Revolution Interview with Professor Brenda V. Smith

The Sexual Abuse of Women in Prison: "It Is Widespread"

March 17, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


Revolution Interview
A special feature of Revolution to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music and literature, science, sports and politics. The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own; and they are not responsible for the views published elsewhere in our paper.


Brenda V. Smith has published and spoken widely on issues affecting women in prison. She is a professor at the Washington College of Law at American University where she teaches in the Community Economic Development Law Clinic. Professor Smith is also the Project Director for the United States Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections Cooperative Agreement on Addressing Prison Rape. In November 2003, Professor Smith was appointed to the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. As part of covering the story of sexual abuses going on in Tutwiler, the women's prison in Alabama, Revolution correspondent Li Onesto recently talked with Professor Smith. The following are excerpts from this interview.

Li Onesto: I just finished talking to Charlotte Morrison at the Equal Justice Initiative who told me horrendous stories of what is happening to women at the Tutwiler prison in Alabama and I thought maybe now we could pull the lens back a little bit and get more of a sense of just how widespread this phenomenon of sexual abuse and rape is in women's prisons. I have a quote I found from you where you said, "The problems at Tutwiler are so much more severe than what I have seen at other prisons... The way to think about Tutwiler is it is an amalgam and very intense concentration of the problems that exist in women's correctional institutions." Can you talk about what you mean here?

Brenda V. Smith: That the thing about Tutwiler is first, that it's Alabama and it's hard to separate what goes on in institutions where people end up there because of sort of what is going on in terms of public policies and so on. So Alabama has a long history of oppression and racism. And you have that grafted on to so many of its institutions—its prisons, its jails, its juvenile detention facilities.

Something very similar to what happened in Tutwiler happened to girls at Chalkville in Alabama, where there were 49 plaintiffs and the state settled for $12.5 million. This was a case of sexual abuse in a juvenile detention facility and it was in 2007. I mean, Alabama has a terrible history regarding penal institutions whether they're for juveniles or for adults. And so when I made that quote about sort of the concentration and the amalgam, it's not suggesting the problems we see at Tutwiler are isolated. It's just that the scope, the depth, the concentration, is something that, for lack of a better word—just shocks the conscience. But there have been other scandals. You can think about them in almost every state—there was one in Michigan where they had a settlement of $100 million for 500 women sexually abused in custodial settings. The settlement was in 2009, so we're talking about something recent. Then you had a similar situation in D.C. where I represented a class of about 700 women who made very similar claims about sexual victimization in D.C.'s prison. I filed suit in 1993 and that case lasted until 2003. And then you have the situation out in California prisons where you have sort of a situation of forced sterilization.

Li Onesto: Can you talk a little bit about that?

Brenda V. Smith: I don't want to call it forced sterilization, but it's where you had several women, it was around 200 women, who were sterilized without their knowledge and this is going on, OK?

Li Onesto: And what is the practice there? Women are just going in for medical examinations when this happens?

Brenda V. Smith: They're going in for sort of routine medical stuff and then they're told they have some gynecological problem and then they are sterilized without their knowledge. This came to light through an advocacy organization out there. They were working with women and little bit by little bit that story came out. It's all over the news now in California.

So several scandals have occurred, and that if you kind of google almost to any state—I mean, I can tell you there was a situation in Ohio involving Scioto, which is a juvenile facility. There have been cases in Alabama, there was another case in Oregon, there was a case in Washington State. And so this pattern of victimization of women in custody is widespread. What was so shocking about Tutwiler was really the degree, the detail, and I guess just the widespread "equal opportunity" victimization of women. I mean, it was like everybody in that institution, all women in that institution, suffered.

Li Onesto: So basically you're saying this goes on in many prisons, that it's very, very widespread.

Brenda V. Smith: Very widespread.

Li Onesto: The other thing is that part of the problem here is not only that this is going on but the kind of repression around this, the fear factor. Anybody who complains about this, who talks to a lawyer, is immediately punished for this, put in segregation...

Brenda V. Smith: Right, you're right. There is a real culture of oppression and people fear retaliation. And when we talk about people's fear of retaliation, we're not just talking about the women in prison, there is also the staff who fear retaliation as well. Sometimes staff knows what's going on but because of the culture of silence in the institution, will not report.

Li Onesto: When the Justice Department investigated Tutwiler around sexual abuse allegations, they also found evidence of other constitutional violations for inadequate conditions, medical care and mental health care, as well as discriminatory treatment based on race, sexual orientation and gender identity. Human rights abuses are going on like the shackling of pregnant women. Could you talk about that?

Brenda V. Smith: The kind of abuses that have captured people's attention at Tutwiler: it's rare that they happen in isolation. And so when you get sexual abuse, you also get substandard and inadequate medical care. You get the viewing of women by the staff of the opposite gender while using the bathroom; cross-gender searches that should not be occurring; degrading language that women experienced. And so what you really have is a culture that is rotten to its core, from the inside out. I've talked with several people about what can be done at Tutwiler. I have asked if it is possible to turn Tutwiler around. And the common view is the place must be torn down. It is not salvageable. The institution, the physicality of the institution, is not salvageable. And then the staff, unless you are going to fire all of the staff and hire a totally new staff, it is not salvageable. Sexual, physical, and emotional abuse seems to be a part of the fabric of the institution. It is the lack of basic respect and regard for the humanity of the people in these institutions.

Li Onesto: Yes, there is this overall point about not treating people as human beings and human rights abuses. And then there's the point many people have made about the kind of "plantation culture" in prisons in the South. I wonder if you could talk about that whole aspect, how the oppression of African-Americans and racism intersect with mass incarceration.

Brenda V. Smith: Tutwiler is one of those institutions. Some prisons do a better job than others. But prisons are not good places. I mean, it is about total control. It's about power and as power corrupts. The South is still struggling—but struggling implies they're trying to shake it off—but still "grappling" with sort of the legacy of slavery and disenfranchisement. They're struggling and then there's a scandal. OK, you've got Orleans Parish prison in New Orleans. You've got Angola, in Louisiana. You've got abuse past and present in Florida. Look at the most recent revelations about the Dozier Reform School for Boys where researchers from the University of Florida have unearthed 55 bodies of boys who died while incarcerated there.

The seminal case, Dothard v. Rawlinson, which ended height and weight restrictions and permitted women to work in men's [penal] institutions, was a case from Alabama. And even though the court allowed women to work in the Alabama Maximum Security Men's Prison as officers, they were not permitted to work in direct contact with men because of the "jungle-like environment." They feared that Kim Rawlinson, a young white woman, would be raped by the prisoners. The element of that narrative that I focus on here is the use of the term "jungle-like" which from my perspective is racial code for Black, which is in terms viewed as less than human, and is thus not entitled to humane treatment.

Li Onesto: Well, this is part of the whole demonization of prisoners.

Brenda V. Smith: Exactly.

Li Onesto: It's like saying, "These people aren't really human."

Brenda V. Smith: Well, "this is the jungle and these people are animals here." So prisons in and of themselves are places where power gets perverted. But if you graft that on to a place that doesn't have a good history with regard to justice and equality it gets even worse.

Li Onesto: It's interesting, you were earlier struggling with this concept of people in the South "struggling around the legacy of slavery" because...

Brenda V. Smith: Yes, that's why I was having trouble...

Li Onesto: Yeah, some people are defending the Confederate flag and you're touching on something in terms of this legacy of slavery. You know, Michelle Alexander has written about the New Jim Crow and there is this big divide in society about this question—what is this legacy and what is it ongoing...

Brenda V. Smith: Manifestations...

Li Onesto: Yes, manifestations in economics and politics and in every aspect of society. And there are certain people, including in high places, that are saying, oh, get over it. And then there is the reality that, NO, look what is going on.

Brenda V. Smith: Yes, where people are still being treated like slaves. The one place where you can treat people like slaves is in prison. Because you have the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery except where it is punishment for a crime. You have to remember that while the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, it creates an exception for conviction of a crime. The behavior that has been described at Tutwiler approximates the conditions of slavery—the inability for women to control viewing or touching of their bodies by individuals of the opposite gender, the violence and the lack of respect for their basic dignity.

Li Onesto: That's true and then you have the whole layer of women's oppression...

Brenda V. Smith: Sex is embedded in the fabric of prisons, right—even in the earliest prisons in England. The reason you went to prison was because you were beyond the control of your community. Women went to prison because they had left home for the cities and were often involved in the sex industry. And many prisons sold children and women for sex. The precursor to the development of many women's prisons was a scandal involving sexual abuse.

Li Onesto: So this was basically a state-sanctioned institutionalized form of prostitution?

Brenda V. Smith: Exactly, and always has been. In two of my articles I mention the creation of women's prisons in the United States. I mean, the primary rationale for women's institutions was women were being sexually victimized by men in these institutions where they were housed. Because women were housed with men—they weren't housed in the same places as men, but they might be in a separate section or in a separate room. But invariably there would be a pregnancy, a huge scandal about them using, selling the women out for prostitution and so forth.  The public would get upset and that concern led to the development of women's prisons run by women. When women began to work in men's institutions, they left women's institutions and then after that it was wide open and so you were back to the same situation you had in the earliest prisons where you had men supervising women and then you had these scandals around sexual abuse. That's not to suggest there's not same-sex going on. And that's not to suggest that female staff can't be abusive to female inmates. But these big scandals about sexual victimization violations are typically cross-gender.

Li Onesto: Some of this sexual abuse in women's prisons, like at Tutwiler, has come to public light now, although it's not like the department of corrections in these different states haven't known about this problem. There have been different cases brought to the courts about these things. But like at Tutwiler, even where there have been convictions they've been like a slap on the wrist and then things go on like they've been going on.

Brenda V. Smith: Exactly. People know there will be a hue and cry for a minute and then things will settle down and then there will be another scandal. There is not long-term commitment nationally about saying we don't have to do this, there are a set of practices we can adopt that make it less likely these kinds of scandals can happen. As long as you have people in custody and under the power of others, there is the potential for abuse—sexual and otherwise.  There are things that you can do. I sat on the Prison Rape Commission and so there is a set of standards to address sexual victimization in custody.... But the best thing you can do to decrease sexual violence in custody is to get people out of custody.

Li Onesto: Yes, and this gets back to the question of why do we have 2.2-plus million people in prison to begin with. And a lot of women are in prison for nonviolent crimes because of the war on drugs and mandatory sentencing laws; there are women doing crazy time in prison for something like writing a bad check.

Brenda V. Smith:  In recent testimony before the review panel on prison rape, states indicated that the way that they reduced sexual abuse in custody was by reducing their population. So we should get people out of custody.

Li Onesto: And a lot of those people shouldn't be in custody to begin with.

Brenda V. Smith: Exactly.


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