because the washing, ironing, and sewing performed by the women saved the Auburn prison system money. A corrupt administration at the Indiana State Prison used the forced labor of female inmates to provide a prostitution service for male guards (p.134).”

Ebenezer Cobb was the guard who beat Rachel Welch so brutally. He was convicted of assault and battery and fined $25. He was allowed to keep his job. Apparently several women at Tutwiler have become pregnant after being raped by prison guards and those guards have not been disciplined or fired. The more things change the more they stay the same, I guess.

The prison industrial complex is a site for racial and sexual violence. Angela Davis and Cassandra Shaylor (2001) provide some context:

“The hiring of male custodial staff, who have visual access at all times to women’s cells — event when they are changing clothes — and to the showers, creates a climate that invites sexual abuse. In U.S. women’s prisons, the ratio of male to female corrections staff is often two to one and sometimes three to one. Though this disproportion alone does not inevitably lead to abuse, the administration and culture of the prison creates an environment in which sexual abuse thrives (in Still Brave: The Evolution of Black Women’s Studies, p.204).”

Black women have been particularly vulnerable to sexual violence by law enforcement and prison guards. One well-known example is the sexual violence that Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer experienced while she was jailed in Mississippi in the early 60s. Danielle McGuire (2004) offers this descriptions of the incident:

After being arrested with other Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activists for desegregating a restaurant, Hamer received a savage and sexually abusive beating by the Winona police. “You bitch,” one officer yelled, “we going to make you wish you was dead.” He ordered two black inmates to beat Hamer with “a long wide blackjack,” while other patrolmen battered “her head and other parts of her body.” As they assaulted her, Hamer felt them repeatedly “pull my dress over my head and try to feel under my clothes.” She attempted to pull her dress down during the brutal attack in order to “preserve some respectability through the horror and disgrace.” Hamer told this story on national television at the Democratic National Convention in 1964 and continued to tell it “until the day she died,” offering her testimony of the sexual and racial injustice of segregation.’”(p.910)

I would also add the inherent sexual and racial injustice of incarceration. You can listen to Mrs. Hamer speak about her beating at the 1964 Democratic National Convention here. One of her biographers suggests that she purposely underplayed the sexual violence associated with the beating that she received in jail.

Connect the dots. The common denominators in all of these instances include sexism, racism, and the inherent brutality of incarceration. Indeed, Tutwiler is unfortunately just more of the same…