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Women in U.S. Prisons

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Human Rights Watch released a report documenting that female prisoners are being routinely raped, sexually harassed, forced to undergo cavity searches and subject to inappropriate touching by male guards with alarming frequency in the United States prisons. This report is “All Too Familiar: Sexual Abuse of Women in U.S. State Prisons.” Regan Ralph, head of the Human Rights Watch Women’s Rights Project, talks about several cases from this report and the steps that are taken and the responses of the state prisons regarding abuses toward the female prisoners.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: And you’re listening to Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our discussion of women in prison. If you heard a report in the news that women prisoners in, let’s say, China, Afghanistan, Mexico or Ireland were being routinely raped, sexually harassed, forced to undergo cavity searches or subject to inappropriate touching and surveillance by male guards, you might decide to call or write your congressmember or try to push the president to speak out and take action. But Human Rights Watch has just released a report documenting that these abuses are happening with alarming frequency in U.S. prisons, and male guards are getting away with it.

We’re joined now by Regan Ralph, who is the head of the Human Rights Watch Women’s Rights Project, which put out this report called “All Too Familiar: Sexual Abuse of Women in U.S. State Prisons.”

You studied the situation for about two years. And what did you come up with?

REGAN RALPH: Well, Human Rights Watch has been investigating abuses and conditions in prisons in the U.S. and elsewhere for a number of years. In recent years, we started to receive reports from different states across the country that women were in fact being sexually abused by prison staff. After we began investigating the problem, we were, quite frankly, shocked to learn that rather than being isolated cases, we were looking at a problem with national dimensions. What we found were a range of abuses, consistent, from states as far apart as California and Georgia, that start with guards propositioning women for sex, move to guards using pat frisk searches as an opportunity to grope and prod women’s breasts, buttocks and vaginal areas, to guards verbally and otherwise physically assaulting women, and in some cases, in such a hostile and sexually charged environment, some prison staff stepped even further across the line and actually raped or sexually assaulted female prisoners in their charge.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, I think it’s pretty astounding to note that the United States incarcerates the largest known number of prisoners in the world, of which a steadily increasing number are women. And so, women are increasingly under attack even in the prisons. Since 1980, the number of women entering U.S. prisons has risen almost 400%.

REGAN RALPH: Right. And we’re particularly concerned about this increase in the female prison population because of what it does to the conditions of women in prison, where you have a prison population that is going up, where you have women prisoners who are guarded primarily by male guards. Male guards, at this point, outnumber their female counterparts by two and sometimes three to one. If prisons are not absolutely rigorous about taking precautions to make sure that guards are explicitly prohibited from engaging in sexual abuse and are punished when they do engage in that abuse, you have a potentially explosive situation on your hands.

AMY GOODMAN: How do guards get away with this? Where do they rape women?

REGAN RALPH: Well, again, it’s a whole range of behaviors. Some women reported being raped in their cells. Other women reported a history of harassment by a guard or a group of guards, starting with propositioning, leading to them being groped or pushed while they were on their work detail or in the laundry room, to them being attacked somewhere in the prison. In one case that was reported to us by prison attorneys in the state of New York, a paraplegic prisoner was raped every time that she was taken to physical therapy by a driver who was employed by the prison.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, this happens, but what about the correctional system and what they do about it? You write that they’ve routinely refused to acknowledge this problem and often only do so when class-action suits are brought against them. So would you say that the authorities know about this?

REGAN RALPH: I think they do, but they’re very reluctant to admit the scope of the problem. We looked at five states — California, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New York — and the District of Columbia. And in some of those states, you’ll get senior people at the departments of corrections saying, “We know this is a problem. It does happen sometimes. But we have zero tolerance for it.” And that’s just not the case. It’s belied by the evidence that we were able to put together and that comes from people who are working on behalf of prisoners in prisons in those states.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the situation of prisoners who are raped and impregnated by guards?

REGAN RALPH: Again, prison officials have been very reluctant to provide appropriate services to women in those situations, in part because they haven’t responded appropriately to the behavior that got the prisoners there in the first place. Again, to use an example from New York, a woman who was impregnated after an ongoing sexual interaction with a guard was encouraged, and in fact pressured, according to her testimony, by the prison doctor to have an abortion. The pressure stopped only when her family contacted senior officials at the prison. She was then transferred, put into administrative segregation and accused of violating at least three sets of prison rules, including sexual misconduct, false testimony and lewd behavior. Now, two of those charges were eventually dropped. But clearly, the person being punished was not the person responsible for the offense.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Regan Ralph, who heads up the Human Rights Watch Women’s Rights Project, which put out this report, “All Too Familiar: Sexual Abuse of Women in U.S. State Prisons.” And at the end of the show, we’ll give you the phone number, if you’d like to get a copy of this report, which in fact is a — basically looks like a book. It’s more than 300 pages. Well, let’s talk about the grievance procedure in prisons. And is it uniform around these state prisons, from California to the District of Columbia?

REGAN RALPH: They’re not uniform in their detail, but they are uniform in a number of the problems that are characteristic of the grievance procedures. First of all, in a number of these states, women are required to informally confront their alleged attacker before they are allowed to file a formal grievance.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

REGAN RALPH: What I mean is that they are put in a room with the person that they are saying is responsible for this abuse. And if they won’t do that, out of fear of retaliation, out of fear that somehow the guard that they’ve accused will file a disciplinary charge against them or mistreat them in some way, that’s it. That’s the end of the procedure for them. Now, in some states, there is a bypass mechanism. They don’t necessarily have to confront their attacker. But it’s almost never used in cases of sexual misconduct.

AMY GOODMAN: So what happens after that? They confront the attacker in a room.

REGAN RALPH: And in theory, once they’ve done that, they have leeway to file a formal grievance. But, unfortunately, in some states, even at that point, where they can fill out the form to file the grievance, the situation isn’t taken seriously. Some inmates in California told us that they had seen guards rip up their complaints and throw them in the trash. And other times, women are told that if they won’t submit to a lie detector test, that their complaints won’t be believed. The process is riddled with a number of problems, including testimony — bias against the testimony of prisoners. In many instances of sexual abuse or misconduct, it’s the testimony of the guard against the testimony of the prisoner. And prison officials have demonstrated, time and time again, that they are unwilling to believe prisoners when guards tell a different story.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the rationale of putting them in a room with the person that they are accusing? I mean, in the regular justice system, you don’t have to stand in a room with the person who assaulted you and make this accusation.

REGAN RALPH: It’s a good question. I’m not sure what the rationale is. But I do know what the effect is. And the effect is that it’s a very strong disincentive for women to report this kind of abuse. And we actually found, from states from New York to Illinois to California and back down to Georgia, that there is gross underreporting of sexual misconduct by prison staff.

AMY GOODMAN: What about retaliation against Jane Does, people who think that they have filed this confidentially, women who don’t want to use their names? Do they get found out?

REGAN RALPH: It does happen. And in fact, again, it’s a big reason that women don’t want to complain. The forms of retaliation can include being transferred to a prison that’s farther away from your family, being placed in administrative segregation, which may not be stated as serving a punitive effect, but in fact operates as punishment.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean by administrative segregation.

REGAN RALPH: When a women is put into administrative segregation, she’s taken out of the general population and kept in a cell by herself. Typically that means she cannot work, she cannot enjoy any of the privileges she might have had in the prison, and she’s cut off from the prison community at large.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the effect of this legal case, Women Prisoners v. the District of Columbia?

REGAN RALPH: Well, that was an important case in the sense that it really got the issue out in the public eye and exposed the lie that is often there in departments of corrections that say, “Yes, we know we have a problem, but we have zero tolerance for this problem in our institutions.” And what we saw in the District of Columbia, as we’ve seen in other places, was recognition of the fact that that’s not always the case. Right now there is some question about the effect of that litigation, because part of the ruling was overturned on appeal, and they are going back and looking at just what exactly needs to be done in the prisons to solve this problem.

AMY GOODMAN: What has been the response of the state prisons in the places you looked at, from California to New York to Georgia, Washington, D.C.? What has been the response of these prisons and also the U.S. prison department?

REGAN RALPH: To my knowledge, thus far, the United States Department of Justice, which we are encouraging to do much more to make sure that prison guards are not abusing women in their charge, has not responded to the findings in our report. Some state departments of corrections have responded. Unfortunately, a number of them are focusing not on the message, which is that they have a problem and that there are important steps they could take immediately to do something about it, steps that in many cases don’t even require significant resources but just political will to get the problem solved. But, unfortunately, in some cases, states have accused us of putting forth something that is not a serious problem. And we’re concerned that this is one of those cases of shooting the messenger so that you don’t have to pay attention to the message.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to find out, speaking of messengers, about how the press has dealt with this report. Human Rights Watch is known for its international reporting on human rights. And here you’re taking a look at a human rights situation in the United States.

REGAN RALPH: Well, I actually think the coverage has been quite good. One of the things that — there are a number of prisoner advocates, civil rights lawyers, women’s rights lawyers in states across the country who are doing incredibly good and consistent work to raise these concerns at the state and local level.

What we were — one of the things we were hoping to do with this report is point to the fact that the United States has international human rights obligations, like other countries around the world, and that we are failing to live up to them. And that is a big concern, and it’s not something that the United States is willing always to admit to. In one — last year, when the United States for the first time subjected itself to international scrutiny at the United Nations to see exactly how they were doing on their human rights record, they were asked specifically about the problem of sexual abuse in U.S. state prisons, and they responded that that problem was taken care of through officer training and prison rules and regulations. And as our report shows, nothing could be further from the truth.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you just focus on state prisons? What about federal prisons?

REGAN RALPH: Well, we wanted to start in a place where we could do the work, where we were getting reports of the problem. And obviously, we weren’t able to cover every prison in this country, either state of federal. But what we attempted to do was look at states where we were hearing reports that there were problems, where there were effective people operating on the ground to get information about the abuses out. And also we were hoping to look to see whether we were talking about a national problem. Was this something that was consistent in all regions of the country? And unfortunately, what we found was that it is.

AMY GOODMAN: Your recommendations for change?

REGAN RALPH: I think, at a minimum, states have to start confessing up to the fact that this is a problem in their systems and that they need to do something urgently to both prevent it and to provide justice to women who suffer from these abuses. I think that the urgent steps that can be taken at the state level are at least three. And the first is to make sure that sexual interaction between prison staff and female prisoners is a crime, period. Of the states we investigated, only Illinois has failed to criminalize sex between guards and inmates, but there are 23 states in this country that do not criminalize such sexual activity.

Secondly, we think that there have to be clear-cut administrative rules. One thing that we found consistently was that prison rules don’t specifically prohibit sex between prison guards and prisoners, don’t prohibit sexual assault, don’t — and they don’t prohibit sexually abusive and degrading language or other forms of degrading treatment. So they need to be explicit on that score. And prison staff need to be trained. All prison staff need to be trained that, A, this kind of conduct will not be tolerated, and, B, they will be disciplined if they engage in it.

Finally, we think that the Clinton administration, and specifically the Department of Justice, need to do much more to supervise this problem. They need to be making sure that women in state prisons are not being abused by the people who oversee their well-being.

AMY GOODMAN: What about state legislatures?

REGAN RALPH: Well, I mean, I think one of the first things that state legislatures need to do is make it a crime. And another possibility is to set up mechanisms for independent investigations into problems of abuse in prisons.

AMY GOODMAN: But you go outside of the prison —

REGAN RALPH: That’s right. That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: — when you wage this kind of —

REGAN RALPH: In most cases, prisons are charged with investigating themselves. And unfortunately, in the past, some guards have been allowed to engage — participate in or even direct the investigations into their own misconduct. So, what we’re very interested in is making sure that independent investigators can take a look at the system, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s interesting that there have been so many questions about women being in the military, yet there haven’t been any questions about male guards being in women’s prisons.

REGAN RALPH: Well, I don’t think that there the problem is male guards in women’s prisons. I think the problem is the way those male guards are trained and handled when they step over the line. And I think that prison authorities need to be clear: When you step over the line, you commit a crime, and it will not be tolerated.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m sure that people are going to want to get a hold of this report, “All Too Familiar: Sexual Abuse of Women in U.S. State Prisons,” Regan Ralph. What’s the phone number people can call?

REGAN RALPH: You can call Human Rights Watch’s publication office in New York. The number is 212-972-8400.

AMY GOODMAN: Give that number again.

REGAN RALPH: 1-212-972-8400.

AMY GOODMAN: And I want to thank you very much for joining us, Regan Ralph, head of the Human Rights Watch Women’s Rights Project, which put out this report on sexual abuse of women in U.S. state prisons.

REGAN RALPH: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: I also want to give the number for New York state Governor George Pataki, in case you are interested in calling him about Charline Brundidge’s case. We just got a call from Mary Lynch, who we were just talking to, her attorney. She says the best number to call is 518-474-8396. That’s 518-474-8396.

And if you’d like a copy of today’s show, one more number. I hope your pen is not running out of ink. You can call and order a copy, 1-800-735-0230. That’s 1-800-735-0230.

By the way, I’m going to President Clinton’s news conference tomorrow, on Friday, in Washington, D.C. And if you have a suggestion of a question that you’d like to have answered, why don’t you leave it on our comment line? We’ll be playing some of them tomorrow. Our number is 202-588-0999, extension 313. Remember, that’s a question for President Clinton, if you got a chance to ask him a question at his news conference. The number: 202-588-0999, extension 313.

Democracy Now! is produced by Julie Drizin with help from Errol Maitland. Errol Maitland was also the engineer today. Thanks to Kenneth Mason in Washington. Our director, Brother Shine.

Tomorrow, we’re going to be taking a look at Disney. Yes, Anti-Disney Week has taken place this week, and we’ll be talking to, among other people, Marc Eliot, the author of Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince, and looking at Disney’s operations in Haiti and Disney Worlds around the world. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for listening to another edition of Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!

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