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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Federal and state laws prohibit rape and sexual assault and the policies of jail and prison authorities generally prohibit sexual conduct that is not part of the duties of staff. However, the duties of male guards include conduct that is not prohibited by law but which greatly distresses female inmates, in particular searches for contraband which require guards to touch their bodies, and guards' surveillance of them when they are undressed.

Under anti-discrimination employment laws in the USA, prisons and jails cannot refuse to employ men to supervise female inmates (or women to supervise male inmates) and in many states there are few restrictions on their duties. A 1997 survey of prisons in 40 states found that on average 41 percent of the correctional officers working with female inmates are men.(9)

The employment of men to guard women is inconsistent with international standards set out in the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. Rules 53(2) and 53(3) state that female prisoners should be attended and supervised only by female officers and that male staff, such as doctors and teachers who provide professional services in female facilities, should always be accompanied by female officers. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women has called on all countries to "fully implement the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and ensure that protective measures are guaranteed in all situations of custody."(10) Amnesty International agrees: the nature and extent of sexual abuse of female inmates by male staff in jails and prisons in the USA, and the harm that sexual abuse causes, warrants strong and immediate action by authorities to provide the protection to which incarcerated women are entitled under international standards.


Rape and other forms of sexual abuse committed against inmates by staff constitute acts of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Amnesty International recommends that all authorities responsible for jails and prisons should take the following measures to protect female inmates from sexual abuse.

  • Provide that female prisoners should be supervised only by female staff, in accordance with the Standard Minimum Rules.
  • Explicitly prohibit all forms of sexual abuse, including not only physical assault but all sexual contact between staff and inmates.
  • All inmates should be informed that they have the right not to be sexually abused and the right to complain if they are abused.
  • All complaints of sexual abuse must be investigated independently, promptly and thoroughly in line with best practice for the investigation of sexual assault.
  • Victims of sexual abuse must be provided with appropriate care and redress.
  • Inmates and staff who report abuse should be protected from retaliation.