Como Gênero Estrutura o Sistema Prisional por Angela Davis

capítulo pertencente ao livro "Prisons are obsolete" de Angela Davis.

How Gender Structures the Prison System

“I have been told that I will never leave prison if I contin­ue to fight the system. My answer is that one must be alive in order to leave prison, and our current standard of medical care is tantamount to a death sentence.
Therefore, I have no choice but to continue . . . Conditions within the institution continually reinvoke memories of violence and oppression, often with devastating results. Unlike other incarcerated women who have come forward
to reveal their impressions of prison, I do not feel ‘safer’ here because ‘the abuse has stopped.’ It has not stopped. It has shifted shape and paced itself differently, but it is as insidious and pervasive in prison as ever it was in the world I know outside these walls. What has ceased is my
ignorance of the facts concerning abuse-and my willing­ness to tolerate it in silence.”
- Marcia Bunny 72

Over the last five years, the prison system has received far more attention by the media than at any time since the peri­od following the 1971 Attica Rebellion. However, with a few important exceptions, women have been left out of the pub­lic discussions about the expansion of the u.s. prison sys­tem. I am not suggesting that simply bringing women into the existing conversations on jails and prisons will deepen our analysis of state punishment and further the project of prison abolition. Addressing issues that are specific to women’s prisons is of vital importance, but it is equally important to shift the way we think about the prison system as a whole. Certainly women’s prison practices are gendered,
but so, too, are men’s prison practices. To assume that men’s institutions constitute the norm and women’s institutions are marginal is, in a sense, to participate in the very nor­malization of prisons that an abolitionist approach seeks to contest. Thus, the title of this chapter is not "Women and the Prison System, " but rather “How Gender Structures the Prison System.” Moreover, scholars and activists who are involved in feminist projects should not consider the struc­ture of state punishment as marginal to their work. Forward­ looking research and organizing strategies should recognize that the deeply gendered character of punishment both reflects and further entrenches the gendered structure of the larger society.

Women prisoners have produced a small but impressive body of literature that has illuminated significant aspects of the organization of punishment that would have otherwise remained unacknowledged. Assata Shakur’s memoirs 73, for
example, reveal the dangerous intersections of racism, male domination, and state strategies of political repression. In 1977 she was convicted on charges of murder and assault in connection with a 1973 incident that left one New Jersey state trooper dead and another wounded. She and her com­panion, Zayd Shakur, who was killed during the shootout, were the targets of what we now name racial profiling and were stopped by state troopers under the pretext of a broken taillight. At the time Assata Shakur, known then as Joanne Chesimard, was underground and had been anointed by the police and the media as the “Soul of the Black Liberation Army.” By her 1977 conviction, she either had been acquitted
or had charges dismissed in six other cases-upon the basis of which she had been declared a fugitive in the first place. Her attorney, Lennox Hinds, has pointed out that since it was proven that Assata Shakur did not handle the gun with which
the state troopers were shot, her mere presence in the auto­mobile, against the backdrop of the media demonization to which she was subjected, constituted the basis of her convic­tion. In the foreword to Shakur’s autobiography Hinds writes:

“In the history of New Jersey, no woman pretrial detainee or prisoner has ever been treated as she was, continuously confined in a men’s prison,
under twenty-four-hour surveillance of her most intimate functions, without intellectual suste­nance, adequate medical attention, and exercise, and without the company of other women for all the years she was in their custody 74

There is no doubt that Assata Shakur’s status as a black political prisoner accused of killing a state trooper caused her to be singled out by the authorities for unusually cruel treatment. However, her own account emphasizes the extent to which her individual experiences reflected those of other imprisoned women, especially black and Puerto Rican women. Her description of the strip search, which focuses on the internal examination of body cavities, is especially

“Joan Bird and Afeni Shakur members of the Black Panther Party had told me about it after they had been bailed out in the Panther 21 trial. When they
had told me, I was horrified.

- You mean they really put their hands inside you, to search you?" I had asked.
- Uh-huh – they answered. Every woman who has ever been on the rock, or in the old house of detention, can tell you about it. The women call it "getting the finger, more vulgarly, “getting finger-fucked.”
- What happens if you refuse?" I had asked Afeni.
- They lock you in the hole and they don’t let you out until you consent to be searched internally.-
I thought about refusing, but I sure as hell didn’t want to be in the hole. I had had enough of solitary.
The “internal search” was as humiliating and dis­gusting as it sounded. You sit on the edge of this table and the nurse holds your legs open and sticks
a finger in your vagina and moves it around. She has a plastic glove on. Some of them try to put one fin­ger in your and another one up your rectum at the same time.75

I have quoted this passage so extensively because it exposes an everyday routine in women’s prisons that verges on sexual assault as much as it is taken for granted. Having been imprisoned in the Women’s House of Detention to
which Joan Bird and Afeni Shakur refer, I can personally affirm the veracity of their claims. Over thirty years after Bird and Afeni Shakur were released and after I myself spent several months in the Women’s House of Detention, this issue of the strip search is still very much on the front burn­er of women’s prison activism. In 2001 Sisters Inside, an Australian support organization for women prisoners, launched a national campaign against the strip search, the slogan of which was “Stop State Sexual Assault” Assata Shakur’s autobiography provides an abundance of insights about the gendering of state punishment and reveals the extent to which women’s prisons have held on to oppressive patriarchal practices that are considered obsolete in the “free
world.” She spent six years in several jails and prisons before escaping in 1979 and receiving political asylum by the Republic of Cuba in 1984, where she lives today.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn wrote an earlier account of life in a women1s prison, The Alderson Story: My as a Political Prisoner. 76 At the height of the McCarthy era, Flyml, a labor activist and Communist leader, was convicted under the
Smith Act and served two years in Alderson Federal Reformatory for Women from 1955 to 1957. Following the dominant model for women’s prisons during that period, Alderson’s regimes were based on the assumption that
" criminal" women could be rehabilitated by assimilating correct womanly behaviors – that is, by becoming experts in domesticity-especially cooking, cleaning, and sewing. Of course, training designed to produce better wives and moth­ers among middle-class white women effectively produced skilled domestic servants among black and poor women.
Flynn’s book provides vivid descriptions of these everyday regimes. Her autobiography is located in a tradition of prison writing by political prisoners that also includes women of this era. Contemporary writings by women political prison­ers today include poems and short stories by Ericka Huggins and Susan Rosenberg, analyses of the prison industrial com­plex by Linda Evans, and curricula for HIV/AIDS education in women’s prisons by Kathy Boudin and the members of the Bedford Hills ACE collective. 77

Despite the availability of perceptive portrayals of life in women’s prisons, it has been extremely difficult to persuade the public – and even, on occasion, to persuade prison activists who are primarily concerned with the plight of
male prisoners – of the centrality of gender to an under­standing of state punishment. Although men constitute the vast majority of prisoners in the world, important aspects of the operation of state punishment are missed if it is assumed
that women are marginal and thus undeserving of attention. The most frequent justification for the inattention to women prisoners and to the particular issues surrounding women’s imprisonment is the relatively small proportion of women among incarcerated populations throughout the world. In most countries, the percentage of women among prison populations hovers around five percent. However, the economic and political shifts of the 1980’s – the global­ization of economic markets, the deindustrialization of the
U.S. economy, the dismantling of such social service pro­grams as Aid to Families of Dependent Children, and, of course, the prison construction boom – produced a signifi­cant acceleration in the rate of women’s imprisonment both
inside and outside the United States. In fact, women remain today the fastest-growing sector of the U.S. prison popula­tion. This recent rise in the rate of women’s imprisonment points directly to the economic context that produced the prison industrial complex and that has had a devastating
impact on men and women alike.

It is from this perspective of the contemporary expansion of prisons, both in the United States and throughout the world, that we should examine some of the historical and ideological aspects of state punishment imposed on women.
Since the end of the eighteenth century, when, as we have seen, imprisonment began to emerge as the dominant form of punishment, convicted women have been represented as essentially different from their male counterparts. It is true
that men who commit the kinds of transgressions that are regarded as punishable by the state are labeled as social deviants. Nevertheless, masculine criminality has always been deemed more “normal” than feminine criminality.
There has always been a tendency to regard those women who have been publicly punished by the state for their mis­behaviors as significantly more aberrant and far more threat­ening to society than their numerous male counterparts.
In seeking to understand this gendered difference in the perception of prisoners, it should be kept in mind that as the prison emerged and evolved as the major form of public pun­ishment, women continued to be routinely subjected to
forms of punishment that have not been acknowledged as such. For example, women have been incarcerated in psy­chiatric institutions in greater proportions than in prisons. Studies indicating that women have been even more likely
to end up in mental facilities than men suggest that while jails and prisons have been dominant institutions for the control of men, mental institutions have served a similar purpose for women. That deviant men have been con­structed as criminal, while deviant women have been con­structed as insane. Regimes that reflect this assumption continue to inform the women’s prison. Psychiatric drugs continue to be distributed far more extensively to impris­oned women than to their male counterparts. A Native
American woman incarcerated in the Women’s Correctional Center in Montana related her with psychotrop­ic drugs to sociologist Luana Ross:

“Haldol is a drug they who can’t cope with lockup. It makes you feel dead, paralyzed. And then I started getting side effects from Haldol. Iwanted to fight anybody, any of the officers. I was screaming at them and telling them to get out of my face, so the doctor said, “We can’t have that.” And, they put me on Tranxene. I don’t take pills; I never had trouble sleeping until I got here. Now I’m supposed to see the counselor again because of my
dreams. If you got a problem, they’re not going to take care of it. They’re going to put you on drugs so they can control you. 80

Prior to the emergence of the penitentiary and thus of the notion of punishment as "doing time, " the use of confine­ment to control beggars, thieves, and the insane did not nec­essarily distinguish among these categories of deviancy. At
this phase in the history of punishment -prior to the American and French Revolutions – the classification process through which criminality is differentiated from poverty and mental illness had not yet developed. As the discourse on criminality and the corresponding institutions to control it distinguished the “criminal” from the “insane”, the gendered distinction took hold and continued to struc­ture penal policies. Gendered as female, this category of insanity was highly sexualized. When we consider the
impact of class and race we can say that for white and affluent women, this equalization tends to serve as evidence for emotional and mental but for black and poor women, it has pointed to criminality.

It should also be kept in mind that until the abolition of slavery, the vast majority of black women were subject to regimes of punishment that differed significantly from those experienced by white women. As slaves, they were directly
and often brutally disciplined for conduct considered per­fectly normal in a context of freedom. Slave punishment was visibly gendered – special penalties, were, for example, reserved for pregnant women unable to reach the quotas that determined how long and how fast they should work. In the slave narrative of Moses Grandy, an especially brutal form of whipping is described in which the woman was required to lie on the ground with her stomach positioned in a hole, whose purpose was to safeguard the fetus (conceived as future slave labor). If we expand our definition of punishment under slavery, we can say that the coerced sexual rela­tions between slave and master constituted a penalty exact­ed on women, if only for the sale reason that they were
slaves. In other words, the deviance of the slave master was transferred to the slave woman, whom he victimized.
Likewise, sexual abuse by prison guards is translated into hypersexuality of women prisoners. The notion that female “deviance” always has a sexual dimension persists in the contemporary era, and this intersection of criminality and sexuality continues to be racialized. Thus, white women
labeled as " criminals" are more closely associated with blackness than their “normal” counterparts.
Prior to the emergence of the prison as the major form of public punishment, it was taken for granted that violators of the law would be subjected to corporal and frequently capital penalties. What is not generally recognized is the connection between state-inflicted corporal punishment and the physi­cal assaults on women in domestic spaces. This form of bod­ily discipline has continued to be routinely meted out to women in the context of intimate relationships, but it is rarely understood to be related to state punishment.

Quaker reformers in the United States – especially the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, founded in 1787 – played a pivotal role in campaigns to substitute imprisonment for corporal punishment.
Following in the tradition established by Elizabeth Fry in England, Quakers were also responsible for extended crusades to institute separate prisons for women. Given the practice of incarcerating criminalized women in men’s prisons, the demand for separate women’s prisons was viewed as quite radical during this period. Fry formulated principles govern prison reform for women in her 1827 work, Observations in Visiting, Superintendence and Government of Female Prisoners , which were taken up in the United States by women such as Josephine Shaw Lowell and Abby Hopper Gibbons. In the 1870’s, Lowell and Gibbons helped to lead the campaign in New York for separate prisons for women.
Prevailing attitudes toward women convicts differed from those toward men convicts, who were assumed to have forfeited rights and liberties that women generally could not claim even in the “free world.” Although some women were
housed in penitentiaries, the institution itself was gendered as male, for by and large no particular arrangements were made to accommodate sentenced women.
The women who served in penal institutions between 1820 and 1870 were not subject to the prison reform experienced by male inmates. Officials employed isolation, silence, and hard labor to rehabilitate male prisoners. The lack of accom­modations for female inmates made isolation and silence impossible for them and productive labor was not considered an important part of their rou­tine. The neglect of female prisoners, however, was rarely benevolent. Rather, a pattern of overcrowd­ing, harsh treatment, and sexual abuse recurred throughout prison histories.

Male punishment was linked ideologically to penitence and reform. The very forfeiture of rights and liberties implied that with self-reflection, religious study, and work, male con­victs could achieve redemption and could recover these rights and liberties. However, since women were not acknowledged as securely in possession of these rights, they were not eligible to participate in this process of redemption.
According to dominant views, women convicts were irrevocably fallen women, with no possibility of salvation. If male criminals were considered to be public individuals who had simply violated the social contract, female criminals
were seen as having transgressed fundamental moral princi­ples of womanhood. The reformers who, following Elizabeth Fry, argued that women were capable of redemption, did not really contest these ideological assumptions about women’s
place. In other words, they did not question the very notion of “fallen women.” Rather, they simply opposed the idea that “fallen women” could not be saved. They could be saved, the reformers contended, and toward that end they advocated separate penal facilities and a specifically female approach to
punishment. Their approach called for architectural models that replaced cells with cottages and “rooms” in a way that was supposed to infuse domesticity into prison life. This model facilitated a regime devised to reintegrate criminalized women into the domestic life of wife and mother. They did not, however, acknowledge the class and race underpinnings of this regime. Training that was, on the surface, designed to produce good wives and mothers in effect steered poor women (and especially black women) into “free world” jobs in domestic service. Instead of stay-at-home skilled wives and mothers, many women prisoners, upon would become maids, cooks, and washerwomen for more affluent women. A female custodial staff, the reformers also argued,
would minimize the sexual temptations, which they believed were often at the root of female criminality.

When the reform movement calling for separate prisons for women emerged in England and the United States during the nineteenth century, Elizabeth Fry, Josephine Shaw, and other advocates argued against the established idea that
criminal women were beyond the reach of moral rehabilita­tion. Like male convicts, who presumably could be “cor­rected” by rigorous prison regimes, female convicts, they suggested, could also be molded into moral beings by differently gendered imprisonment regimes. Architectural changes, domestic regimes, and an all-female custodial staff were implemented in the reformatory program proposed by reformers, 82 and eventually women’s prisons became as
strongly anchored to the social landscape as men’s prisons, but even more invisible. Their greater invisibility was as much a reflection of the way women’s domestic duties under patriarchy were assumed to be normal, natural, and consequently invisible as it was of the relatively small num­bers of women incarcerated in these new institutions.

Twenty-one years after the first English reformatory for women was established in London in 1 853, the first U.S. reformatory for women was opened in Indiana. The aim was to

“train the prisoners in the “important” female role of domesticity. Thus an important role of the reform movement in women’s prisons was to encourage and ingrain “appropriate” gender roles,
such as vocational training in cooking, sewing and cleaning. To accommodate these goals, the refor­matory cottages were usually designed with kitchens, living rooms, and even some nurseries for prisoners with infants." 83

However, this feminized public punishment did not affect all women in the same way. When black and Native American women were imprisoned in reformatories, they often were segregated from white women. Moreover, they tended to be disproportionately sentenced to men’s prisons. In the southern states in the aftermath of the Civil War, black women endured the cruelties of the convict lease sys­tem unmitigated by the feminization of punishment neither their sentences nor the labor they were compelled to do were lessened by virtue of their gender. As the U.S. prison system evolved during the twentieth century, feminized modes of punishment the cottage systemJ domestic training, and so
on-were designed ideologically to reform white women, rel­
egating women of color in large part to realms of public pun­
ishment that made no pretense of offering them femininity.
MoreoverJ as Lucia Zedner has pointed outJ sentencing
practices for women within the reformatory system often
required women of all racial backgrounds to do more time
than men for similar offenses. “This differential was justi­
fied on the basis that women were sent to reformatories not
to be punished in proportion to the seriousness of their
offense but to be reformed and retrained, a process that, it
was argued, required time.”84 At the same time, Zedner
points out, this tendency to send women to prison for longer
terms than men was accelerated by the eugenics movement,
“which sought to have ‘genetically inferior’ women
removed from social circulation for as many of their child­
bearing years as possible. "BS
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, women’s
prisons have begun to look more like their male counter­
partsJ particularly facilities constructed in the contemporary
era of the prison industrial complex. As corporate involve­
ment in punishment expands in ways that would have been
72 1 Angela Y. Davis
unimaginable just two decades ago, the prison
s presumed
goal of rehabilitation has been thoroughly displaced by inca­
pacitation as the major objective of imprisonment. As I have
already pointed out, now that the population of U.S. prisons
and jails has surpassed two million people, the rate of
increase in the numbers of women prisoners has exceeded
that of men. As criminologist Elliot Currie has pointed out,
For most of the period after World War II, the
female incarceration rate hovered at around 8 per
1 00,OOOi it did not reach double digits until 1977.
Today it is 5 1 per 1 00,000 . . . At the current rates
of there will be more women in American
prisons in the year 201 0 than there were inmates of
both sexes in 1 970. When we combine the effects of
race and gender, the nature of these shifts in the
prison population is even clearer. The prison incar­
ceration rate for black women today exceeds that
for white men as recently as 1 980.86
Luana Ross’s study of Native American women incarcer­
ated in the Women’s Correctional Center in Montana argues
that "prisons, as employed by the Euro-American system,
operate to keep Native Americans in a colonial situation.1I87
She points out that Native people are vastly overrepresented
in the country’s federal and state prisons. In Montana, where
she did her research, they constitute 6 percent of the gener­
al population, but 1 7.3 percent of the imprisoned popula­
tion. Native women are even more disproportionately pres­
ent in Montana’s prison system. constitute 25 percent
of all women imprisoned by the state.B8
Thirty years ago, around the time of the Attica uprising
and the murder of George Jackson at San QuentinJ
A R E P R I SONS OBSOLETE? 1 73 opposition to the prison system identified it as a principal
site of state violence and repression. In part as a reaction to
the invisibility of women prisoners in this movement and in
part as a consequence of the rising women’s liberation
movement, specific campaigns developed in defense of the
rights of women prisoners. Many of these campaigns put
forth-and continue to advance-radical critiques of state
repression and violence. Within the correctional communi­
ty, however, feminism has been influenced largely by liber­
al constructions of gender equality.
In contrast to the nineteenth-century reform movement,
which was grounded in an ideology of gender difference,
late-twentieth-century “reforms” have relied on a “separate
but equal” model. This “separate but equal” approach often
has been applied uncritically, ironically resulting in
demands for more repressive conditions in order to render
women’s facilities " equal" to men’s. A clear example of this
can be discovered in a memoir, The Warden Wore Pink,
written by a former warden of Huron Valley Women’s Prison
in Michigan. During the 1 980s, the author, Tekla Miller,
advocated a change in policies within the Michigan correc­
tional system that would result in women prisoners being
treated the same as men prisoners. With no trace of irony,
she characterizes as “feminist” her own fight for “gender
equality” between male and female prisoners and for equal­
ity between male and female institutions of incarceration.
One of these campaigns focuses on the unequal allocation of
weapons, which she sought to remedy:
Arsenals in men’s prisons are large rooms with
shelves of shotguns, rifles, hand guns, ammunition,
gas canisters, and riot equipment . . . Huron Valley
Women’s arsenal was a small, five feet by two feet
74 1 Angela Y. Davis
closet that held two rifles, eight shotguns, two bull­
horns, five handguns, four gas canisters, and twen­
ty sets of restraints.89
It does not occur to her that a more productive version of
feminism would also question the organization of state pun­
ishment for men as well and, in my opinion, would serious­
ly consider the proposition that the institution as a whole­
gendered as it is-calls for the kind of critique that might
lead us to consider its abolition.
Miller also describes the case of an attempted escape by a
woman prisoner. The prisoner climbed over the razor ribbon
but was captured after she jumped to the ground on the
other side. This escape attempt occasioned a debate about
the disparate treatment of men and women escapees.
Miller’s position was that guards should be instructed to
shoot at women just as they were instructed to shoot at
men. She argued that parity for women and men prisoners
should consist in their equal right to be fired upon by guards.
The outcome of the debate, Miller observed, was that
escaping women prisoners in medium or higher
security prisons are treated the same way as men.
A warning shot is fired. If the prisoner fails to halt
and is over the fence, an officer is allowed to shoot
to injure. If the officer’s life is in danger, the officer
can shoot to kill.9o
Paradoxically, demands for parity with men’s prisons,
instead of creating greater educational, vocational, and
health opportunities for women prisoners, often have led to
more repressive conditions for women. This is not only a
consequence of deploying liberal-that is, formalisticA R E P R I S O N S OBSOLETE? 1 75 notions of equality, but of, more dangerous, allowing male
prisons to function as the punishment norm. Miller points
out that she attempted to prevent a female prisoner, whom
she characterizes as a “murderer” serving a long term, from
participating in graduation ceremonies at the University of
Michigan because male murderers were not given such priv­
ileges. (Of course, she does not indicate the nature of the
woman’s murder charges-whether, for instance, she was
convicted of killing an abusive partner, as is the case for a
substantial number of women convicted of murder. )
Although Miller did not succeed in preventing the inmate
from participating in the commencement, in addition to her
cap and gown, the prisoner was made to wear leg chains and
handcuffs during the ceremony.91 This is indeed a bizarre
example of feminist demands for equality within the prison
A widely publicized example of the use of repressive para­
phernalia historically associated with the treatment of male
prisoners to create “equality” for female prisoners was the
1996 decision by Alabama’s prison commissioner to estab­
lish women’s chain gangs. After Alabama became the first
state to reinstitute chain gangs in 1995, then State
Corrections Commissioner Ron Jones announced the fol­
lowing year that women would be shackled while they cut
grass, picked up trash, or worked a vegetable garden at Julia
Tutwiler State Prison for Women. This attempt to institute
chain gangs for women was in part a response to lawsuits by
male prisoners, who charged that male chain gains discrim­
inated against men by virtue of their gender.92 However,
immediately after Jones’s announcement, Governor Fob
James, who obviously was pressured to prevent Alabama
from acquiring the dubious distinction of being the only
U.S. state to have equal
opportunity chain gangs, fired him.
76 I Angela Y. Davis
Shortly after Alabama’s embarrassing flirtation with the
possibility of chain gangs for women, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of
Maricopo County, Arizona-represented in the media as
“the toughest sheriff in America”-held a press conference
to announce that because he was “an equal opportunity
incarcerator,” he was establishing the country’s first female
chain gang.93 When the plan was implemented, newspapers
throughout the country carried a photograph of chained
women cleaning Phoenix’s streets. Even though this may
have been a publicity stunt designed to bolster the fame of
Sheriff Arpaio, the fact that this women’s chain gang
emerged against the backdrop of a generalized increase in
the repression inflicted on women prisoners is certainly
cause for alarm. Women’s prisons throughout the country
increasingly include sections known as security housing
units. The regimes of solitary confinement and sensory dep­
rivation in the security housing unit (SHU) in these sections
within women’s prisons are smaller versions of the rapidly
proliferating super-maximum security prisons. Since the
population of women in prison now consists of a majority of
women of color, the historical resonances of slavery, colo­
nization, and genocide should not be missed in these images
of women in chains and shackles.
As the level of repression in women’s prisons increases,
and, paradoxically, as the influence of domestic prison
regimes recedes, sexual abuse-which, like domestic vio­
lence, is yet another dimension of the privatized punish­
ment of women-has become an institutionalized compo­
nent of punishment behind prison walls. Although guard­
on-prisoner sexual abuse is not sanctioned as such, the wide­
spread leniency with which offending officers are treated
suggests that for women, prison is a space in which the
threat of sexualized violence that looms in the larger socieA R E PRISONS OBSOLETE? I 77 ty is effectively sanctioned as a routine aspect of the land­
scape of punishment behind prison walls.
According to a 1 996 Human Rights Watch report on the
sexual abuse of women in U.S. prisons:
Our findings indicate that being a woman prisoner
in U.S. state prisons can be a terrifying experience.
If you are sexually abused, you cannot escape from
your abuser. Grievance or investigatory procedures,
where they exist, are often ineffcctual, and correc­
tional employees continue to engage in abuse
because they believe they will rarely be held
accountable, administratively or criminally. Few
people outside the prison walls know what is going
on or care if they do know. Fewer still do anything
to address the problem.94
The following excerpt from the summary of this report,
entitled All Too Familiar: Sexual Abuse of Women in U.S.
State Prisons, reveals the extent to which women’s prison
environments are violently sexualized, thus recapitulating
the familiar violence that characterizes many women’s pri­
vate lives:
We found that male correctional employees have
vaginally, anally, and orally raped female prisoners
and sexually assaulted and abused them. We found
that in the course of committing such gross mis­
conduct, male officers have not only used actual or
threatened physical force, but have also used their
near total authority to provide or deny goods and
privileges to female prisoners to compel them to
have sex or, in other cases, to reward them for hav-
78 I Angela Y. Davis
done so. In other cases, male officers have vio­
lated their most basic professional duty and
engaged in sexual contact with female prisoners
absent the use of threat of force or any material
exchange. In addition to engaging in sexual rela­
tions with prisoners, male officers have used
mandatory pat-frisks or room searches to grope
women’s breasts, buttocks, and vaginal areas and to
view them inappropriately while in a state of
undress in the housing or bathroom areas. Male cor­
rectional officers and staff have also engaged in reg­
ular verbal degradation and harassment of female
prisoners, thus contributing to a custodial environ­
ment in the state prisons for women that is often
highly sexualized and excessively hostile.95
The violent sexualization of prison life within women’s
institutions raises a number of issues that may help us
develop further our critique of the prison system. Ideologies
of sexuality-and particularly the intersection of race and
sexuality-have had a profound effect on the representations
of and treatment received by women of color both within
and outside prison. Of course, black and Latino men experi­
ence a perilous continuity in the way they are treated in
school, where they are disciplined as potential criminals; in
the streets, where they are subjected to racial profiling by
the police; and in prison, where they are warehoused and
deprived of virtually all of their rights. For women, the con­
tinuity of treatment from the free world to the universe of
the prison is even more complicated, since they also con­
front forms of violence in prison that they have confronted
in their homes and intimate relationships.
The criminalization of black and Latina women includes
ARE P R I S O N S OBSOLETE? I 79 persisting images of hypersexuality that serve to justify sex­
ual assaults against them bath in and outside of prison. Such
images were vividly rendered in a Nightline television series
filmed in November 1 999 an location at California’s Valley
State Prison for Women. Many of the women interviewed by
Ted Kappel complained that they received frequent and
unnecessary pelvic examinations, including when they vis­
ited the doctor with such routine illnesses as colds. In an
attempt to justify these examinations, the chief medical offi­
cer explained that women prisoners had rare opportunities
for “male contact,” and that they therefore welcomed these
superfluous gynecological exan1S. Although this officer was
eventually removed from his position as a result of these
comments, his reassignment did little to alter the pervasive
vulnerability of imprisoned women to sexual abuse.
Studies an female prisons throughout the world indicate
that sexual abuse is an abiding, though unacknowledged,
form of punishment to which women, who have the mis­
fortune of being sent to prison, are subjected. This is one
aspect of life in prison that women can expect to
encounter, either directly or indirectly, regardless of the
written policies that govern the institution. In June 1 998,
Radhika Coomaraswamy, the United Nations Special
Rapporteur for Violence Against Women, visited federal
and state prisons as well as Immigration and
Naturalization detention facilities in New York,
Connecticut, New Jersey, Minnesota, Georgia, and
California. She was refused permission to visit women’s
prisons in Michigan, where serious allegations of sexual
ahuse were pending. In the aftermath of her visits,
Coomaraswamy announced that I I sexual misconduct by
prison staff is widespread in American women’s prisons."96
This clandestine institutionalization of sexual abuse vio-
80 I Angela Y. Davis
lates one of the guiding principles of the United Nations’
Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, a
UN instrument first adopted in 1955 and used as a guideline
by many governments to achieve what is known as “good
prison practice.” However, the U.S. government has done
little to publicize these rules and it is probably the case that
mast correctional personnel have never heard of these UN
standards. According to the Standard Minimum Rules,
Imprisonment and other measures which result in
cutting off an offender from the outside world are
afflictive by the very fact of taking from the person
the right of self-determination hy depriving him of
his liberty. Therefore the prison system shall not,
except as incidental to justifiable segregation or the
maintenance of discipline, aggravate the suffering
inherent in such a situation?7
Sexual abuse is surreptitiously incorporated into one of
the mast habitual aspects of women’s imprisonment, the
strip search. As activists and prisoners themselves have
painted out, the state itself is directly implicated in this rou­
tinization of sexual abuse, bath in permitting such condi­
tions that render women vulnerable to explicit sexual coer­
cion carried aut by guards and other prison staff and by
incorporating into routine policy such practices as the strip
search and body cavity search.
Australian lawyer/activist Amanda George has pointed
out that
[t]he acknowledgement that sexual assault does
occur in institutions for people with intellectual
disabilities, prisons, psychiatric hospitals, youth
A R E PRISONS OBSOLETE? \ 81 training centres and police stations, usually centres
around the criminal acts of rape and sexual assault
by individuals employed in those institutions.
These offences, though they are rarely reported, are
clearly understood as being “crimes” for which the
individual and not the state is responsible. At the
same time as the state deplores " unlawful" sexual
assaults by its employees, it actually uses sexual
assault as a means of control.
In Victoria, prison and police officers are vested
with the power and responsibility to do acts which,
if done outside of work hours, would be erimes of
sexual assault. If a person does not Ii consent" to
being stripped naked by these officers, force can
lawfully be used to do it . . . These legal strip search­
es are, in the author’s view, sexual assaults within
the definition of indecent assault in the Crimes Act
1 958 (Vic) as amended in section 39.98
At a November 2001 conference on women in prison held
by the Brisbane-based organization Sisters Inside, Amanda
George described an action performed before a national gath­
ering of correctional personnel working in women’s prisons.
Several women seized control of the stage and, some playing
guards, others playing the roles of prisoners, dramatized a
strip search. According to George, the gathering was so
repulsed by this enactment of a practice that occurs rou­
tinely in women’s prisons everywhere that many of the par­
ticipants felt compelled to disassociate themselves from
such practices, insisting that this was not what they did.
Some of the guards, George said, simply cried upon watch­
ing representations of their own actions outside the prison
context. What they must have realized is that "without the
82 I Angela Y. Davis
uniform, without the power of the state, the strip search
would be sexual assault. "99
But why is an understanding of the pervasiveness of sex­
ual abuse in women’s prisons an important element of a rad­
ical analysis of the prison system, and especially of those
forward-looking analyses that lead us in the direction of abo­
lition? Because the call to abolish the prison as the domi­
nant form of punishment cannot ignore the extent to which
the institution of the prison has stockpiled ideas and prac­
tices that are hopefully approaching obsolescence in the
larger society, but that retain all their ghastly vitality behind
prison walls. The destructive combination of racism and
misogyny, however much it has been challenged by social
movements, scholarship, and art over the last three decades,
retains all its awful consequences within women’s prisons.
The relatively uncontested presence of sexual abuse in
women’s prisons is one of many such examples. The increas­
ing evidence of a U.S. prison industrial complex with global
resonances leads us to think about the extent to which the
many corporations that have acquired an investment in the
expansion of the prison system are, like the state, directly
implicated in an institution that perpetuates violence
against women.

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