By Alex MacDonald, Patricia M. Arnold Women’s Rights Project Legal Intern, ACLU of VirginiaIt may come as no surprise that the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia receives a large number of requests for help from individuals who are currently incarcerated. As an intern with the ACLU of Virginia Patricia M. Arnold Women’s Rights Project, several of my assignments involved researching and drafting response letters to some of these requests. If that sounds like a standard menial intern task, please believe me, it is not. These letters are often genuinely heartbreaking.
Incarcerated persons often go unnoticed. The number of women in prison has reached an all time high, yet they go even more unnoticed than men. Because they have virtually no opportunity to be heard on their own and because they have no natural constituency, incarcerated women need advocates to act on their behalf.
Sexual assault is a major problem, particularly among female prison populations. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 4.4 percent of prison inmates and 3.1 percent of jail inmates reported one or more incidents of sexual victimization during 2008-2009. When one focuses on female prisoners, the problem becomes worse by several degrees of magnitude. According to the Bureau, “Female prisoners (4.7 percent) were more than twice as likely as male prisoners (1.9 percent) to report experiencing sexual victimization by another prisoner.” An estimated 2.1 percent of female prisoners and 1.5 percent of female jail inmates reported at least one incident with staff.
These statistics are staggering. The fact that one woman suffers a sexual assault while in state custody is unacceptable. Yet, the epidemic goes largely unreported and undiscussed.
Victims of sexual assault in prisons and jails face difficulty accessing mental health services, fear of retaliation for speaking out, harassment for reporting the crime, and trouble accessing information about the investigation of the crime.
Inmates are at the mercy of prison officials, who are sometimes themselves the perpetrators of violence, and the mental anguish inmates endure as victims is compounded by daily hostility and indifference.
The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires that prison officials provide a system of ready access to adequate mental health care. There must be a systematic program for screening and evaluating inmates in order to identify those who require mental health treatment. Further, treatment must entail more than segregation and close supervision of the inmate patients. Additionally, under the Eighth Amendment, prison officials cannot act with deliberate indifference toward a prisoner’s safety, and they have a responsibility to take reasonable measures to protect obvious victims they are aware of.
My fear is that most people would prefer to ignore the issue. The measures required to address the problem are complicated, demand resources, and are often counterintuitive to the average person’s view of prison life. Institutional resistance to reform is sure to be heavy.
None of this should prevent reform. Prisoners are human beings, and they have basic human rights. To ignore this sort of widespread tragedy is inhuman. Prisoners do not check their humanity at the jailhouse gates.