Violations of the human rights of woman in custody


There are approximately 138,000 women incarcerated in jails and prisons in the USA. This report describes violations of the internationally guaranteed human rights of women in custody. The violations include:

• rape and other sexual assault by prison officials with impunity
• shackling of pregnant prisoners, especially during labor
• seriously inadequate medical care leading to death, permanent injury, miscarriages
• confinement in isolation for prolonged periods in conditions of reduced sensory stimulation

Some more information:

• The number of US women inmates has more than tripled since 1985.
• About 40% of women in prison violated drug laws. About 25% are in prison for committing
a violent crime.
• Black women’s rate of imprisonment is more than 8 times, Hispanic women’s rate nearly 4
times that of white women.
• Around 200,000 children under the age of 18 have an incarcerated mother. 80,000 women in
US prisons and jails are parents, many are single parents.
• 1,300 babies were born to women in prison in 1997/1998 and more than 2,200 pregnant
women were incarcerated.


Annette Romo, 32, knew that her drug conviction would mean a sacrifice of four and a half years of her life behind bars in an Arizona jail. She had no idea that price would include her unborn child as well.
On the night of April 20, 1997 Annette, four months pregnant, began experience profuse vaginal bleeding. Her complaint to the guard brought only a comment that medical care was not available at that time of night. As the hours passed, despite increasingly painful bleeding and cramping, she was denied even her request for Tylenol.
By the morning shift change, dizziness from blood loss left Annette virtually immobile. The new guard also refused to allow immediate medical attention, insisting that Annette complete a written request to see medical staff. The guard later returned with questions, not action; specifically, how many pads was she using an hour? When Annette replied that she was using 15 - 20 pads every 15 minutes, the guard did not believe her.
Left alone and unable to walk, Annette tried to crawl to the bathroom but never made it. In her words, "I stood up to pull down my pants that were soaked with blood and passed out on the floor. Next thing I know I was being put on a stretcher and I was on my way to medical... I heard one of them say something about a placenta failure or losing the baby." She was rushed into surgery in critical condition, dehydrated and severely low on blood. The child was lost.

Annette’s case is not uncommon. Medically untrained staff in women’s prisons routinely make decisions determining the severity of an inmate’s complaint and whether or not they will see a doctor. Severe conditions are often left undiagnosed and untreated with disastrous results.


When Norman Little asked his niece, 17 year - old Angela Thompson, to conduct the first drug transaction of her life, she had no idea it would earn her a decade and a half behind bars in the New York prison system.
Parentless and homeless, Angela was glad for the opportunity to move into her uncle’s Harlem brownstone. She earned money by helping out in the beauty parlor and restaurant he owned, and was grateful to oblige her uncle. When he asked her to handle the sale, she did that to, unaware of the price she would have to pay.
The police had staked out Little, a major Harlem dealer, and had purchased cocaine from him on four different occasions. By police accounts, Angela, who had no prior criminal record, was present at none of those sales. But at her uncle’s direction on that one occasion she sold an agent just over two ounces of cocaine.
Although it was her first offence, Angela was sentenced to 15 years to life. Her lawyer tried unsuccessfully to impose a lesser penalty, calling 15 years cruel and unusual punishment. Norman Little, a kingpin in his own right, received the same sentence as his niece.

Angela’s excessive sentence that does not fit the crime is emblematic of tens of thousands of women, bit players in the drug game, who trapped between drug lords and the criminal justice system. It is the non - violent, first time minority offenders like Angela who are casualties in the "War on Drugs" while kingpins virtually go free.


Many women in prisons and jails in the USA are victims of sexual abuse by staff, including sexually offensive language; male staff touching inmates’ breasts and genitals when conducting searches; male staff watching inmates while they are naked; and rape.

In the overwhelming majority of complaints of sexual abuse by female inmates against staff, men are reported to be the perpetrators. Contrary to international standards, prisons and jails in the USA employ men to guard women and place relatively few restrictions on the duties of male staff. As a consequence, much of the touching and viewing of their bodies by staff that women experience as shocking and humiliating is permitted by law.

When an officer’s conduct is such that it violates institutional rules (for example prohibiting any staff - inmate sexual contact) and even criminal laws (e.g. concerning rape and sexual assault), the victim is often reluctant to complain because she may have good reason to anticipate that her accusation is less likely to persuade investigators than the denial of an officer; she may also fear retaliation.

• In federal women’s correctional facilities, 70% of the guards are male.
• Correctional officials subject female inmates to rape, other sexual assault, sexual extortion,
and groping during body searches.
• Male correctional officials watch women undressing, in the shower, on the toilet.
• Male correctional officials retaliate often brutally against female inmates who complain
about sexual assault and harassment.
• Rape of inmates is considered to be torture according to both the UN Convention against
Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the US has
• The UN Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)
includes the right not to be subjected to gender - based violence. The US has not ratified it.
• In many states guards have access to and are encouraged to review the inmates personal
history files (this includes any record of complaints against themselves or other prison
• Guards threaten the prisoner’s children and visitation rights as a means of silencing the
• Guards issue rules - infraction tickets which extend the women’s stay in prison if she speaks
• Prisoners who complain are frequently placed in administration segregation
• If a prison official is found guilty, he is often simply transferred to another facility (also
known as being "walked off the yard") instead of being fired

The imbalance of power between inmates and guards involves the use of direct physical force and indirect force based on the prisoners’ total dependency on officers for basic necessities and the guards’ ability to withhold privileges. The officer is in complete charge of a prisoner’s well - being. Some women are coerced into sex for favors or to avoid punishment. Others willingly use sex for favors and when they try to end these inappropriate relationships, suffer retaliation. To protect women inmates, sexual contact between them and male correctional officials should be criminalized and so - called consent must not be allowed as a defence.


When the audience of Boston University’s radio station WBUR tuned in to Tovia Smith’s "Here and Now" program on October 6 1998, they were surprised to be greeted by the voice of Framingham, MA prison inmate Elizabeth Bouchard crackling over the airwaves. Surprise turned to shock as Elizabeth described her treatment while under constant observation as a suicide risk, stemming from depression after losing her baby.
"I was put on eyeball status, stripped of belongings, clothing, placed in a room with nothing but a plastic mattress on the floor. Watched 24 hours a day by a man or a woman... I was very humiliated, degraded. Being on eyeball status with male officers, my depression intensified. I did not want to be violated any more than I already was, so put the mattress up against the window. When I did that I was in violation because they could not see me. The door was forced open, I was physically restrained in a four - point restraints - arms, legs spread - eagled, tied on the floor, naked, helmet on head, men and women in the room.
Elizabeth’s experience highlights the lack of adequate mental health services for female inmates. A woman in need of counselling will often go unaided as services are generally provided only for what are considered the most acute mental disorders. Heavy doses of psychotropic medication are often the standard treatment. There is no place for woman who has been massively traumatised and feels depressed or angry to talk through her traumatic memories in a therapeutic setting.
The mental well - being of female inmates is further compromised by the degrading practice of men watching them in their most private moments. From the showers, to the toilet, to suicide watch units, women are subjected to constant observation and humiliating remarks from male prison officials. A high percentage of women in prison have suffered sexual and physical abuse prior to their incarceration, a trauma exacerbated by incessant male intrusion and harassment.


In US prisons, sexual abuse against women inmates is so widespread that the violation has become an involuntary part of their sentence. Robin Lucus is a 33 year old African American who was sentenced to three years for conspiracy to commit bank fraud.
Laying on her small cot in the isolation unit in the predawn, Robin was awakened by the tug of a body beside her, yanking at her clothing and whispering roughly in her ear. She was appalled to see a male inmate, insisting that she undress because he paid for his entrance. When Robin resisted, a scuffle ensued. She struggled with the man who threw her against the metal frame of the cot, busting her head and creating a gush of blood. After seeing the bleeding woman, her assailant quickly fled the cell. A knot on Robin’s forehead today remains the visible trace of the open wound that went untreated.
With the light of day the next morning, Robin immediately demanded to see the prison commander. She filed a complaint. It seemed apparent that the male inmate had "paid" for access to her cell by the guard on duty.
Some weeks later three men entered her cell, apparently given access to the isolation unit by guards. They dragged her from the cot, punching and pulling her. One pinned her down on the floor and clamped her with handcuffs; another forced open her legs; the third penetrated her. Repeatedly she was beaten, raped and cursed. She blacked out and lost track of time. Her only memory was of the grotesque pain of being sodomized for what seemed like an eternity. In a parting shot, one of the inmates turned on his way out the door and urinated on her. For days after the assault, Robin’s body was weak and wracked with pain.
Only thirty - five days after the initial attack, she finally received a medical examination.

with impunity: ungestraft; shackle: in Ketten legen; confinement: Gefangenhalten; sacrifice: Opfer; profuse: stark; to conduct: leiten; oblige sb: jemandem einem Gefallen tun; stake out: ├╝berwachen; to have criminal record: vorbestraft sein; offence: Straftat; impose: auferlegen; kingpin: St├╝tze, Drehzapfen; overwhelming: ├╝berw├Ąltigend; perpetrator: T├Ąter; restriction: Beschr├Ąnkung; reluctant: unwillig; investigator: Ermittler; retaliation: Vergeltung; extortion: Erpressung; groping: "ausgreifen"; ratify: genehmigen; coerce: zwingen; consent: zustimmen; stem from: auf etwas zur├╝ckgehen; degraded: erniedrigt; restrain: mit Gewalt festhalten; spread - eagled: mit ausgestreckten Armen und Beinen daliegen; counselling: soziale Beratung; exacerbate: verschlimmern; incessant: unaufh├Ârlich; intrusion: St├Ârung; conspiracy: Verschw├Ârung; cot: Feldbett; tug: zerren; yanking: zerren; gush: Schwall; penetrate: eindringen in;

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