Jan 1 1998

Forgotten Behind Bars

Abuse of women in prison doesn't "set off" media

When the Supreme Court upheld a judge’s decision to cut by more than half the suggested prison sentences of the police officers who beat Rodney King (to 30 months), there was no media outcry calling the justices, or the public, “soft” on cops who commit crimes. Yet when a Cambridge judge decided to let Louise Woodward go free on time served, the same media that had blanketed the nation with emotive reporting on the British au pear lashed back at the public. “There’s just something about a woman behind bars that sets people off,” suggested Laura Mansnerus in a front-page feature in the New York Times’ “Week in Review” (11/16/97), under the label “Soft Touch.”

Contemporary U.S. crime policy is anything but “soft” on women. Despite damning complaints from many judges involved, mandated prison sentences are sending record numbers of women to jail, two out of three of them for non-violent crimes. The trial judge in the Los Angeles case cited the loss of the men’s police careers and the likelihood 0f abuse in jail. But neither the Supreme Court nor the U.S. public have been “set off” by the likelihood of women’s abuse behind bars. And neither has the Times.

500 percent increase

It has been estimated that by 2000, the number of people imprisoned in the U.S. will surpass 4 million, at a cost of over $40 billion a year (Philadelphia Inquirer, 8/29/94). Almost anything to do with incarceration is a valuable subject for journalism. Women are a small minority–just over 6 percent of those behind bars–but their story should indeed be setting people off–and reporters into action. For one thing, it’s breaking news. In 1980, U.S. authorities had locked 25,000 females into Federal and state prisons and local jails. In 1996 that soared to 116,000–almost a 500 percent increase over a decade and a half–twice the rate of increase for men.

As for abuse, rape in prison is rampant. It’s screaming for investigation. The National Prison Project of the ACLU and Human Rights Watch have both released urgent reports on the subject in last few years. The ACLU reported that a female entering prison can pretty much count on being sexually harassed and abused. “Given our sense that correction authorities are ignoring the problem, there is a possibility it may get worse, and it’s already bad,” Human Rights Watch concluded in 1996. To date, the New York Times has dedicated a single article to the issues Human Rights Watch raised (12/27/96), the week the report was released.

The paper did publish a human-interest feature on prison abuse almost a year later: “From Thief to Cellblock Sex Slave: A Convict’s Testimony” (10/19/97). The piece told the story of M.B., a 28-year-old white man who says he was raped at the Menard Correctional Center in Chester, Illinois in 1993. His attackers were fellow inmates, “black gang members” who “sold him off for the sexual pleasure of other inmates,” the paper reported. Now M.B.’s suing the state prison guards whom he accuses of ignoring his requests for help. He’s HIV positive, a fact he blames on the assault, and suffers post-traumatic repercussions: He’s scared of places, like shopping malls, where there are too many: “black people” he’s sorry to admit.

Confirming Stereotypes

The New York Times’ story, in the well-read “Week In Review” Sunday section, addressed a serious problem, and gave a prisoner a valuable chance to tell his story in his own words. It was also a clear example how one individual’s story, appearing outside its political context, can confirm familiar stereotypes. And it was noteworthy that for its first serious feature beneath the heading “Prison Rape,” the paper focused on a victim who was white and male.

M.B. says his assailants were other inmates, all black. His words echo what many people assume already–that jail is a miserable, violent place, because of the “savagery” of the other inmates. The most savage players in M.B.’s story were black–another common media cliche. A look at women’s prisons would challenge that picture.

Men are mostly raped by other prisoners, but the majority of women who report being raped in jail accuse their guards. The majority of prison guards are men; in Illinois, the ratio of male to female guards is 3 to 1. According to Human Rights Watch, “What is growing is the potential for the problems, because you have more women in prison and more often than not you’re going to have male officers guarding them.” (New York Times, 12/27/96) Since it involves public employees (for the most part, despite the trend towards privatization), prisoner abuse by guards is by definition a public responsibility–or should be.

Based on interviews with more than 60 current and former inmates in five states and D.C., Human Rights Watch determined that rape by guards is widespread. It’s not tracked by prison officials (which is part of the problem), but it’s not unnoticed–and has been prosecuted. Data, documentation and sources exist for reporters–even those who don’t want to do the investigative digging into the issue for themselves.

Since 1990, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division has won convictions in seven cases involving male employees. In 1994, a federal judge detailed the horrifying conditions endured by women in three correctional facilities under the jurisdiction of Washington, D.C. Judge June Green’s opinion described rape, sexual harassment, poor medical care, lack of privacy and failure to investigate misconduct by prison staff. Some inmates were forced to perform sex acts for their jailors in exchange for food or cigarettes, wrote Green. On March 9, 1997, contending that Arizona and Michigan failed to protect female inmates from rape and sexual assault by prison workers, the Justice Department filed two lawsuits against those states. As 1997 ended, a similar case was being prepared in New York State.

Political context

Bobbie Stein, a professor at New College School of Law in San Francisco, quoted Green in a damning piece on jail sexual abuse for The Progressive (6/96). Whereas stories like the Times’ confirm the public’s impressions about the cruelty of the criminal world–and the idea that the brutality is nothing for which politicians or their supporters should be made to account–Stein pointed out that there is an immediate, political context: “With the increase in numbers [of women in prison] has come a decrease in rights”–accelerated by the passage, in April 1996, of the Prison Litigation Reform Act. That act makes it harder for prisoners to sue prison authorities. It went into law with “little debate and virtually no media attention,” says Stein.

The so-called Personal Responsibility Act (or welfare “reform”) provides another hook for news. The law stipulates that those convicted of drug crimes–now one-third of female inmates (compared to one-fifth of males)–are no longer eligible for welfare benefits upon their release. Nina Bernstein wrote a solid investigative piece about criminal law and welfare for the New York Times (8/20/96) before the president signed the act. But media follow-up has been feeble.

Reporters could ask some questions, like: How is a female ex-convict supposed to support herself with few skills, most likely children, and a record that bars her from many jobs–and from public help? A staff worker at a Rhode Island facility told the Christian Science Monitor (5/19/97): “There are two ways, crime and prostitution.”

Some outlets have grasped the significance of the story. Beginning in April 1995, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle ran a two-year series investigating prison life in New York. “The state corrections department has a tremendous resource division that’s virtually untapped,” D&C reporter Gary Craig exclaimed. Asked if his excellent series got much pick-up in other media, Craig said no. The only piece that was followed up, as far as he knows, was the sole story that mentioned Amy Fisher–a celebrity inmate made famous in the tabloid press. “Amy Fisher’s Time” (New York Times, 7/21/96) raised and immediately dropped the fact that Fisher filed a lawsuit against New York State in 1996 claiming sexual abuse by prison guards.

When the New York Times Magazine (7/26/96) ran a feature on “Women Behind Bars” shortly thereafter, the story spilled page after page on the curious, sometimes romantic culture that women inmates create for themselves. Sexual abuse got just one mention in a passing paragraph which referred to “the already ancient problems of troubled women, many of whom are accustomed to coercive relationships when they are placed in highly sexualized, paramilitary settings in the custody mostly of men.” In that telling, the question is one of “relationships,” not rape; the setting is “sexualized” by unnamed forces, just as women are “troubled”–we’re not told by whom, or by what; the problem is the woman’s, not society’s (she, not we, are “troubled”) and the whole issue is old (“ancient”).

One man’s prison rape story doesn’t come close to filling this kind of vacuum and mis-reporting in the newspaper of record. “Newspapers in New York could have a full time corrections reporter, there’s so much out there,” says Gary Craig. Not a bad idea.

At M.B.’s request, his name was replaced with initials in this article.