For prison inmates at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Alabama, getting a tampon or toiletries may rely on whether or not a woman is willing to have sex with a guard in exchange. That’s just one of the horrifying new tales being told in a recent investigation into the prison system in Alabama, which legislators and prison reform supporters both agree have massively expanded capacity.
According to the New York Times, the biggest issue putting so many behind bars, especially women, is the “war on drugs,” creating a holding pen for non-violent criminals as a means of showing the state is “tough on crime.” Possible changes that could get some of the population out of the over-crowded system include “changing sentencing rules, rescinding the ‘three-strikes’ law for repeat offenders, releasing the sick and elderly, and sending low-level drug offenders into treatment programs instead,” according to the paper.
There’s little doubt that the state’s tough line on drugs has taken a special toll on women. Alabama has been a leader when it comes to putting pregnant women in jail for drug use, including new court rulings that confirm pregnant women can be designated as “meth labs” endangering their unborn children.
With more women being put in jail, and no new jails being built, that leads to the obvious problem of overcrowding, lack of resources and lack of oversight. According to the federal report, at the Tutwiler prison there are more than twice as many inmates as the building was built to house, creating a rampant “culture of deprivation and abuse.”
Significant problems stem from the use of male guards, which is seen to lead to the sexually abusive nature of many of the allegations of misconduct and injustice at the prison. At least six correctional employees were convicted of sexual crimes in the last five years, including rape and bargaining for sex in exchange for basic everyday items.
As legal justice groups point out, however, the issues that are being seen at Tutwiler aren’t isolated, but run throughout the prison system. A report called Sexual Victimization in Prisons and Jails Reported by Inmates states that in 2011-2012, “an estimated 4.0 percent of state and federal prison inmates and 3.2 percent of jail inmates reported experiencing one or more incidents of sexual victimization by another inmate or facility staff in the past 12 months or since admission to the facility, if less than 12 months.”
If sexual assault weren’t bad enough, the treatment of pregnant prisoners is just as brutal. For dozens of states, shackling during childbirth is the standard procedure, despite the American Civil Liberties Union’s constant campaign against the practice. “Shackling pregnant women is dangerous and inhumane. Although widely regarded as an assault on human dignity as well as an unsafe medical practice, women prisoners are still routinely shackled during pregnancy and childbirth,” notes the ACLU. “Restraining pregnant prisoners at any time increases their potential for physical harm from an accidental trip or fall. This also poses a risk of serious harm to the woman’s fetus, including the potential for miscarriage. During labor, delivery and postpartum recovery, shackling can interfere with appropriate medical care and be detrimental to the health of the mother and her newborn child.” The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists also disapproves of the practice, saying it makes it more difficult for a doctor to assist in childbirth.
Some states, such as Massachusetts, are passing laws to forbid shackling, but it still happens, especially when it comes to undocumented pregnant women. Earlier this year a pregnant woman who entered the country illegally when trying to escape a group of men who had been sexually assaulting her near the border was shackled and held at a detention center, despite the fact that protocol stated that she should have been released as long as she didn’t have a criminal record. “Eight and a half months pregnant, and a woman is handcuffed with a chain around her waist, her hands, her feet. We don’t need to do that,” said Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House, an immigrant shelter in El Paso, according to Kvue.com.
Prison conditions across the country are deplorable for both genders due to an overzealous judicial system convinced that locking away every drug offender will somehow make drugs magically disappear from the country. But for women, who can be victimized both by sexual assault and the pregnancy that results from it, the situation is dire. There is simply no justice without reform.
Photo credit: Thinkstock