Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Rape In Prison: The Forgotten Women

Trigger warning.

In the US the attitude when it comes to crime is lock up the prisoners and throw away the key.  The prison industrial complex has become a huge part of the US economy.  Once the bars slam on the cell few care what goes on behind the m.  It is assumed that people are there for punishment and not rehabilitation; and therefore what occurs is almost always legitimized to some degree.

Women in prison represent a very vulnerable section of society.  At the mercy of prison guards and fellow inmates, many have been subject to horrific incidents of abuse.  With terrible crimes attached to their names few will take their complaints seriously. 

According to, "A class-action lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections has already yielded verdicts reaching an estimated $50 million, when interest and fees are included. And that's only for the first 18 women. With most yet to testify, and lawyers for the state insisting they have no intention of settling, Michigan's beleaguered taxpayers could face hundreds of millions of dollars in damages."

Women in Michigan were being raped repeatedly for years and the state did nothing.  As I read the testimony of Toni Bunton , I found myself filled with a rage that was difficult to control.  No matter what crime this woman has committed in the past no one deserves to be raped.  The state is of course refusing to settle the case, because to do so would mean admitting that they are culpable in the continual rape of women.

The state had a simple defense: These women are prisoners, and prisoners lie; if something did happen, it was the act of a few rogue guards; and if something did happen, the women didn't report it. So how could the Department of Corrections prevent what it didn't know was happening? The state said it thoroughly investigated any allegations it knew about and the claims of abuse were exaggerated.

"To say the department just sat back and did nothing, just let everybody run the place is just totally false," Allan Soros, an assistant attorney general, said at the first trial.

Nonetheless, a series of human rights reports throughout the 1990s said sexual assaults on female inmates were rampant and corrections officials tolerated the climate.

It seems that because these women were/are prisoners their word was immediately suspect.  Why did the state not consider the risk that these women were making coming forth with their complaint in the first place?  Due to the power division in any prison a guard has the ability to make life extremely difficult for a woman that would dare make a rape accusation.  To even accuse a guard of rape is to place oneself in a precarious position. 

The Michigan Women's Commission reported in 1993 there was an alarming level of sexual abuse and harassment by state prison guards.

In 1995, the U.S. Department of Justice found "pervasive" sexual abuse in Michigan women's prisons.

In 1996, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting sexual harassment, sexual abuse and privacy violations by guards and other employees in Michigan prisons.

The report, based on interviews with prisoners and prison rights advocates, cited rapes by guards in a "highly sexualized and excessively hostile" environment.

Sexual abuse in prisons is not new.  Male prison guards have been known to leverage their positions of power for sexual relationships and then claim that the women involved consented.  When someone has the power over whether you eat, sleep, or even use the bathroom, how can you consent to a sexual relationship?  You have absolutely no personal power and the relationship is unbalanced.

What occurred is not a series of isolated incidents but rather a highly structured assault of women by men.  The state  decided that these women must be locked away from society; and therefore it took on the burden of ensuring that they are safe.  It is not enough to simply provide them with the basics and forget about them as though they suddenly are not human beings. 

Why were male guards allowed to watch over female prisoners?  Why did the state not closely monitor their behaviour to ensure that no abuse of power was occurring?  Why did it not heed the multiple reports that were issued detailing sexual assaults?  The answers to those questions are really quite simple.  These incidents involved women that society has decided are no longer valuable bodies.  Rape is something we believe that happens to innocent young virgins and not someone who has run afoul of the law.  These women were not considered of any worth and therefore what happened to them was deemed inconsequential.

While the case has focused on the culpability of the state I cannot help but wonder why it is that the individual men are not being held accountable.  These men are rapists and they are roaming the streets free and clear today.   Will it take the rape of a woman who is not a prisoner by one of these guards for the state to realize the danger that they represent?  Some of these men are repeat offenders and they are not being punished.  Yes the state is responsible for what occurred.  They failed to protect these women but the men who committed these rapes need to be taken off of the streets for the safety of all.

What happened in the prisons of Michigan is a shining example of what occurs the moment we decide that certain bodies are disposable and without value.  Incidents like this secure my belief in the importance of acknowledging that all bodies matter.  These women were violated and abused because we decided that a past action rendered them unrapeable.  These women were violated because patriarchy believes it exists with the right to abuse women for sport.  It is my hope that this lawsuit will help prevent other women from undergoing the same fate.  At the very minimum the state and all those involved should come to the understanding that everyone deserves to live a life free of violence.  It is hypocrisy to lock someone up for committing a violent act and then turn around do violence to them.

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