Abuse In U.S. Women’s Prisons: The Need For Systematic Reform

On August 21st, the Miami Herald reported that Cheryl Weimar, a 51-year-old inmate at Lowell Correctional Institution in Marion County, Florida, was assaulted by a correctional lieutenant. Witnesses claimed that Weimar was complaining to officers that she was unable to clean toilets due to a pre-existing hip condition when a correctional lieutenant slammed her against the floor before dragging her out of the prison. During the initial confrontation, Weimar told officials that she was undergoing a psychological emergency, but instead of calling health professionals, the lieutenant allegedly dragged her to a wheelchair with, “her head bouncing along the ground.” The Herald confirmed that Weimar’s neck was broken during the attack. She was eventually taken to the hospital where she was placed in intensive care. The Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) is investigating the situation, but they would say nothing about how the incident occurred. The officers involved were not suspended but the FDC said that they, “have been reassigned to posts that do not have contact with inmates, pending the outcome of this investigation.”

Unfortunately, instances like these are not uncommon in women’s prisons across the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), women represent the majority of staff-on-inmate abuse cases with women making up only 13% of the total U.S. prison population but accounting for 67% of all staff-on-inmate victimization. Many former inmates across the U.S. have also come forward with their stories about the prevalence of staff-on-inmate abuse and several former inmates at Lowell Correctional Institution have even made signs announcing, “I survived Lowell.” With physical and sexual abuse so pervasive in women’s prisons, it is necessary to analyze how staff-on-inmate violence is currently handled and enact systematic reforms to hold prison staff accountable for their actions, provide outside reporting measures for physical abuse, and improve staff training measures to reduce future incidents of misconduct.

The response to abuse allegations varies greatly from case-to-case. In some instances, the accused staff member is prosecuted. For example, a year ago, two former corrections officers at Lowell, Adrian Victor Matthew Puckett and Kurtis Kyle Mitchell, were charged with aggravated battery in connection with the mistreatment of inmates. Authorities said that Puckett used so much force that he knocked out an inmate’s two upper central incisors and one upper lateral incisor and caused permanent disfiguration. However, corrections officers rarely face significant legal consequences. While both Mitchell and Puckett were fired, Mitchell’s charges have since been dropped and Puckett’s case is ongoing.

Occasionally, the Department of Justice (DOJ) will investigate an entire correctional facility. Last year, the DOJ started an investigation into the prevalence of sexual assault at Lowell Correctional Institution. However, the investigation did not look into physical abuse, which is often just as common as sexual abuse. The DOJ has not provided any updates on the status of this investigation.

Even when there are investigations into individual officers or institutions, allegations of misconduct are dealt with on a case-to-case, ad hoc basis rather than being handled proactively to reduce the chances that abuses will occur in the first place. In the rare occasion that an officer is charged, instances of misconduct within the prison are blamed solely on the individual officer, but the system that promotes this rampant abuse is never addressed. To prevent these incidents from happening in the first place, major changes need to be made within prisons to deter corrections officers from using violence and encourage inmates to report abuses that do occur.

One of the most important ways to reduce staff-on-inmate violence is to consistently hold prison staff responsible for their actions. Research done by the Marshall Project has shown that the majority of corrections officers who are reported for physical abuse do not face any legal consequences. Many are never even brought to trial, and those who are usually face only minor charges. This lack of consistency can make corrections officers believe that they can act with impunity and discourage inmates from reporting assaults.

The first step in ensuring that officers are held accountable for their actions is creating an outside reporting method. Inmates often fear that if they report abuses to staffers within the prison, they will be subject to even more mistreatment at the hands of other corrections officers. There is also a greater chance that the allegations will be silenced by other prison staff. There is currently an outside reporting method for sexual assault set in place by the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA). PREA set national standards that required prisons to give inmates multiple methods for reporting sexual abuse and also ensured that every allegation was investigated. In 2012, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the number of sexual assaults reported greatly increased after the establishment of PREA. However, PREA does not apply to cases of physical abuse. Currently, if an inmate wants to file a staff misconduct report, they must file an administrative appeal, or a 602 form, to request an investigation. Diana Block, a founding member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, explained that the problem with this system is that, “you are filing the 602 basically with, if not the actual people, the friends of the people, the coworkers of the people, who have abused you.” To make women feel more comfortable filing misconduct reports it is crucial to provide an external and confidential reporting method, like PREA, for all kinds of abuse. This will increase women’s confidence that they will not be targeted by other staff members and it will decrease the likelihood that allegations will be prematurely dismissed by officers within the prison.

Another major way to increase officer accountability is to enhance prison surveillance so that there is documentation of misconduct. The Miami Herald reported that staffers are aware of blind spots in the current video surveillance systems and they can take advantage of them to abuse inmates without video evidence. Several inmates at Lowell Correctional Institution also alleged that they had personally seen inmates dragged into blind spots by corrections officers. Another remedy could be requiring officers to wear body cameras so that the footage can be reviewed after allegations are made. This would discourage officers from using excessive violence and provide concrete evidence to justify or refute abuse allegations.

Beyond accountability, corrections officers must receive proper training on gender-based differences in prisons. NPR reported that women in prison are disciplined two to three times more often than men, often for smaller infractions. This is largely because prison rules were developed to deal with men, and they don’t take into account the fact that women usually come to prison for different reasons and often respond differently to prison life. The same NPR report explained that women are less likely to use violence in prison, and they are more likely than men to have problems with substance abuse and mental health. Alyssa Benedict, a consultant who is working to change the way prisons treat women, also found that 80 to 90 percent of women in prison have been victims of sexual or physical violence. This means that many women are entering prisons with different past experiences than most men and will likely respond differently to prison rules.

In addition, the Federal Bureau of Prisons found that 72.7% of prison staffers are men, meaning that they may not understand these nuances, making them more inclined to issue excessive punishment for small infractions. For instance, Monica Cosby, Tyteanna Williams, and Celia Colon told NPR about their experiences in prison and how they received disciplinary tickets for “reckless eye-balling.” NPR data analysts also found that women are much more likely than men to be written up for ‘disrespect’ and ‘disobedience.’ These small infractions can build up rapidly, often leading to more serious physical abuse, like in the case of Cheryl Weimar. To avoid these misunderstandings, several prisons in Illinois have begun implementing ‘gender responsiveness’ training to call out sexist biases held by male officers and inform both male and female officers about the differences between working in men’s and women’s prisons. If similar training was added to officer training schedules across the U.S., corrections officers would be less likely to over discipline female inmates for small, verbal infractions.

According to a recent report by the Prison Policy Institute, the female incarceration rate in the U.S. is increasing at a record high, meaning that more women are going to be forced into prisons that are not designed to protect them from abuse. This makes it more important than ever to enact sensible reforms to hold corrections officers accountable for misconduct and enhance officer training to prevent abuse and ensure that correctional facilities are places of rehabilitation, not re-traumatization.

Ruby Shealy

Related

The Organization for World Peace