Words From Prison: Sexual Abuse in Prison

June 12, 2006

Dorothy was convicted of murdering her husband and sentenced to life in prison after enduring years of severe mental and physical abuse throughout their marriage. Growing up, Dorothy had never thought she would be in prison, but she also had never thought she would be the victim of the terrible violence inflicted by her husband.

When Dorothy first met Dustin, she thought he was the best thing that ever happened to her. Having grown up on an Indian reservation in upstate New York, Dorothy could only dream about a life in which she would want for nothing. The only girl in a family of four children, Dorothy was doted on by both parents, but was especially close to her father. A seasonal worker, her father found it difficult to make ends meet; yet, he was a strong patriarch who showered Dorothy with attention and affection. Dorothy longed for someone like her father—someone who would make her feel special—but who could also provide her with the comfort and security her family lacked. She knew her dream was unlikely to materialize given the bleak economic circumstances that prevailed on the reservation.

The door to another life opened when she met Dustin, a handsome and charming builder who had won a contract to build a new community center on the reservation. Dustin made no secret of his interest in Dorothy, and although he was nearly 15 years her senior and twice divorced, his flowers, gifts and promises of love, family and a comfortable life won her affection. Dorothy's parents objected to the relationship and her mother reminded her that under the rules of their tribe, marriage to an outsider would constitute a forfeiture of her tribal rights and those of her children. Her father warned her that once she left the reservation, she would not be welcome to return. Madly in love, Dorothy married Dustin on her 18th birthday and the moved into his suburban home an hour away from the reservation.

Shortly after the honeymoon, Dorothy's fairytale began to fade. First there were bouts of verbal abuse—demeaning comments, epithets, and assaults on Dorothy's fitness as a wife. Determined to please her husband, Dorothy attempted to better herself by enrolling in a few courses at the local community college, but this only prompted suspicion and jealousy on Dustin's part. Dorothy finally dropped out of the courses to allay Dustin's fears, but this led to even more verbal fights that eventually graduated into shoves and occasional slaps.

Native American women experience the highest rate of violence of any group in the United States.

Dorothy attributed Dustin's hostility to his stress on the job and tried to appease him in any way she could. When she discovered she was pregnant, she hoped the news would bring them together, but was devastated when Dustin, in one of his rampages, questioned whether he was the baby's father.

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In Dorothy's seventh month of pregnancy the severe beatings began. The pregnancy had been difficult from the beginning, and finally the doctor ordered bed rest for Dorothy. Forced to pick up the burden of caring for himself and his wife, Dustin became increasingly rageful and abusive to Dorothy, calling her a good-for-nothing wife who would be better off dead. In the latter weeks of her pregnancy, Dustin worked himself into a rage over Dorothy's inability to cook his dinner, and began to kick and punch Dorothy in the stomach. Dorothy's son Daniel was born four weeks early but despite initial concerns about his survival, she was eventually able to bring him home.

Each year, about 324,000 pregnant women in this country are battered by their intimate partners. That makes abuse more common for pregnant women than gestational diabetes or preeclampsia;, other life-threatening conditions pregnant women often face. Women with unplanned pregnancies are two to four times more likely to be battered by intimate partners than women whose pregnancies were planned.

The crisis over Daniel's survival seemed to tame Dustin's rage; he calmed down, apologized for his past behavior and promised to change. To Dorothy, it was like falling in love all over again. The old Dustin had returned. Yet, Daniel's birth actually intensified Dustin's jealous rages. As Daniel's needs demanded more and more of Dorothy's attention, Dustin again became verbally abusive and the cycle of shoving and slapping began anew. When Dorothy discovered she was pregnant again, she could not bring herself to tell Dustin. Instead, she decided to return to her family on the reservation to have the child, but when she attempted to call, her father would not speak with her. Desperate, she tried to find shelter elsewhere on the reservation but discovered that she could no longer tap into the housing resources of the community. The closest facility for domestic violence survivors was over one hundred miles away. She borrowed money from a neighbor to make the trip but before she was able to board the bus, Dustin intercepted her and dragged her back home. There, she received the most brutal beating he'd ever inflicted, breaking two of her ribs. Holding a pistol to her temple, Dustin warned that if she ever tried to leave him again, he would kill her and their young son Daniel.

Dorothy was certain that she could not survive another pregnancy with Dustin; she knew that he would kill her if she stayed and he would kill her if she left. When Dustin finally left for a business meeting, Dorothy retrieved the gun and waited in the garage for Dustin to return. An hour later, Dorothy unloaded the pistol into Dustin just as he opened the car door.

Ninety percent of the women who are in prison today for killing their husbands or boyfriends did so to protect themselves from violence by him.

At Dorothy's trial, the judge precluded testimony pertaining to self-defense because Dustin was not in the act of beating Dorothy when she killed him. The length and severity of the domestic violence that Dorothy had endured, the threat to her children, and her belief that she would be killed by Dustin were all ruled inadmissible. Ultimately, the jury found Dorothy guilty of first-degree murder and the judge gave her the maximum sentence – life in prison. Only 22 years old, separated from her son, her family and her entire community, Dorothy began serving her sentence in a maximum-security prison.

Adjusting to prison life. Dorothy did her best to keep to herself, thinking it was the safest way to stay out of trouble. In addition to the pain of being separated from her son, she had frequent nightmares about the abuse she suffered. Prison routines, like being subject to random and degrading searches and being constantly monitored by prison guards, most of whom were men, served as daily reminders of her previous experiences of control and abuse.

In many women's prisons, male corrections officers are allowed to watch the women when they are dressing, showering, or using the toilet, and some guards regularly harass women prisoners. Women also report groping and other sexual abuse by male staff during pat frisks and searches. For victims of prior abuse, this environment further exacerbates their trauma.

In Dorothy's prison housing unit, one particular correctional officer began singling her out and asking for sexual favors in exchange for providing her with food or her normal share of personal hygiene products. At first, Dorothy thought he was not serious, but then his threats became real; he started withholding about half of her meals, as well as soap and toilet paper.

The imbalance of power between prisoners and guards leads to the use of both direct physical force and indirect force based on the prisoners' total dependence on guards for basic necessities and the guards' ability to withhold privileges. Studies on abuse of women in prison reveal that male correctional officers sexually abuse female prisoners with almost total impunity.

Dorothy did not know whom to tell or what to do because the guard was senior among the prison staff. Other women who had reported sexual harassment or abuse against other officers in the past had been ignored by prison officials, or worse yet, had been labeled troublemakers. Dorothy knew that such a label could affect her good standing while in prison and also her chances at parole. She had heard of guards limiting women's visitation rights, handing out rules-infraction tickets, or even putting women who spoke out into solitary confinement. So, Dorothy told no one and did nothing, hoping that the guard would eventually leave her alone. Unfortunately, that's not what happened.

In 1999, the federal government concluded that abuse by correctional staff occurs in women's prisons, but that the full extent of the problem is unknown because many women prisoners are reluctant to report staff sexual misconduct.

One day, the guard found Dorothy alone in the laundry room. He locked the door from the inside, and although Dorothy struggled, he raped her. The guard told her that if she complained, no one would believe her. The sexual assault brought up all of Dorothy's experiences of violence at the hands of her husband. The feelings of despair, worthlessness, and total helplessness washed over her again. Now, more than ever, Dorothy could see no escape.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women found that sexual misconduct by male corrections officers against women prisoners is widespread in United States prisons and constitutes a human rights violation.

When Dorothy tried to gain access to the prison's mental health services for counseling, she was turned away. Only after repeated attempts to get some treatment, Dorothy was offered Thorazine, a powerful psychotropic. Because Dorothy had seen women who took these drugs swallow safety pins, eat glass, and drag razor blades across their wrists, she refused to take them.

Despite their greater mental health needs, women in prison often get lower quality mental health care than their male counterparts. Very few prison systems provide counseling. Women attempting to access mental health services are routinely given medication without any opportunity to undergo psychotherapeutic treatment.

Dorothy eventually spoke out about the assault, despite the guard's threats. She told the prison superintendent and a counselor in the mental health unit about the assault and reported it to the state's investigative office. She received no response.

A year later, Dorothy filed an official grievance with the state correctional department, which was denied. She eventually joined a group of women in a lawsuit filed against the guard and the prison, but the court dismissed their suit without reaching the merits of their case. All the while, the correctional officer continued to maintain his post, despite being named in other complaints of sexual abuse and harassment filed with the state investigative office.

A federal law called the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) hampers prisoners' ability to bring legitimate complaints and undermines attempts to end custodial sexual abuse. The PLRA requires prisoners to exhaust every administrative remedy before filing a lawsuit in civil court. But the psychological and emotional effects of custodial sexual abuse make it unreasonable to expect women to be mentally and emotionally capable of following strict grievance procedures that require prisoners to not only report a problem, but also to identify the means and procedures to remedy it. Another provision of PLRA makes it impossible for women who have been sexually abused or harassed, but have not suffered physical injury, to file suit for compensation for their abuse.

IMAGINE A WORLD WHERE WOMEN CAN ESCAPE ABUSE

  • Volunteer at a women's prison. Can you join or start a prison writing workshop that helps women draw the links between violence in their lives and their incarceration?
  • Volunteer at a women's prison to help improve the medical and mental health services available to women prisoners. Visit www.aclu.org/wordsfromprison for list of prisons where you might volunteer.
  • Support the New York State bill, S.5124-A/A.8024-A, which would allow incarcerated survivors of domestic violence to be eligible for early release through increased merit time allowances. Go to www.aclu.org/wordsfromprison for a list of state legislative lobbying actions. You can also learn more about this bill on the Correctional Association website at www.correctionalassociation.org/ WIPP/CWP/coalition_committees.htm.
  • Learn more by contacting the Women in Prison Project of the Correctional Association of New York, which is dedicated to advocating for a criminal justice system that addresses women's specific needs and that treats people and their families with fairness, dignity, and respect: www.correctionalassociation.org.
  • Learn more about the legal challenges battered women face in arguing that they acted in self-defense when they assaulted or killed their abusers. Read Battered Women & Feminist Lawmaking by Elizabeth M. Schneider, for its discussion of battered women, or contact the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women at 1-800-903-0111, ex. 3.
  • Many women are trapped in violent relationships because they literally have nowhere else to go. Call your representative in Congress today and tell him or her to fully fund the Violence Against Women Act of 2005 and its programs to provide transitional and permanent housing for women fleeing their abusers. Go to www.aclu.org/wordsfromprison for legislative actions you can take.
  • Write your representatives in Congress to support amendments to the Prison Litigation Reform Act [any bills currently pending to amend? Give bill number. Go to www.aclu.org/wordsfromprison to learn how you can lobby for amendments that eliminate the physical injury and exhaustion requirements.
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