Locked Up: Human Rights Violations In Women’s Prisons

A mere 4% of the world’s female population resides in the United States, but this country holds 30% of the world’s incarcerated women. More men still occupy our nation’s prisons, but the number of female prisoners has skyrocketed in the last few decades thanks to minimum-sentencing laws, the war on drugs, and other legislative and judicial actions that fill our jails. What kind of world are these women living in?

Delayed medical care

In 2015, the Correctional Association of New York released a report five years in the making. It took a deep dive into the state’s prison system and major human rights violations using interviews with inmates and staff. A survey of 151 inmates revealed that 66% had to wait 28 days or more to see a doctor after saying they needed an appointment. One woman waited seven months before receiving her diagnosis: cancer. It ended up killing her.

Lack of menstrual care

Women who aren’t in prison have to deal with the annoyance of buying tampons and pads, but inmates have it even worse. In some prisons, a box of tampons can cost as much as $5.00. When a prison job (which are often hard to get) pays just 75 cents per day, those tampons are a luxury. Women frequently resign themselves to re-using pads, bleeding through their clothes, or simply going without supplies rather than spend money or beg unsympathetic guards for products.

This is a blatant disregard of the United Nations’ Bangkok Rules, which states that incarcerated women are owed free menstrual supplies. However, the US doesn’t have legislation to actually enforce this standard. In 2016, New York City became the first city in the United States to provide free tampons and pads in prisons, as well as public schools and homeless shelters. In 2018, a committee in Arizona reviewed whether or not women should be allowed more than 12 pads per month. In February, they announced the limit would go up to 36 pads. The policy does not include tampons. Activists plan to keep a close eye on the policy’s implementation.

Abuse of pregnant women

Pregnant women often suffer the most in prison. They need extra nutrition, but many report periods of time where they’re starving. Once they begin labor, things get even worse. In an especially harrowing story from In These Times, an inmate reported bleeding, but wasn’t examined. Instead, she was put in a one-person cell without a sink or toilet. When her water broke, she called for help, but nobody came. A guard finally came in when the baby breached, but the umbilical cord was strangling the infant. A nurse arrived, but didn’t attempt resuscitation. The baby was taken to the hospital and pronounced dead.

Sexual abuse

Women are more likely than men to experience sexual abuse both before their incarceration and during their prison time. When guards perpetuate that violence, getting help can seem pointless. In an article for the Huffington Post, a former inmate (who served nearly two decades in prison for defending herself against an abuser) described being groped, harassed, and raped by a series of male guards. When she tried to tell the authorities about the assaults, the head of the sex crimes unit said if the victim wanted anything to be done, she needed to collect “physical evidence,” which basically meant engaging in some kind of sex act.

Usually, if an inmate reports abuse, prison policy is to transfer the prisoner, not the guard, allowing him to target someone else. Many inmates simply don’t say anything, because a transfer means they won’t be able to see their families as often or at all.

Limited access to mental health services

All these violations wreck havoc on a person’s mental health, and for those already suffering from illness, the repetition of trauma just adds to the struggle. Incarcerated women are more likely than men to be mentally ill when they walk through the jail doors. In theory, inmates receive a psychological assessment when they enter a facility so they can get treatment, but it seems like most never do. In many prisons, if a woman requests a counselor, they have to pay $4 per session. While that seems like pocket change, let’s remember that prison jobs pay less than $1 an hour, and reports show that pay rate has dropped over the years.

It’s time for change

In the fight for women’s rights, incarcerated women are often forgotten. It’s time to change that. To help, get connected with organizations like the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, Action Committee for Women in Prison, and Justice Now.

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