Prisoners on #MeToo

From the March-April 2018 issue of News & Letters

The sexual abuse of women prisoners is an everyday occurrence in the U.S. and worldwide. For example, multiple Lackawanna County Prison guards in Scranton, Penn., were finally charged with sexually abusing women prisoners for decades. A New York Times article of Feb. 16, 2018, states the obvious: “The sexual abuse was common and widely known…”; the guards “created a culture of fear and coerced sex…” When sexual abuse was reported to an assistant warden, he “sent officers into [the woman’s] cell to destroy her complaints.”

WOMEN PRISONERS NEED ‘TIME’S UP’

I can only hope that the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund created by women in the #MeToo movement—which is an important step to assist mostly working-class women who may not have financial resources to formally accuse their harassers—will be available to women prisoners.

Chowchilla, Calif., is home to the world’s largest prison for women, built for 2,000 and at times housing 4,000. Over the three decades I have visited prisoners there, the majority of those convicted of violent offenses are in prison for daring to defend themselves or their children from their abusers. In prison they are forced to relive the trauma of their abuse, perpetrated now by the system and guards.

The #MeToo movement resonated with prisoners. Sexual harassment and abuse is their daily fare. One prisoner was surprised when the news of #MeToo broke. She said, “One would think that nothing like this kind of harassment could happen to women in such high positions.”

Every prisoner with whom I spoke recognized the truth of women’s accounts of their abuse. “I have been in situations like that, around nasty old men. No one ever taught us to speak up. All I knew was to try to stay away from them. It didn’t always work.” She continued: “I support #MeToo. The movement allows us to finally stand up. It takes a strong woman to do that. Hearing others’ stories makes me feel I, too, could speak.”

THE POWER OF #METOO

Another prisoner said, “#MeToo is very powerful. Sexual abuse should be recognized/acknowledged and hopefully lead to a difference in the future. Everyone has a right to say what they experienced or witnessed. We need to have respect as women. We should be able to express ourselves so we can make the right choices, choices we want to make. Every woman should be heard, Transgender or anything.

“To be able to stand up to abuse, you have to grow, to change yourself from a victim to a survivor and to a fighter. When you are able to honestly reflect on your experiences, you begin to change, to think differently about yourself and your situation.”

The prisoners’ own desire and determination to change themselves, to become who they want to be, speaks loudly to all of us, inside and out. Ongoing self-determination is what makes us human.

—Urszula Wislanka

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