Sexual abuse of women in United States prisons: a modern corollary of slavery.

Author:Smith, Brenda V.

    I initially began working on this paper in connection with a project that looked at the transatlantic abolition movement in the United States and Europe from 1830 to 1870 with a focus on early feminist efforts. (1) In that initial effort, it became clear that sexual abuse of women in prison and the sexual abuse of female slaves shared many similarities. This paper addresses the sexual abuse of women in custody as a more contemporary manifestation of slavery. Part II situates the sexual abuse of women in custody and women slaves in their historical context. Part II also charts the creation of the first penitentiaries in the United States and the "Reform Movement," led by Quaker women who were also involved in the abolition movement, and later in the suffrage movement. (2) It further examines the impact that women's entry into male prisons as workers in the 1970s and 1980s--pursuant to Title VII (3)--had on the sexual abuse of women in custody. Part III will discuss the congruencies and the differences that exist between the sexual abuse of women in custody and slavery. Part IV discusses modern advocacy efforts to address sexual abuse of women in custody and explores the relative lack of advocacy by national women's organizations on this issue. Part V concludes that the sexual abuse of women in custody is a serious contemporary issue, similar to slavery, and that the appropriate societal response to this problem is impeded by deeply imbedded views of women in custody as unworthy and undeserving of attention, and to some degree, as responsible for their own victimization. (4)


    Historically, both women in custody and women slaves experienced abuse by those in authority. A review of the historical contexts of women's imprisonment and slavery demonstrate that sexual abuse of both is deeply imbedded in both experiences.

    1. Sexual Abuse of Women in Custody

      As long as there have been prisons (5) and women in them, (6) women have been sexually victimized. (7) Women in the earliest prisons were poor women, usually of the non-ruling or minority class, and women who had deviated from prevailing social norms for their gender. (8)

      In the 1860s, women reformers in the United States raised public awareness about the increasing number of women in prison and the terrible conditions of confinement they faced, in particular the sexual abuse of women prisoners by male guards. (9) These reformers pointed out that men were luring women and girls into prostitution. (10) Women prison reformers complained that prisons degraded rather than reformed women by subjecting them to sexual abuse. (11) Thus, the sexual abuse of women existed even in the earliest United States prisons.

      Around 1870, there was a movement to improve the conditions of incarcerated women. This "Reform Movement" (12) was led, in large part, by Quaker men and women involved in, or sympathetic to, the abolition of slavery and gaining suffrage for women. (13) They believed that women who had run afoul of the law were in need of reforming, (14) and thus opened "reformatories" staffed by "matrons" to teach women the skills they needed to make their way in the world--sewing, gardening, laundry, and cooking. (15) The Reform Movement lasted until the 1930s, when it lost the support of some women's groups who felt that women's efforts needed to be focused on gaining the vote for women rather than prison reform. (16) This "abandonment" left the Reform Movement lethargic and left female prisoners languishing in institutions that retained the old characteristics of reformatories, (17) without formal backing from established and respected women's groups. (18) Even after suffrage was granted, there was a definite fracture of the women's movement, with some feminists voicing the idea that scarce resources were being wasted on the task of "reforming" women offenders. (19)

      For the next forty years, women's reformatories became the norm. While they had abandoned many of the more salutary principles of the Reform Movement, they continued to be run with many of the outer trappings of reformatories including all female staff and "gender-appropriate" training in cooking, sewing, gardening, and cleaning. (20)

      In the 1960s and 1970s, women correctional officers seeking job advancement used Title VII's (21) proscription against discrimination in employment to obtain positions in male prisons. (22) Concerned with the threat of Title VII litigation, prison officials supported women's entry into previously all-male settings, despite frequent challenges raised by male staff and male inmates. (23) As a result, most restrictions on male officers' employment in women's prisons that predated the Title VII were removed and, by some estimates, male officers working in women's prisons now outnumber their female counterparts. (24)

      Women's entry into male institutions and their abandonment of women's institutions created opportunities for male staff who had been prohibited by custom, if not by law, from working in women's institutions. Male and female correctional staff's entry into institutions housing female prisoners resulted in complaints, litigation, and reports of sexual abuse. (25) These complaints were met with law suits requesting same-sex supervision. By and large, male prisoners have lost challenges to cross-gender supervision. (26) However, female prisoners have had much greater success, with courts routinely recognizing a greater need and expectation of privacy for women. (27)

    2. Sexual Abuse of Women Slaves

      Sexual abuse was a prominent feature of the enslavement of African women in the United States. (28) While slavery visited horrific and unimaginable abuse on all slaves, women slaves experienced abuse that was particularly related to their gender. (29) Women slaves were routinely used as concubines for male slave owners, their relatives and their owner's guests. (30) They were systematically impregnated by their owners, and at their owner's request, by other slaves in order to produce children that were sold, worked or in turn bred to raise other slaves. (31) Much of the early abolitionist work by women reformers, the same reformers who led the movement to create women's prisons, focused on sexual abuse of female slaves. (32)

      In fact, Harriet Jacobs, one of the early female abolitionists and a former slave wrote extensively of the sexual exploitation of female slaves. (33) At the same time the sexual degradation of female slaves was also used rhetorically by early women's rights groups who compared their lack of rights to that of female slaves--making the plea that their treatment should be better than that of female slaves. (34) Their failure to get that "better" treatment moved them to abandon both the abolition movement and the reform of women's prisons, in favor of gaining suffrage. (35)


    Slavery (36) and sexual abuse of women in prison share many congruencies and certainly obvious differences. The sexual abuse of slaves differed from sexual abuse of women in prison in at least one fundamental and important way--its legality. Slavery and the sexual abuse of slaves that occurred as a result of it were legally sanctioned in the United States, while arguably sexual abuse of women in custody is not. (37) It would be tempting to say that sexual abuse in institutional settings primarily affects women, and therefore--like slavery--an identifiable group is targeted for discriminatory treatment. That, however, is not true. Both male and female prisoners frequently face sexual abuse by both staff and other inmates as a means of domination. (38)

    Similar to sexual abuse in prisons, sexual abuse of slaves also was not limited to abuse of females. Though sexual abuse of male slaves did not take the same form as sexual abuse of women slaves, male slaves were targeted for abuse related to their sexuality--often facing castration as a form of oppression. (39) Thus, a congruency of both sexual abuse of women in prison and women in slavery is that sexual abuse was and is used as a tool of oppression.

    1. Sexual Violence as a Tool of Oppression

      Sexual violence has been used as a means of oppression, control and retribution against women in custody both domestically and internationally. (40) On the international stage, in times of war, sexual abuse, usually against women, is frequently used during investigation as a means of intimidation or torture. (41) The literature on the experience of women in slavery and that of women prisoners is replete with accounts of the sexual abuse of women. (42)

      An offshoot of sexual violence is the complicated relationships that sometimes emerge between captive and captor. Both in slavery and in prison, the roles of the oppressed and the oppressor can become confused--sometimes resulting in relationships that stretch traditional boundaries of captor and captive. (43) There are many accounts of women slaves bearing children and having long-term relationships with their owners. (44) The same is true for women in custody. (45) The reasons for these relationships are quite complex. They can certainly be motivated by love, (46) sexual desire, (47) or desire to bear children (48)--even under oppressive conditions. (49) These relationships, in the context of slavery, were often motivated by need--the oppressor had access to items that would make slavery or imprisonment more bearable--better food or clothing, better work assignments, protection from other oppressors, and increased status within the framework. (50) The same is true for women prisoners. (51)

      Because of the imbalance of power inherent to the position of authority that captors hold over the captured, the concept of consent may have only limited value in evaluating these relationships. (52) In slavery, however, consent was not an issue. Slave masters...

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