WASHINGTON (CBSDC)– It seems a week can’t go by without new allegations of prison guard abuse occurring at some correctional facility within the United States. Some cases are more severe than others, but each merits a closer look at the prison system, how these incidents occur, and why they seem to be almost expected at this point in time.
Just last week, the board overseeing New York City’s jails voted unanimously to begin working on rule changes to prevent sexual assaults. A public advocate urged the board to adopt a zero-tolerance standard back in April after the Rikers Island prison reported some of the nation’s highest rates of reported attacks by guards, one of whom has repeated rape allegations against him by two inmates.
The number of inmates confined in county and city jails was an estimated 744,600 as of 2014, as reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In a special report from 2011, correctional administrators reported 8,763 allegations of sexual victimization in prisons, 48 percent of these incidents involving staff with inmates.
“From my perspective, the single most critical factor in determining the institutional culture in a prison or jail system is the character of the top leadership,” Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the ACLU National Prison Project, tells CBSDC. “Prisons tend to be inherently dehumanizing places: locking people up and putting them completely at the mercy of other human beings and often cutting them off almost completely from communicating with anyone in the free world is practically a recipe for abuse.”
While there is a wealth of people and organizations working toward prison reform, the topic of public perception and a sometimes seemingly lack of empathy toward prisoners cannot be ignored.
“There is still far less empathy for prisoners who are victims of abuse than for others… Perhaps the narrative can be improved by continuing to explain the combination of societal forces that have created the kindergarten-to–prison pipeline, the prison-industrial complex that blights our communities,” Winter explains.
Women prisoners in particular face a number of challenges.
“A big problem for women’s facilities is the presence of male staff in direct contact and supervisory positions with women inmates. There is little supervision of these staff and because of the attitude toward all prisoners, and women inmates in particular. There is a culture of neglect and turning a blind eye. Additionally, women inmates have fewer resources than male inmates both in terms of programs at their facilities and in terms of support from their families,” says Community and Economic Development Law Clinic Director and Washington College of Law Professor Brenda Smith.
Smith says that that because women don’t get visits or money as often and due to the lack of opportunities to make money legitimately, female inmates are often exceedingly vulnerable to victimization by both male and female predatory staff. Weeding out the actual issues that occur within the prison is the first step, solving these issues is the bigger challenge.
Smith says the entire set of standards aimed to prevent sexual abuse of people in custody includes requirements for training, policies, multiple outlets to report abuse (including anonymous reporting), and better investigations and background checks.
“Change is happening but the problem is so big. And changes made in one area don’t necessarily translate to others,” Smith tells CBSDC.
Prison officials say they need solitary confinement to control the most violent prisoners. In some cases, prisoners with nonviolent offenses are even subjected to solitary confinement.
“There are a tiny fraction of people who may actually need to be kept separate from others for safety reasons for some period of time, but that doesn’t mean that it is either necessary or justified to subject them to prolonged sensory deprivation, profound idleness, and isolation from all human contact. That must be called what it is, torture and it needs to be categorically banned,” Winter told CBSDC.
Mental health experts say this condition can cause emotional damage and create lifelong mental illness. At least 10,000 prisoners were released directly from solitary confinement to the streets in 2014, as reported by NPR.
“It just needs to stop. Solitary confinement should be the very last resort. The U.S. uses solitary confinement to protect people; to separate youth from adults; and as punishment. Rather than imprison mentally ill people, even those who commit crimes, they should be in psychiatric facilities with appropriate resources and management,” Smith added.