Friday, January 03, 2014


It is Prison friday here at Scission.  I've written about the horrors of solitary confinement before.  Usually when we think about it, we think of some lone guy stuck in a hole somewhere forever.  Today, let's think about women.  

Much less is known or discussed about women in such places.

Victoria Law, author of the book "Resistance Behind Bars:  The Struggles of Incarcerated Women" said during an interview:

Solitary confinement makes women more vulnerable to staff sexual assault since no one can see what is happening. In my book, I write about the experience of Christina Madrazo, a transsexual immigrant who was placed in INS detention. Originally, the INS (now called ICE) did not know what to do with her since her assigned gender at birth was male, but she identified (and was seeking asylum status) as a transgendered female. Madrazo was placed in solitary confinement where she was raped twice by a prison guard. 

Even when they are not being physically assaulted, the women have no privacy—toilets are in full view of the cell door windows, guards can look through those windows at any time and, in many prisons, male guards can watch the women in the showers, on the toilet or when they are trying to dress or undress. 

In addition, solitary confinement is used to punish women who have either reported being sexually assaulted by staff, or who have been discovered to have “consensual relationships” with staff members. I put “consensual” in quotation marks because, given the power dynamics in prison, especially the ability of guards and staff members to withhold services and/or provide small amenities, the relationship can never truly be consensual. I recently received a letter from a woman incarcerated in Colorado whose cellmate was accused of having a “consensual” relationship with a staff member. While the accusation was being investigated, the staff member was allowed to continue working in the prison. The woman was placed in solitary confinement for the duration of the investigation and only released once the charge was found to be unwarranted. 

Also, with women, there’s the prevailing notion that women need to be “good girls” and “to behave.” Thus, women are punished for behaviors that violate gender norms, behaviors such as spitting or cursing or not following orders, behaviors that men are not punished for. This is also why women are sent to segregation when they report sexual misconduct or engage in sexual activity; they’re violating what we, as a society, see as “good girl behavior.” 

It may seem totally absurd to put women in solitary for reporting rape and other forms of sexual assault, but that is exactly what often happens.  Think it's rare.  Think again.  Law points out at Solitary Watch:

 In 1996, Human Rights Watch found that, in Michigan, incarcerated women who report staff sexual misconduct are placed in segregation pending the institution’s investigation of their cases. The placement is allegedly for the woman’s own protection. The five other states investigated also had similar practices of placing women in segregation after they reported abuse.

 Not much has changed in the thirteen years since Human Rights Watch chronicled the pervasive and persistent sexual abuse and use of retaliatory segregation in eleven women’s prisons. Former staff at Ohio’s Reformatory for Women have stated that women who reported sexual abuse are subjected to lengthy periods of time in solitary confinement where cells often had feces and blood smeared on the wall. In Kentucky, a woman who saved evidence from her sexual assault was placed in segregation for fifty days. In Illinois, a prison administrator threatened to add a year onto the sentence of a woman who attempted to report repeated sexual assaults. She was then placed in solitary confinement.

In 2003, the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) became law, ostensibly to address the widespread sexual abuse in the nation’s jails and prisons. Among its recommendations was “the timely and comprehensive investigation of staff sexual misconduct involving rape or other sexual assault on inmates.” However, this has not stopped the widespread practice of utilizing solitary to punish those who speak out. An investigation into sexual abuse at Alabama’s Tutwiler Prison for Women found that women who report sexual abuse “are routinely placed in segregation by the warden.”  Some prison systems have also created new rules to continue discouraging reports of staff sexual assault. At Denver Women’s Correctional Facility, a woman reported that prison officials responded to PREA by creating a rule called “False Reporting to Authorities.”

“A lot of us do not report any kind of staff misconduct because history has proven that any kind of reports true or false are found [by the administration] to be false,” she stated. “When it was found to be false, the people were immediately found guilty and sent to administrative segregation.” In some cases, a woman may not even file an official complaint, but may only be speaking within earshot of another staff member.
Under PREA, those accused of sexual assault are sent to solitary confinement even before the charges are proven. In California, Amy Preasmyer was placed in solitary confinement after being accused of sexual assault by another woman. “I was abruptly removed from my bed late in the evening to face an extended wait and then a transfer to Ad-Seg,” she reported. “Upon entering my newly assigned chambers at 3 a.m., I found the toilet was backed up and a DD3 (EOP) [person with a disability] had urinated everywhere prior to me, leaving extremely unsanitary conditions and aromas.” She was not allowed to access supplies that would allow her to clean or disinfect her cell. Although she was eventually cleared of all charges, being in Ad Seg forced her to miss her final examinations for college. During that time, she also lost the privilege to shop, walk outside or even call home.

Don't think this only happens in the States.  The Independent reported in August that during a surprise inspection of the women's prison near Ashford (in Britain) it was found that the prison had been detaining a female prisoner in segregation in a "squalid" cell for more than five years.  Chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick told the newspaper, "We were dismayed that the woman who had already been in the segregation unit for three years in 2010 was still there in 2013. Her cell was unkempt and squalid and she seldom left it."  Hardwick said her prolonged detention in the segregation unit amounted to "cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment - and we use these words advisedly".

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, described the case to the Independent  as "shocking" and said the woman's treatment "appears to amount to torture". Cases such as this happening in an English prison "should shame ministers who tolerate the over-use of custody for women and consequent poor treatment," they added.

In Canada, the BC Civil Liberties Association says it has resolved a lawsuit against the government of Canada filed on behalf of a 26-year-old aboriginal woman from Saskatchewan who was held in solitary confinement in a federal prison for more than 3½ years.

The BCCLA filed the lawsuit in March 2011, on behalf of Bobby Lee Worm, who was 24 years old at the time, saying it was seeking to end the practice of holding women in solitary confinement for months and years at a time in federal prisons.
"Since the start of her incarceration in 2006, Ms. Worm, who suffered extreme physical, emotional and sexual abuse throughout her childhood and adolescence, has been subjected to extensive periods of solitary confinement, much of it while on a program called the management protocol," said a statement issued by the BCCLA in 2011.

Worms told the CBC:

"Solitary confinement does one thing. It breaks a person's will to live. Being locked up like that you feel like you're losing your mind. The only contact with another human is through a food slot. Days turn into nights and into days and you don't know if you'll ever get out."

It is 2014...

The following is from Action Committee for Women in Prison. 

Solitary Confinement for women

Women in Solitary Confinement: “The Isolation Degenerates Us Into Madness”
 By Victoria Law 
A mass prisoner hunger strike rocked California’s prison system this past summer, drawing international attention to the extensive use of solitary confinement in the United States. Increasingly, solitary is finding its way into the mainstream media and onto activist agendas. Nearly all of the attention, however, has focused on solitary confinement in men’s prisons; much less is known about the conditions and experiences inside women’s prisons.
During October’s legislative hearing on solitary confinement in California, lawmakers asked prison officials about women in solitary confinement. Officials from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) stated that 74 women were held in the Security Housing Unit at the California Institution for Women (CIW) and a handful of women were awaiting transfer from the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF). CDCR does not separate people in the SHU with mental illness from those without mental illness. CDCR officials did not address the number of people in the Administrative Segregation (or Ad Seg) Unit.
According to CDCR statistics, as of September 2013, 107 women were held in Ad Seg at CCWF, which has a budgeted capacity of 38. The average stay was 131 days. Twenty women had been there longer than 200 days, two had exceeded 400 days, and another two women had exceeded 800 days. At CIW, 34 women were in Ad Seg with an average stay of 73 days. Two women have exceeded 200 days.
Lawmakers’ inquiry prompted advocacy group California Coalition for Women Prisoners to send an open letter to Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner requesting that she investigate conditions of solitary confinement in women’s prisons. The group noted that, with the conversion of Valley State Prison for Women to a men’s prison and the transfer of several hundred women to California’s other two women’s prisons, the use of solitary confinement has dramatically increased.
To justify the increase, CDCR has cited “enemy concerns” or a documented disagreement between people that may have led to threats or violence. Those designated as having “enemy concerns” are locked in their cells 22 to 24 hours a day and lose all privileges. CDCR reports do not separate the number of people in Ad Seg or the SHU for rules violations versus those confined because of “enemy concerns.” The California Coalition for Women Prisoners has noted that many of these “enemy concerns” are based on incidents that happened years ago and may not be valid today.
Dolores Canales has a son who has spent thirteen years in Pelican Bay’s SHU. Canales has also had firsthand experience with solitary confinement. While imprisoned at CIW, she spent nine months in Ad Seg, where she was confined to her cell twenty-two hours a day. “There, I had a window. The guards would take me out to the yard every day. I’d get to go out to the yard with other people,” she recalled. But the isolation still took its toll: “There’s an anxiety that overcomes you in the middle of the night because you’re so locked in,” she described. Even after being released from segregation, Canales was unable to shake that anxiety. She broke into a sweat and panicked each time she saw a group of officers even though she had broken no rules. “I just can’t forget,” she stated years after her release from prison.
Although the spotlight on solitary has focused largely on California, every women’s prison has a solitary confinement unit. Florida’s Lowell Correctional Institution for Women has a Closed Management Special Housing Unit (CM SHU) where women are confined to their cells 23 to 24 hours a day. “There is no free movement or social interaction,” reported one woman. “We just sit locked in a concrete and steel room the size of a small residential bathroom.”
In Indiana, Sarah Jo Pender has spent nearly five years in solitary. “My cell is approximately 68 square feet of concrete with a heavy steel door at the front and a heavily barred window at the back that does not open,” she described. “Walls are covered in white; the paint chipped off by bored prisoners reveals another layer of primer white. No family photos or art or reminder notes are allowed to be taped to the walls; they must remain bare. Our windowsills would be a great place to display greeting cards and pictures, but those are off-limits, too… There is a concrete platform and thin plastic mat, a fourteen-by-twenty inch shelf and round stool mounted to the floor, and a steel toilet/sink combo unit. We get no boxes to contain our few personal items. Everything must fit on the shelf, bed or end up on the floor.”
Her cell is searched daily by guards although, like everyone else in the prison, she is strip searched any time she leaves the unit for a doctor’s appointment or a no-contact visit. When she is taken to the showers, she is handcuffed, then locked into a 3 foot by 3 foot shower stall with a steel cage door for a 15-minute shower. As is the case across the country, visits are conducted behind glass.
Pender was placed in solitary confinement after successfully escaping from prison in 2008. With the assistance of a guard, who had been having sex with her and several other women in the prison, she escaped. After 136 days, she was found, re-arrested and returned to prison, where she began her unending stint in solitary confinement. Because Pender is considered a high escape risk, the administration has taken steps to isolate her even within the segregation unit. “Other women could talk to each other through their doors, but they were instructed to never talk to me or else they’d be punished,” she recounted. “The male guards were never to speak to me unless there was a second guard present, and only to give me orders. Female guards only spoke when absolutely necessary, per orders, except they chatted freely with any other prisoner.”
As in many jails and prisons, those with mental health concerns are often placed in segregation. “One of them is going to be released to society this month,” Pender wrote. “She has been in solitary for six or eight months because she has repeatedly cut herself with razors, including her throat, several times. Their solution: lock her in a room and don’t give her a razor.” Another woman spent 2 ½ years in segregation, originally for disruptive behavior. Her stay was extended each time she hurt herself. “She cut her wrists in the shower, they found her, took her to the hospital, stitched her up, put her back in lock and wrote her up for self-mutilation. She ripped the stitches out and got another battery write-up. Threw a mop bucket at the sergeant for another assault write-up and was completely maxed out on her sentence, so they let her go home from solitary. She returned that same year with new charges. She never got therapy while here—or any mental health care that she obviously needed.”
While Pender did not enter with preexisting mental health concerns, years of little to no human contact has taken its toll. At times she feels lethargic and depressed. In 2010, she had a psychotic break, which lasted nine months. Since then, she has been on and off half a dozen kinds of psychotropic medications. “I didn’t need the meds for the two years I spent in godawful Marion County Jail, and didn’t need them for five years at Rockville prison,” she recalled. “But when you lock people in rooms for long periods of time, the isolation degenerates us into madness, or at least depression.”
Others with no preexisting mental health conditions have also been affected. “I watched a woman claw chunks out of her cheeks and nose and write on the window with her blood,” Pender said. “My neighbor bashed her head against the concrete until officers dragged her out to a padded cell. Two other women tried to asphyxiate themselves with shoestrings and bras.” In Florida, faced with the prospect of ten months in CM SHU, a woman attempted suicide. “I had hung myself and was quite dead when the guards cut me down. My heart must’ve stopped because of the loss of involuntary functions, but still they wrapped me in a sheet and rushed me to medical and succeeded in reviving me,” she recalled.
Despite being locked in a cell the size of a bathroom for the foreseeable future, Pender hopes the increased outrage about solitary confinement leads to concrete changes. What would she ask people to do?
They can help by contacting their legislators and judges about their views on long-term solitary confinement. They can help by supporting small groups of activists and organizations who are passionate about this topic. Many people don’t have the desire to donate two hours of their week or month to a group, but what about two hours of their monthly wages? Or the book of stamps and box of envelopes that has been collecting dust since email was invented? There are lots of ways to help change the system. Whatever you choose to do, just DO something. Just having conversations with others about the subject is doing something. Someone else might volunteer to type up and format a newsletter. Help design a website. Circulate the info. Make phone calls to organize events. Anything is better than turning the page to the next article and forgetting about us, leaving us alone in our cells.

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