Not A Part of Their Sentence

There are nearly 140,000 women in U.S. jails and prisons. More than half of these women are mothers some 200,000 children under 18 have incarcerated mothers. And over the past five years the incarceration rate for African American women has increased an astounding 828 percent, with most serving sentence for nonviolent offenses. As troubling as these numbers are, what is more disturbing are the stories behind these numbers - stories of real women and real families.

In a recent report, Not Part of My Sentence, Amnesty International looks at the frightening increase of incarcerated women in the U.S It looks at some of the reasons for this increase and at the conditions under which these women are forced to live and what happens to them while they are locked up. What they found does not speak well of a nation that calls itself civilized or espouses a belief in rehabilitation or fair treatment.

One of the report's findings was that the rapid rise of women incarcerated is directly attributable to some of the draconian drug taws passed in the past decade or so. "Without any fanfare, the 'war on drugs' has become a war on women," it reports. For instance, women are placed at a distinct disadvantage by "gender-neutral' federal sentencing guidelines, which do not allow the court to consider the impact of imprisonment on single mothers or the minor role that many women play in drug possession and sale crimes as a result of abusive relationships that, they are in.

One of the most shocking parts of the report focused on the sexual abuse of women prisoners. This is particularly significant when one considers that many of the women in our jails and prisons have been victims of sexual abuse before they enter prison. Amnesty International found that women all too often become victims of sexual abuse while they are in prison.

Contrary to international standards, prisons in the U.S. employ men to guard women and place few restrictions on the duties of male staff. For example, 70% of the federal prison guards are men. Women in prisons are often victims of sexually offensive language, groping during searches, male staff watching inmates while they shower and undress. In the worst cases, these women are raped. Or, in the words of a New York inmate, "That was not a part of my sentence, to ... perform oral sex with the officers.TM

Take the case of a Washington State inmate who gave birth in prison after years of imprisonment. She charged that she had been raped by a guard, who did prove to be the baby's father in DNA testing, but who was never prosecuted because he claimed it was consensual sex. Washington, like many states, has no laws criminalizing sex between inmates and guards.

Amnesty International also found that women inmates receive inadequate health care. Gynecological examinations are not routine in some systems, for example. There is little in the way of alcohol or substance abuse treatment and few mental health services provided. In addition, U.S. prisons commonly shackle women to hospital beds, even when they are in labor or are dying of cancer or other diseases.

The impact of the imprisonment of women on their families cannot be underestimated. In 1997-98, the report found that there were 1,300 babies born in U.S. prisons. In 40 states these babies are taken from their mothers almost immediately after birth. In a few 1 mothers are allowed to keep their infants from 30 days to 24 months. In California, women eligible for a special program can keep their babies with them throughout their incarceration.

And what about older children? The incarceration of single mothers is completely disruptive to the whole family, but all families suffer. Parents of incarcerated women sometimes are unwillingly thrown into the role of caretaker. Marriages suffer and often are dissolved. Children are denied visits to their mothers, who have been deemed "unfit." Children are put into the foster care system. All of these sow seeds for future problems in our communities and for social service agencies.

In one respect women and men are treated similarly by the criminal justice system. The rate of imprisonment of women of color is much higher than for European American women. African American women are eight times more likely to be incarcerated and Latinas are more than four times more likely to be incarcerated than white women.

Clearly, the treatment of women in U.S. prisons is an abuse of human rights. It is one more indication that the U.S. stands of shaky moral ground when it calls into account other nations of the world for their abuse of human rights.

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