Revolution #183, November 15, 2009
The Scandal of Women's Prisons...
And the Shackles that Bind Half of Humanity
In 1995, a young boy named Phillip Gaines wrote a letter to the President of the United States.
"Dear President Clinton," Phillip wrote. "I hope you can free my mom .I need her. Because I am just a little boy! I am just ten year old. I need my mom very much. Please get her out I need her."
Clinton granted Phillip's desperate wish, and freed his mother Dorothy from prison—more than five and a half years later. But you can't blame Clinton for taking his time letting Dorothy Gaines back on the street. After all, she was a dangerous, hardened, cold-blooded criminal.
Here is how the journalist Nell Bernstein described the circumstances of Gaines' arrest and imprisonment, in a July 2000 article for Salon.com (See Salon.com, July 20, 2000 at salon.com/mwt/feature/2000/07/20/conspirators/index.html):
"Gaines, 42, was dating a drug user who was part of a crack ring in Mobile, Ala. When the state came down on the ring, Gaines was caught in the net. At trial, she testified that she was unaware of any drug activity... Gaines was convicted in federal court solely on the word of witnesses who received sentence reductions in return for their testimony. Her sentence is longer than that of any other member of the conspiracy, including the so-called kingpin, who will be released eight years before she will. [Dorothy's] boyfriend, who refused to testify against her, told the judge that he had heard his codefendants, who were all kept in the same jail cell, 'trying to get their stories straight' on Dorothy's supposed involvement." [emphasis added]
Dorothy Gaines was ULTIMATELY granted clemency in the twilight of Clinton's presidency, on December 22, 2000, and released from prison. But this act could never give back the six years of Gaines' life that were stolen from her and committed to the living hell of federal prison. And her story is a window into the circumstances and conditions faced by more than one million women in this country.
Criminalized on a Staggering Scale
Between 1977 and 2007, the number of women in U.S. prisons mushroomed by 832 percent, twice the also staggering increase in the male prison population during that same time period. There are currently more than 200,000 women in jail or prison in this country, nearly one million on probation, and almost 100,000 on parole.
Like Dorothy Gaines, huge numbers of them are women of color—as of mid-2008, more than 32 percent of women in U.S. prisons were Black, even though Black women represent only 7 percent of the U.S. population; Latina women, who constitute 6.5 percent of the total U.S. population, represented 16 percent of those locked up in this country's women's prisons.
Like Dorothy Gaines, a great many of these female prisoners have children —more than 65,000 women in prisons are mothers, collectively leaving behind more than 147,000 minor children.
Like Dorothy Gaines, about two-thirds of these women are locked up on convictions for non-violent offences—primarily drug and property crimes. As of the end of 2005, 28 percent of women in state prisons were sent there for drug convictions. Drug busts of women increased by 29 percent from 2003-2007, almost double the rate of increase for men's drug arrests during that time span.
Unlike Dorothy Gaines, the overwhelming majority of these prisoners are not granted their release by the President of the United States.
Once arrested and convicted, women in this country are often hit with heavy sentences for very light involvement—or no involvement at all—in the drug trade: Huge numbers of women in this country are serving long sentences for "crimes" such as taking a phone message for someone who ends up accused of a drug crime. And many women are sentenced to a living hell despite not having done a damn thing. This observation from Bernstein's article about Dorothy Gates hits like a ton of bricks:
"Under mandatory-sentencing laws, the only way a person charged with a drug offence can get a sentence reduction is to help prosecutors build a case against someone else. Many women who wind up serving time on conspiracy charges are doing so because of the testimony of boyfriends or husbands who won sentence reductions for themselves on the basis of this testimony. The less involved a woman actually is, the less she has to offer prosecutors—and the more likely she is to do serious time." [emphasis added]
What kind of system are we living under if being innocent of a crime could actually make you more likely to be punished for it?
Caged—and Treated—Worse Than Animals
Rape and sexual abuse against female prisoners by male guards is a widespread occurrence in U.S. prisons. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report found that, in New York state alone and just between the years 2001 and 2003, 15 female prisoners reported being sexually abused by male prison guards. According to the report, "The alleged abuse included sexual assault, harassment, forcible rape, sexual intercourse, anal intercourse, oral sexual acts, sexual touching, voyeurism, invasion of personal privacy, demeaning sexual comments, and intimidation to deter women prisoners from reporting sexual misconduct." (hrw.org/en/news/2007/11/07/proposed-revisions-prison-litigation-reform-act-hearing-house-judiciary-subcommittee)
And those are just the women who braved the prospect of vicious retaliation from prison guards, as well as a daunting set of legal hurdles, in order to speak out. Undoubtedly, many women who are raped and abused in prison never come forward.
The 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act signed by Bill Clinton established several unique requirements that prisoners—and only prisoners—must meet in order to file lawsuits. Among the most outrageous aspects of the PRLA: 1) Prisoners must file a grievance within the same prison system that abused them, and take their complaint all the way through that system (with several deadlines and complex procedures involved in this), before their case can be heard in court. And 2) Prisoners alleging sexual assault must show evidence of physical injury.
This is nothing less than a license for guards to rape and abuse prisoners. And in case that weren't clear, the courts are happy to clarify this. In 2004, a male prison guard at the Illinois Youth Center raped a teenage girl. He eventually pled guilty; that is, he admitted to raping the girl. The teenage victim then filed a federal lawsuit. But earlier this year, a Federal Judge dismissed her lawsuit on the grounds that the victim had not filed a formal grievance within her prison system.
In addition to pervasive rape and sexual abuse, incarcerated women consistently face many other horrific forms of abuse. One of the most shocking to the conscience is the practice of shackling pregnant prisoners—while they are giving birth. In the year 2009, this remains legal in more than 40 out of 50 states in this country. An October 14, 2009 New York Times editorial condemning the shackling of pregnant prisoners discussed the case of Shawanna Nelson, a 29-year-old non-violent offender whose legs were chained to a wheelchair as she gave birth.
"Ms. Nelson testified that the shackles prevented her from moving her legs, stretching or changing positions during the most painful part of her labor," The Times wrote. "She offered evidence that the shackling had caused a permanent hip injury, torn stomach muscles, an umbilical hernia that required an operation and extreme mental anguish."
Women in prison are also frequently deprived of basic and urgently needed medical care. This is a crime perhaps committed with particular frequency and vengeance against immigrants, the fastest-growing section of the U.S. prison population; there were more than 300,000 people in U.S. immigration custody in 2008, and roughly 10 percent (30,000) of them were women. A 2009 HRW report revealed that female immigrant detainees were frequently denied cancer detection and treatment services; diabetes care; and items such as breast pumps and sanitary pads.
The savagery of the U.S. prison system does not spare even the youngest members of society. A 2006 HRW report found that girls in New York State juvenile facilities— some as young as 12 years old—are systematically and routinely subjected to physical brutality, humiliation, and sexual abuse by male guards. In addition to being frequently strip-searched and shackled at the hand, foot, and waist and, girls in these facilities are very often beaten and seriously injured by prison staff. One of the most commonly employed forms of abuse—used to punish girls for "violations" such as refusal to go swimming, waving a comb, or improperly making a bed—is the "face-down restraint." Here is how HRW described the face-down restraint:
In a restraint, staff seize a girl from behind, and in a face-down posture, push her head and entire body to the floor. They then pull her arms up behind her and hold or handcuff them. We found that the procedure is used against girls as young as 12 and that it frequently results in facial abrasions and other injuries, and even broken limbs [emphasis added](See HRW, September 24, 2006, hrw.org/en/node/11152/section/3)
One juvenile prison in New York averaged 10 of these restraints per child per year.
We Don't Need "Prison Reform" ... We Need A Revolution!
The confinement and brutality girls and women face in U.S. prisons is a particularly extreme concentration of the confinement and brutality they face every day in our society and around the world.
Put these facts, statistics, and quotes in a mental blender for a second and mix them together:
- More than 37 percent of women in state prisons were raped before being incarcerated, and more than 57 percent of women in state prisons have been physically and sexually abused before their imprisonment. Before being sent to a juvenile prison in New York, Ebony V. was forced into prostitution by a man in his 30s. Once in prison, she was repeatedly raped by prison staff.
"It was very exploitative in there," Ebony V. said. "I was living better than I was on the street but I was still living street life in there. I was still being sexually exploited by the staff there." [emphasis added]
Let those words echo—"Living better than I was on the street." Given everything that Ebony V was forced to endure in juvenile prison, what does it tell you that her life outside the dungeon walls was even worse?
- Girls in New York State juvenile facilities reported being called the following names by guards: Asshole. Idiot. Thug. Bitch. Cry-baby. Witch. Stupid. Ignorant. Nobody. Lazy.
How many women could you find outside the prison walls that have not been called at least one of those names?
When you put all this together, here's what you get: Women's prisons in this country both reflect and reinforce a system of capitalism-imperialism, and a culture that stems from this system, in which women in the U.S. and around the world are treated as nothing more than property to be policed — as commodities literally or figuratively traded for the pleasure and profit of many men, or as breeders of children bound to the bedroom and kitchen of one man.
Is it any surprise that a society tightening the chains of forced childbirth on women —by steadily stripping away their access to abortions—is also chaining them to the bed as they give birth?
Is it shocking to discover the usage of the "face down restraint" in the same country where a woman is battered every 15 seconds?
Women in our society, whether incarcerated or not, are told pretty much the same thing: "Shut up, look pretty, and make yourself sexually available." And if you don't, prepare to be beaten, raped, insulted, humiliated, and locked down.
The mass imprisonment of women in the U.S. also represents the intersection of many different forms of oppression that are intertwined with capitalism-imperialism in the U.S. Is it a mere coincidence that huge, disproportionate numbers of girls and women locked away in America are also Black or Latino Americans, or immigrants? Of course not. This reality betrays the combined warehousing of entire sections of society that have been criminalized, exploited, and denied any worthwhile future in this society.
Any system that systematically confines, brutalizes, batters, humiliates, and rapes entire groups of people...and then throws them into cages and does it all over again.... is a truly sick system that should be put of its misery. It cannot and should not be reformed; it must be done away with.
Getting rid of capitalism-imperialism will take a revolution. And earth-shaking revolutions have happened before.
Unleash the Fury of Women and Prisoners!
In communist revolutions in Russia (1917) and China (1949), the fury of women was unleashed in ways that had never been witnessed. Millions and millions of women in these societies—who for centuries were regularly beaten, raped, and traded like animals—became front-line fighters in revolutions that created radically new socialist societies. In these societies, women gained the right to abortion, and divorce. Campaigns were organized against domestic violence and prostitution, and these evils were essentially eliminated. Men and women worked together, under the leadership of a communist party, to produce the necessities of life, and society was organized to serve people rather than exploit them. The masses debated politics, philosophy, and how society should be run. In China, women danced in revolutionary ballets and fought in the revolutionary army, which both reflected and accelerated a monumental transformation in the ways women were portrayed and viewed in society.
Bai Di, a college professor in the U.S. who grew up during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) in China (1966-1976), had this to say recently about the status of women in that society: "The dominant ideology was that women hold up half of the sky; what men can do, women can do… I lived through that period really believing in myself, in my ability in bringing about changes in my own life and the lives of other people." (See revcom.us/a/161/Bai_Di_interview-en.html.)
Soon after the death of Mao Tsetung in 1976, capitalists came back to power in China and begin reintroducing the horrors of the old society. Today, prostitution in China is rampant, as is the deliberate killing of female babies and the all-round devaluation of young girls and women.
And, for the last three decades—the very time when the female prison population in the United States was going through the roof—there have been no socialist countries serving as a model for a radically different system and society.
Well, it's long past time to make revolution again. And we have the revolutionary leadership to do just that.
Challenge: To Engage and Follow the Leadership We Have and Build For Revolution!
Since the defeat of socialism in China 30 years ago, Bob Avakian, the Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), has devoted his life to making revolution. He has identified, analyzed, and popularized the unprecedented achievements for humanity of previous revolutions, and he has also confronted and wrangled with the secondary weaknesses of these societies. And he has consistently, and with tremendous richness and depth, spoken to the key world events and ideological questions facing revolutionaries in this country. In the process and as a result of all this, he has developed the vision and strategy to make revolution right here in the U.S. and liberate the literal and figurative prisoners of the entire planet.
While the revolutions of the past achieved amazing things never accomplished before or since, Avakian's leadership is not about trying to replicate the past. It's about advancing on the past and doing even better in the future—by getting to a socialist society that fosters debate and criticism and the battle of ideas on a level far higher than we have ever seen, as part of getting to a destination humanity has never before reached: a communist planet free of all exploitation and oppression.
Through the Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund (PRLF), hundreds of people locked away in this country have been introduced to Avakian, his leadership, and his writings. Many of these prisoners have been inspired to write letters to this paper (you can see some of these letters throughout this issue), and many of them have also taken it upon themselves to begin spreading the line of Avakian and the RCP throughout this nation's dungeons as vital part of building for revolution.
We call on those inside and beyond the prison walls to follow the inspiring example of these prisoners—to engage, and spread, Avakian's leadership and his pathbreaking new synthesis of communism.
And know this: we cannot, and will not, make revolution and emancipate humanity unless women are completely liberated from the chains of misogyny and patriarchy, and unless their fury and creativity is fully unleashed as a force for revolution. Avakian has put it like this:
In many ways, and particularly for men, the woman question and whether you seek to completely abolish or to preserve the existing property and social relations and corresponding ideology that enslave women (or maybe "just a little bit" of them) is a touchstone question among the oppressed themselves. It is a dividing line between "wanting in" and really "wanting out": between fighting to end all oppression and exploitation—and the very division of society into classes—and seeking in the final analysis to get your part in this.
And so, in the spirit of Avakian's words, let us conclude with a question, and a challenge. directed not exclusively—but especially—to men: Which role will you play? Will you be a women's prison guard? Will you fasten, and tighten, shackles to half of humanity, even as you seek to throw off your own?
Or will you struggle to sever, and forever cast off, the chains that bind women, as part of emancipating all of humanity?
Will you dare to dream, and fight, for a real and total revolution?
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