Women in U.S. Prisons


The Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners set by the United Nations in 1990 consist of eleven statements to be applied to all prisoners. Three of these eleven principles can be applied specifically to the rights of women in prison. Principle 1 states that "all prisoners shall be treated with the respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings." Principle 2 states "there shall be no discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status." Principle 9 states that "prisoners shall have access to the health services available in the country without discrimination on the grounds of their legal situation" (www1.umn.edu/humanrts/instree/g2bpt.htm). It is necessary to keep these principles in mind when examining the treatment of women in prison.

Although atrocities are taking place in prisons all over the world, it is important to examine the treatment of women in U.S. prisons. Over the years numerous reports have come out documenting abuse of women in prison. This abuse can be separated into sexual abuse and medical neglect.

Sexual Abuse

"That was not part of my sentence...to perform oral sex with the officers." -New York prisoner, Tanya Ross to NBC's Dateline

"I'm tired of being gynecologically examined every time I'm searched." -California inmate to Amnesty International

Sexual abuse is rampant in U.S. prisons. William Schulz, the executive director of Amnesty International USA, stated that "sexual abuse is virtually a fact of life for incarcerated women in the U.S." (www.amnesty.org) It can be examined in terms of powerlessness, humiliation, retaliation, and fear. According to Amnesty International, female prisoners often experience sexual abuse during routine searches. This includes rape, sexual extortion, and groping. There are often male correctional officers watching the women undressing and showering. Unfortunately, the women are often afraid to report such incidences. Not only do the guards frequently threaten to take away visitation rights to keep them quiet, but they also have complete access to each inmate's file, which includes any reports against the guards. If the guard is reported and punished, the punishment usually only consists of his transfer to another facility.

Medical Neglect

As well as rampant sexual abuse, medical neglect is common for women in U.S. prisons. Amnesty International lists a number of issues involving medical neglect. One such example if the failure to treat seriously ill inmates. This includes treatment for diseases ranging from diabetes to AIDS. Another example is the lack of qualified personnel in the prisons. This means that frequently non-medical staff is used in medical situations. One of the major repercussions of this is that there are delays in receiving treatment and frequent overmedication. Reproductive needs are another major concern. As of 1994, only half of the prisons offered services such as pap smears and mammograms. A final problem involves the lack of adequate mental services. Very few prisons provide counseling for women with pre-existing conditions and often the inmates are given medication without other treatment. www.amnesty.org

United States vs. International Standards

The standards in U.S. prisons differ greatly from those recognized internationally. Three major differences exist between the two. The first of these involves the use of male guards. Internationally, it is stated that only female guards should work with female prisoners. In the United States, however, male guards are the norm and are allowed to watch the women at all times, as well as being able to touch them during searches. The second of these deals with physical restraints. Internationally, restraints are used only when physically necessary, however, in the United States they are common. Even a woman giving birth is shackled to her bed. Both of these differences have an obvious impact on female prisoners. The third difference is that international standards denounce any sort of solitary confinement but this practice is common in U.S. prisons, including prisons for women. www.amnesty.org

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