asked for the doctor and worked the leg chain around so that I could lay
down again. The doctor said yes, this baby is coming right now.
Because I was shackled to the bed, they couldn't remove the lower part of the bed for the delivery. My feet were shackled together, and I couldn't get my legs apart. The doctor called for the officer, but the officer had gone down the hall. No one else could unlock the shackles, and my baby was coming but I couldn't open my legs."
If you think this is a report from a Kosovo war crimes trial, you're wrong: Maria (not her real name) was an inmate at Cook County Jail in Chicago, my hometown.
I read Maria’s statement while doing research on women in prison for one of my books . I read other reports, too, and met with women who had done time. I wasn’t expecting a world of sweetness and light. What I learned is that nightmarish childbirth accounts are just part of the story. There are also wrenching child-custody losses, lack of drug rehab and vocational programs and, most shocking of all, routine sexual abuse by prison guards.
This abuse is particularly shocking, when you consider what experts are saying these days: that the sexual abuse of women is a thread that may tie women to poverty and lead them to prison in the first place.
It’s not the only reason that some women abuse drugs, or fail to find work, or end up behind bars. But it’s a strong contributor for the 154,000 women who make up almost 10 percent of our prison population. Welfare case-workers are only starting to realize the extent of childhood sexual abuse that may lie in the background of their most intractable clients, while groups like Amnesty International are starting to see the connection between sexual abuse and what sends women to prison.
Eighty percent of these women are drug addicts. Almost all have children under the age of eighteen.
Although African-Americans make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population,
Almost sixty percent of these women are illiterate, but we won’t do literacy training while they’re in prison.
And only 31 percent are in prison for violent crimes. Half of all women inmates are in prison simply for possessing drugs. In a perverse form of the glass ceiling, women in the drug world are almost always users or small-time couriers; they rarely are dealers or major money players. Under mandatory sentencing guidelines, they could reduce or avoid prison time by turning in a bigger player. But they rarely know bigger players.
Most disturbing of all is this: At least half of the inmates will turn out to have been sexually abused as children. (Typically, they will receive no psychotherapy for this.) And nearly all of them will experience sexual abuse while they are behind bars.
According to reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other groups, male guards may verbally insult them, observe them while showering, masturbate openly in front of them, reach inside their clothes and touch their genitals, even rape them.
If the women complain they can end up in solitary confinement where they could be systematically assaulted. (A year ago in Florida, a woman hanged herself in her cell, despairing, in a note left to her mother, that no one in the prison cared about the intense sexual abuse to which she was
If a woman resists, guards sometimes write up "tickets" saying she is violent or uncooperative, which can lengthen her time in solitary and keep her from getting parole. And they can take away her privileges, including the right to see visitors.
When women finish their sentences, what will their lives be? Most will still be illiterate, few will have learned any skills, almost none will have been treated for addiction.
As for the 2200 women who give birth annually in prison, many may -- as Maria did -- lose custody of their children. Under a provision of the welfare reform law, if a woman is in prison for more than 18 months after her baby's birth, she loses her parental rights: Incarceration itself is deemed abandonment of the child.
Yet the hope of making something of themselves so they can give their kids a better life is one of the few positive motives for women behind bars.
It costs anywhere from $30,000 to $75,000 a year to keep a person behind bars. Conservatively, that's about $6 billion a year we're spending to lock up—and, apparently, abuse—these women, most of whom are non-violent offenders.
The only people who benefit from that $6 billion a year are those who live in dying towns, prison-construction and management companies and the politicians who court their dollars and their votes. That's an outrage. It's an injustice. Unfortunately, it's not a crime.