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Washington Journal: Rights Group Sees Abuses In U.S. Prisons

  • Kevin Foley

Washington, 5 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- An international human rights monitor contends that female prison inmates in the United States routinely suffer sexual abuse -- mostly at the hands of male prison guards -- and other human rights violations.

William Schulz executive director of Amnesty International USA, said the organization came to that conclusion after investigating conditions at prisons operated by the state governments of the 50 U.S. states and the 93 institutions run by the U.S. federal government.

At a press conference in Washington on Thursday, Schulz said:

"What we have learned in the course of researching this report is devastating. Amnesty International has found that sexual abuse is virtually a fact of life for incarcerated women in the United States."

Shulz said the report also contained allegations of other human rights violations involving female prisoners. He said these included "prison guards who shackle women's legs to bedposts during labor, and medical staff who refuse to authorize treatment for life-threatening illnesses."

The report, entitled "Not Part of My Sentence: Violations of the Human Rights of Women in Custody," marked the beginning of a campaign by Amnesty International USA to protect the rights of women in prison.

The report noted a "dramatic growth," in the numbers of women in prison in the United States. The population of women in all U.S. prisons -- state and federal -- has nearly tripled since 1985 to 138,000.

According to the U.S. government's Federal Bureau of Prisons, there is a total of 115,000 inmates in the federal prison system, and about 9,200 of them are women. According to U.S. government and other statistics, the overwhelming majority of women inmates are serving jail time for drug-related offenses.

Shulz said that many Americans do not want to believe that human rights violations occur in the United States. But, he said the report by Amnesty International shows that human rights violations are "not just a foreign affair."

"The sexual abuse of women inmates is torture. Plain and simple torture. Shackling and the medical neglect of women in prison constitute cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. These human rights violations must not stand."

The Amnesty report calls for enforcement of existing state and federal laws protecting women from sexual abuse. However, the report also says 12 states have no law prohibiting sexual contact between women and their jailers.

Shulz said that only last week, the legislature in the southern state of Virginia -- a target of Amnesty's actions -- adopted a measure prohibiting custodial sexual contact in state facilities.

Shulz said the release of Amnesty International's report will be accompanied by legislative action in the 12 states without protective laws. He also said some 200 cities and towns across the U.S. will be the sites of speaking engagements, letter writing campaigns to inmates, petition drives and other public events.

In its report, Amnesty International concluded that "the climate of sexual abuse by prison guards is fueled by a lack of oversight and disciplinary action against sexual misconduct." The report said that in the U.S., 70 percent of guards in federal women's institutions are men. In Canada 91 percent of guards in women's facilities are women.

In a statement, the Federal Bureau of Prisons said the sexual abuse of inmates in U.S. custody will not be tolerated. The bureau said its prison staff is being taught how to prevent sexual misconduct and inmates are being instructed in how to report abuses. The agency said ten employees were disciplined last year and seven were prosecuted for sexual violations.

Amnesty International charged that even in states that criminalize custodial sexual contact, law enforcement is lax. It said that in the midwestern state of Michigan the U.S. Justice Department is investigating allegations of widespread abuse. Amnesty said that in the Pacific Coast state of California, numerous lawsuits have been filed alleging systematic abuse by prison authorities in the state system.