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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  • Guards who were later dismissed or disciplined were found to have sexually abused female inmates in jails and prisons in Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Maryland, New Hampshire, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming.
  • The US Justice Department initiated legal action against the states of Arizona and Michigan following investigations into state prisons that found evidence of systematic sexual abuse including sexual assault and male guards who, "without good reason," watched female inmates dressing, showering and using the toilet.
  • Prisoners and other sources reported that inmates were the victims of sexual abuse by staff at Valley State Prison for Women in California. Amnesty International delegates interviewed prisoners at the prison in November 1998 and were told that some male officers watched the women while they were dressing and undressing and, in breach of the approved procedure, touched prisoners' breasts and genitals when searching them.
  • In March 1998, the Federal Bureau of Prisons agreed to pay three women a total of $500,000 to settle a lawsuit in which they claimed that correctional staff in federal instutions in California had committed and facilitated rape and other forms of sexual abuse against them between August and November 1995. The complaint included allegations that staff allowed male inmates to enter the women's cells in exchange for money and/or other favours and intimidated the women after they complained about their treatment.

Under international law, rape of an inmate by staff is considered to be torture. Other forms of sexual abuse violate the internationally recognized prohibition on cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Rape and sexual assault violate US federal and state criminal laws. In addition, 36 states, the District of Columbia and the federal government have laws specifically prohibiting sexual relations between staff and inmates. A number of the laws prohibit staff-inmate sexual contact regardless of inmate consent, recognizing that such sexual relations cannot be truly consensual because of the power that staff have over inmates. Fourteen states do not have laws criminalizing sexual relations between staff and inmates.(7)

In 1998, proposed legislation was introduced in the US Congress which would encourage all states to criminalize sexual conduct between correctional staff and prisoners, by financially penalizing states that do not have such laws. The legislation was not considered before the Congressional term ended and thus has not been enacted. Amnesty International has been informed that similar legislation may be introduced in 1999.

Jail and prison systems have grievance systems, but inmates have told Amnesty International that victims of abuse are often reluctant to complain because they anticipate they will not be believed by investigators or because they fear retaliation by the perpetrator or other staff. Amnesty International has received reports from people in a number of states that inmates who reported abuses have been victimised.

In its investigation of reports of sexual abuse in Michigan prisons, the US Justice Department concluded that "many sexual relationships appear to be unreported due to the presently widespread fear of retaliation and vulnerability felt by these women." Subsequently, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, another international human rights organization, received reports from prisoners and other sources in Michigan that some correctional staff had threatened or harassed prisoners who had complained.(8) In November 1998 Amnesty International urged the Michigan Commissioner of Corrections to establish an inquiry into the allegations of retaliation. The Commissioner responded that departmental policy prohibits retaliation, that all allegations of misconduct are thoroughly and independently investigated and that investigations have not substantiated the assertion that there has been a pattern of abuse by staff. However, Amnesty International continued to be concerned about reports from the state and has written to the Commissioner requesting further information.