VOICES FROM THE INSIDE OUT
In search of Jill Coit
by Robert Taliaferro
When the State of Colorado decided to transfer Jill Coit to
a women's supermax facility outside of Denver, her only sin was to support the
cause of women who were getting abused in her former prison.
For several years Jill had been involved in a one-person
battle against the warden and staff of the co-ed prison in Canon City, Col.,
that questioned their treatment of weaker women in the facility. Like other
women at the facility, she was serving time for a crime, and attempted to use
the means available to her in order to seek justice.
In viewing how she and other women around her were treated,
however, she often put her personal safety and limited freedoms in jeopardy to
take up the banner for justice in support of those who could not. Her efforts
effected quite a bit of change in Canon City, but made quite a few enemies as
well. The result was her trying to reach out to the community for help, and
resulting in more abuse at the hands of Colorado authorities.
During her stay in Canon City she had been threatened
repeatedly by staff and feared for her safety due to other women working in
concert with staff who instigated incidents with her. When that did not work,
she would be harassed continuously, or spend days and weeks in a cell with a
thin blanket to ward off Colorado winters, with little light, and restricted
medical attention for problems that she had.
Family visits were often denied or restricted; her mail
arrived late, mangled, or not at all; her friends were stricken from visiting
lists and her visits or phone calls finally had to be approved by the warden of
To keep her out of court, she would have to suffer numerous
cell searches that would destroy or misplace necessary legal documents, or
specifically be designed to punish her by destroying the beautiful beadwork that
she would create as small gifts for women prisoners to give to their families
during the holidays.
FORCED TO ACT AS SLAVES
Jill Coit is an example of the plight of women prisoners in
this country. In women's facilities in Texas, women are often forced to act as
slaves to others who have the financial resources (since Texas prisoners do not
get prison wages) to share, or to get something as simple as an aspirin.
In Jill's facility, women were often forced to dance naked
for staff at the facility, to have sex, or to succumb to incidents of rape if
they did not voluntarily agree to sex. Even after investigating the
incidents--often raised by Jill--the result was generally a simple slap on the
wrist for staff, and more harassment for Jill.
Finally she was transferred to the state supermax facility, and she seems to have disappeared from the face of the planet. Friends that she has kept in contact with for years, and who have written to her diligently, find their letters being returned or disappearing as completely as Jill.
What letters do get through from her show a woman who is at
the limits of her tolerance: scared, nearly broken, afraid for her life, and her
mind. She asked one time of a friend, "Can they punish me for helping
others? Can they punish me for simply trying to help others?" In Colorado,
the answer seems to be...Yes!
As a rule of thumb, women prisoners have little external
contacts with families or friends. One of the unfortunate aspects of our society
is that a woman who commits a crime is often treated as a pariah in a fashion
that extends well beyond the treatment of men.
One of the ironies that Jill and others like her have made
so plain is that they are often in prison due to some sort of abusive
relationship with men, only to be further abused on the inside by other males
charged with enforcing the mandates of the law. This enforcement often comes in
the form of threats, and a level of treatment that can be equally as brutal--and
more often more so--than the abuse that they suffered while in the community.
ABUSE OF WOMEN PRISONERS
Women prisons with male staff are the last bastions of
society that seem to allow women to be abused, stripped of dignity, and treated
as classless beings with no rights that need to be honored.
Jill Coit, and women like her around this country and around the world, need our help. Letters and e-mails to the Department of Corrections in the State of Colorado, to the governor of Colorado, and to Colorado representatives are starting points that remind those authorities that, as we call upon the world to take the moral high road in such things, the battle begins at home.
Published by News and Letters Committees