USA: "Not part of my sentence": Violations of the human rights of women in custody

February 28, 1999

USA: "Not part of my sentence": Violations of the human rights of women in custody

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In November 1998 an Amnesty International delegation visited the Security Housing Unit (SHU) in Valley State Prison for Women, California where 46 women classified as a "threat to safety or security" were locked in small, concrete cells for 23-24 hours a day with no work, education or other programs. The narrow windows at the back of each cell are frosted over so there is no view of the outside. The cells have solid steel doors, cutting off contact with other inmates, with a window through which guards can view the prisoners at any time. The women take exercise (alone or in small groups) in a bare exercise yard with no equipment, surrounded by high walls. The women are placed in mechanical restraints such as handcuffs and strip searched whenever they leave their cells.

Other features of concern include:

  • The rules require that SHU inmates be "in full view" at all times and they are not allowed to cover their cell windows, even when using the toilet. Some women have complained that male guards peer at them while they are on the toilet or undressing. The constant exposure and lack of privacy has reportedly contributed to severe stress in some cases.
  • Some prisoners are assigned to the unit, or have had their stay extended, for relatively minor disciplinary infractions. For example, several women had received long, consecutive SHU terms for throwing liquid at a guard, spitting or issuing a verbal threat. Some women were serving several years in the SHU, due to accumulated disciplinary sentences.
  • Many of the women in the SHU suffer from mental disabilities and histories of abuse, depression and suicide. However, they receive no treatment for these problems apart from "drug therapy". Many of the women are reported to have deteriorated while on the unit, crying or shouting uncontrollably, banging their heads against the cell walls, or committing acts of self mutilation.