Column: Views from the Inside Outvby Robert Taliaferro
Trials of women prisoners judge society
The abusive conditions of male prisons have been documented for over 100
years, from de Tocqueville's and Dickens' travels around the country. The
harsh realities of American prisons have been rather enigmatic to those
visitors to this country who find such abusive conditions at odds with the
defining principles espoused by the U.S.
Despite those documented facts, there is at least one population
that-though the fastest growing-is generally relegated to the backburners
of discussions regarding prisoner abuse. This ignored population is women.
In many male facilities around the country, prisoners have this uninformed
opinion that women are given less time for the same-or similar-crimes as
men commit. This might be true somewhere, but nowhere is it farther from
the truth than in the U.S.
Many women who find themselves incarcerated were subjected to physical,
emotional, and spiritual abuse while they were in the community, often
perpetrated by men in their lives. Whether incarcerated for drug crimes, or
murder, one of the most consistent things that one can find in all the
women's stories are incidents of abuse. The abuse does not end when they
enter the prison gates. In fact, in many cases, it is only exacerbated by a
system that was the judge of their "criminal intent."
The irony is that this abuse is also promulgated by male guards and prison
administrations that feel they can deal with women prisoners any way that
they choose, with impunity.
Women have different needs than men when they are confined, something that
many prisons ignore, especially since those prisons were generally
constructed to house men in the first place, and were not prepared to meet
the needs of the influx of women prisoners caused by the war on drugs. Even
when those prisons are designed to house women, they generally lack in
vocational, educational, and special needs programming that one might find
in a male prison.
Women often lose what support networks they once had with regard to family
ties. As an added insult, if they are mothers prior to incarceration-or
become mothers while confined-they are burdened with the pressures of what
will happen to their children. Without any support network, they become
ripe for harassment and abuse because they are essentially powerless to
argue the point.
When society makes laws governing the conduct of citizens, it should be
expected-and demanded-that those in power should comply with the concepts
and ideas that these laws propose. If we are to live in a country that
demands the highest standards of decency from other countries who are
moving toward the espoused freedoms of democratic government, then we
should demand those high standards from and within our own government and
Prisons are a reflection of society at large. More prisons, and the abusive
conditions prevalent inside of those prisons, is a damning indictment of
any society and its government.
As you read this, a woman sits alone in a dark cell unable to view the
majesty of the Rockies just outside her wall. She sits hungry, cold, and
hurt because of refused medical care. She's in the hole because she chose
to use the courts to fight for her rights, and now fears for her life
because she refuses the advances of her keepers. Another woman has been
fondled by a man under the auspices of a "search," has been forced to
"favors" for extra food, or an aspirin, or is being shackled to a
"for security" as she's about to give birth. As you read this another
is preparing herself for the trauma of losing her child to the state.
Incidents like this indicate a growing sickness in this culture that
extends well beyond the crimes found inside its jails-a vain attempt to
defend depravity from within as moral, and just, and failing at this
Rosa Luxemburg, once imprisoned under similar conditions in Germany, talks
to her sisters across the years: "See to it that you stay human. Being
human means joyfully throwing your whole life on the scales of destiny when need
but all the while rejoicing in every sunny day and every beautiful cloud."
For maintaining one's humanity, despite the inhumanness of those around
you, is how you win.
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