Awilda Gonzalez, a former maximum-security prisoner, knows personally that the rampant abuse of female prisoners often leads them to take drastic measures. She witnessed many mental breakdowns and suicides during her 10-year term for drug charges.
Yet perhaps her most memorable observation was when a fellow inmate was so fed up with being forced to perform oral sex for a prison guard, she had an accomplice smuggle out the semen she had spat into a perfume bottle. DNA tests conducted on the sperm sample incriminated her abuser.
"By the time we get out of jail, what is left of our being?" asked Gonzalez, in reference to the dehumanizing treatment of female prisoners. "We leave it in that jail cell."
A recent report issued by human rights group Amnesty International has documented the extreme degree of mistreatment, sexually and otherwise, suffered by the growing population of incarcerated American women at the hands of prison authorities. In its three-year study, Amnesty found more than 1,000 cases of sexual abuse, and the researchers speculated that hundreds more cases were unreported due to fear of reprisal.
While prison authorities often dismiss sexual abuse against women prisoners as involving "just a few bad apples," William Schultz, Amnesty's U.S. executive director, calls it a "major systemic problem."
"The results of our study are profoundly distressing and should serve as a wake-up call to anyone who thinks that women are not tortured or mistreated in this country," said Schultz. There was no immediate response from the Justice Department to the Amnesty International report.
This latest report, and other previous studies documenting abuse of female prisoners, has spurred Amnesty to launch a campaign targeted at the Western world. America is one of a handful of countries the world over that allows unaccompanied male contact -- and in many cases constant physical proximity -- with female prisoners. While Canada too permits men to guard women, the practice is the exception, not the rule: Their female prisons are staffed by 90 percent women, versus 45 percent in the United States, according to the National Corrections Information Center; this despite the fact that the United States has ratified several international decrees (such as the International Convention Against Torture) that prohibit male presence in women's jails.
While these treaties also outlaw degrading treatment of women, such as strip searches by officers of the opposite sex, Gonzalez and other ex-prisoners who gathered at a recent Critical Resistance East conference at Columbia University experienced another reality.
"To walk into the prison system is to be humiliated," she said. "Male guards make you take your clothes off, spread your butt cheeks, and lift your breasts. ... While some officers really care, others treat us as meat and see us as savages."
Many of the approximately 3,000 activists, former prisoners, and service providers that gathered for the Critical Resistance conference echoed Gonzalez's views. Another member of the conference, Mary Barr, was raped three times while in prison. Despite confiding in other staff at the prison, no motions to charge her abusers were ever made. Barr, like Gonzalez, is now educating others about the horrors of prison life for women and men.
Over 140,000 women are imprisoned in America jails and prisons. Although a mere fraction of the population of incarcerated men (around 8 percent), the number of women entering prison from 1980 to 1998 rose by 516 percent, a pace doubling the rate for men.
Racial ratios are also lopsided: 52 percent of these prisoners are African-American women, who only constitute 14 percent of the total U.S. population. Latinas and other women of color make up another rapidly rising group.
"It's not accidental that the country that has the largest women prisoner population, wouldn't do anything to address civil rights violations in its own country," said Diana Block of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. Formed in 1995, the activist group works in the state boasting the largest women's prisons in the world.
"The United States is creating concentration camps of women who overwhelmingly are nonviolent offenders," continued Block. The majority of women in prison are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, predominantly involving drugs, according to the Congressional General Accounting Office.
Whether it's inaccessible health care, sexual misconduct, or demeaning speech and voyeurism, "the treatment of convicts is going beyond denying women their liberty," said Mary Carter of the College Community Fellowship, which links female ex-offenders with mentors. "It is a moral crime against humanity."
For more information about Critical Resistance, visit www.criticalresistance.org; for the Amnesty report, see www.amnestyusa.org.