Punishing Prison Inmates
"The night a young woman hung herself in the max-unit, many others cried...She was a frightened and confused person who needed help. Instead she was locked in a room, the door shut. Put in seclusion. She was a new mother...The officers couldn't or didn't save her. They tried to run things as if nothing happened that night. Something had--a little piece of everyone died with the realization of how fragile reality is, how cruel it is to lock human beings up as if they were animals." So wrote a woman in prison in the book The World Split Open.
The last governor of Massachusetts said, "I'm of the belief that prison should be like a tour through the circles of hell." And it is. A hell that is cold and frightening, where two-thirds of women are sexually and physically assaulted and guards are promoted for their brutality. A lonely hell where the ones you love cannot be touched and holidays are all seen from behind bars. Prison is a hostile and degrading world where any assertion of self, any spark of resistance--even asking too many questions--may be disciplined by weeks of isolation in the "hole" (solitary confinement) with no human contact.
Though the United States loudly proclaims its morality and humaneness, it lags behind other countries in its treatment of prisoners. Women in the U.S. are locked up in overcrowded prisons and many are guarded by men. Sexual abuse of prisoners by guards is common. Many prisons violate international standards requiring adequate health care free of charge. In "Not Part of My Sentence: Violations of the Human Rights of Women in Custody" (March, 1999), Amnesty International reports that last year a woman in an American prison was neglected by guards until she bled to death.
Amnesty also describes an incident where a pregnant woman was not allowed to see an obstetrician during her imprisonment. Even as she complained "I'm constantly having headaches, stomach cramps, and can't sleep. I'm very scared for my baby and myself...Please help me! Help my baby!" the doctor refused to see her. All essentials for a healthy pregnancy are missing in prison: nutritious food, exercise, sanitary conditions, prenatal care. Pregnant women are sometimes shackled with waist chains that can injure the fetus and ankle chains that increase the likelihood of falling. A 1985 California Department of Health study found that one-third of all prison pregnancies end in late term miscarriage, more than twice the outside rate. Only 20 percent of prison pregnancies end with live births. The New York Times recently described a woman forced to give birth shackled to her bed with her hands cuffed together and who was unable to reach the call button to summon a nurse when she delivered her baby.
For those women who do have healthy deliveries, forced separation usually comes within 72 hours after birth. Mothers endure the pain of seeing their children taken to foster care and fear the very real possibility of permanently losing custody. Even though maintaining family ties is one of the most important factors in ensuring women are not rearrested, prisons make visits difficult with humiliating strip searches for visitors and great distances from urban areas.
We are supposed to support the billions spent on imprisoning the largest number of women in the world because prisons ensure public safety. But 70 percent of the women in prison are non-violent offenders and only a minuscule percentage are really a threat to public safety. Ninety percent have some history of substance abuse, but only one in ten prisoners gets the treatment they need. Though the recidivism rate for people who get a college education in prison is almost zero, in almost all prisons there is no education available beyond G.E.D. Meaningful job training is rare. The general attitude of women's prisons is one of infantilizing paternalism that works to further undermine women's self-esteem and independence. Instead of empowering women to lead responsible lives, women's prisons reinforce feelings of entrapment and further dependency on the welfare state and men who pass through these women's lives.
Even those who have an incredible determination to survive with their self-respect intact come out painfully scarred. With no further education or job skills, and now hindered by a criminal record, it is nearly impossible to find a job. When employers hear about a prison record, the "we're not hiring today," rejection comes quickly. There is no support for women recently released. With housing costs rising and a felony conviction barring them from public housing, many women end up in shelters, still expected to support families and they easily relapse into substance abuse and end up back in prison. As a woman recently released in Massachusetts said, "We're set up to fail, given nowhere to go. It's a big setup and they know what they're doing--it's their job, it's their paycheck." I personally heard a guard say without hesitation, "It's job security."
The rhetoric of criminals distances us from people in prison and distracts us from pressing questions like what it means to live in a society that imprisons millions of people in response to social problems. Why is it that 80 percent of the women in prison reported incomes of less than $2,000 in the year before their arrest? Why are there so few jobs that are meaningful and pay a living wage? What makes people desperate enough to use and sell drugs? Why are millions of dollars being shifted from public spending on higher education to build a new prison each week.
It seems to me that prisons, especially women's prisons are mostly a way of racially based scape-goating. Prison as punishment legitimizes an inherently destructive institution, and distracts from more practical attempts to work with communities to address their problems, especially-growing economic inequities and continuing patriarchy and white supremacy. Justin P. Steil '00 is an Afro-American studies concentrator in Adams House.