A National Pattern of Misconduct and Impunity
December 7, 1996

In All Too Familiar: Sexual Abuse of Women in U.S. State Prisons, released today, the Human Rights Watch Women's Rights Project charges that in state prisons from Georgia to California, male officers are sexually abusing female prisoners with nearly total impunity. State and federal officials in a position to address such misconduct often deny that it exists or fail to take adequate steps to prevent it. As a result, sexual misconduct in U.S. state prisons for women is emerging as an explosive national problem.

Human Rights Watch calls on all states to adopt and enforce prison rules that clearly define and prohibit all forms of sexual misconduct, including sexual intercourse and touching, inappropriate visual surveillance, and verbal degradation and harassment. We further call on states to make all sexual contact by officers with prisoners a crime and to ensure that correctional employees who engage in such misconduct are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. .The United States has the dubious distinction of incarcerating the largest known number of prisoners in the world, of which a steadily increasing number are women. Since 1980, the number of women entering U.S. prisons had risen by almost 400 percent, roughly double the incarceration rate increase of males. Fifty-two percent of these prisoners are African-American women who constitute only fourteen percent of the total U.S. female population. According to current estimates, at least half of all female prisoners have experienced some form of sexual abuse prior to incarceration.

"The situation for women in U.S. state prisons is intolerable," said Dorothy Q. Thomas, director of the Human Rights Watch Women's Rights Project and an author of the report. "Male officers are sexually abusing female prisoners while the state and federal governments largely look the other way. It doesn't take a lot of resources to remedy this problem, just the political will to put a stop to it."

One of the main factors contributing to sexual misconduct in U.S. state prisons is that the U.S., in violation of international norms, allows male officers to serve in positions that involve constant physical contact with female prisoners. Thus, the increased number of women in U.S. state prisons are more often than not being guarded by men. In fact, in many women's facilities male officers outnumber their female counterparts by two, and sometimes three to one.

All Too Familiar reflects research into sexual abuse of women in U.S. state prisons conducted by the Human Rights Watch Women's Rights Project and other Human Rights Watch staff from March 1994 to November 1996. It is based on interviews with the U.S. federal government, state departments of corrections and district attorneys, correctional employees, civil and women's rights lawyers, prisoner aid organizations, and over sixty prisoners formerly or currently incarcerated in eleven women's prisons in California, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New York, and the District of Columbia (D.C.). It finds that male officers vaginally, anally, and orally rape and sexually assault and abuse female prisoners. They use mandatory pat-frisks to grope women's breasts, buttocks, and vaginal areas, view them inappropriately while in a state of undress, and engage in constant verbal harassment of female prisoners, contributing to a custodial environment that is often hostile and highly sexualized. In some cases, women have been impregnated as a result of sexual misconduct and some of these prisoners have faced additional abuse in the form of inappropriate segregation, denial of adequate health care, and/or pressure to seek an abortion.

In committing such gross misconduct, male officers have abused their nearly absolute power over female prisoners to force them to have sex, either through actual or threatened physical violence or through the provision or, by implication, threat to deny goods and privileges. In other cases, male officers have offered or provided goods and privileges to female prisoners as a form of reward for engaging in sexual relations or have violated their most basic professional duty and engaged in sexual contact with female prisoners absent the use or threat of force or any material exchange.

The U.S. is clearly bound under constitutional and international law to prohibit all forms of custodial sexual misconduct. Yet neither the nation's capital nor any of the five states investigated for this report are adequately upholding these national and international obligations. All of them have prison rules concerning sexual misconduct, but they often refer only vaguely to "overfamiliarity" or "fraternization." Where criminal laws exist, they are inadequately enforced.

Among the obstacles to the eradication of custodial sexual misconduct are:

-Correctional systems routinely refuse to acknowledge this problem and often only do so when class actions suits are lodged against them.

-Most departments of corrections have failed to establish credible internal grievance, investigatory and disciplinary procedures that do not expose women prisoners to retaliation or punishment and guarantee that abusive officers are appropriately sanction.

-Few state legislatures have established independent monitors to oversee the prison systems, leaving most departments of corrections to investigate themselves.

-State police are not consistently informed of suspected criminal sexual misconduct and even when they are, such cases are rarely prosecuted.

The ability of nongovernmental monitors and private attorneys effectively to challenge abuses within the state prison systems for women has been seriously compromised by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which President Bill Clinton signed into law in April 1996.

-The PLRA dramatically limits the ability of individuals and nongovernmental organizations to challenge abusive prison conditions through litigation.

-It terminates any court order regarding unlawful conditions or practices in a given prison after two years, which is often an unreasonably short time to achieve any meaningful change in the way a prison is operated.

-The PLRA restricts court-awarded attorneys' fees, which are the main income for prisoner rights attorneys, and severely limits the authority of federal courts to assign judicial officers to oversee prison reform, a key tool for implementing remedial court orders.

The neglect of sexual misconduct by U.S. officials has reached the highest levels of the government. Under federal law, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has the power both to prosecute correctional officials who violate federal civil rights statues and to investigate and institute civil actions against a state facility that is engaging in a pattern or practice of subjecting prisoners to "egregious or flagrant" conditions. Unfortunately, while the DOJ has investigated some women's facilities for sexual misconduct, it is falling far short of its obligations to protect against this abuse. To our knowledge, the department rarely criminally prosecutes a correctional official suspected of sexually abusing incarcerated women, and civil investigations into abusive facilities are infrequent. Moreover, although the DOJ regularly receives complaints of custodial sexual misconduct, the department maintains no system for recording such complaints, nor does it systematically monitor the number of complaints concerning any particular institution or type of abuse. Absent such information, it is virtually impossible for the DOJ to ensure that it is fully aware of all the sexual misconduct problems that fall within its jurisdiction.

In its first report to the U.N. committee that monitors compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified by the U.S. in 1993, the U.S. stated that the problem of custodial sexual misconduct in U.S. state prisons for women is "addressed through staff training and through criminal statutes prohibiting such activity." Nothing could be further from the truth. Human Rights Watch calls on the United States publicly to acknowledge the custodial sexual misconduct that pervades its state prison facilities for women and makes the following recommendations urging the federal government and its constituent states to take meaningful steps to prevent, investigate, punish and ultimately eliminate this pressing problem. More detailed recommendations are included in the body of the report.