According to the nonprofit Human Rights Watch, more than 200,000 women count among the incarcerated in the U.S. with at least 15 percent of them falling victim to sexual assault during their time behind bars.
These assaults occur primarily at the hands of male correctional officers who can perform strip searches at any time or watch as women shower and use the toilet.
In addition, experts suggest reported assaults remain much lower than actual incidents as many inmates opt for silence in fear of retaliation from guards and supervisors.
In raw terms, some male corrections officers have forced women inmates into degrading and dehumanizing sex acts. They allegedly threaten women with filing false reports to parole boards, plant contraband in their cells and even prohibit visits from children and family.
Pamela Smith represents one woman all-too-familiar with the heinous acts of authorities who rarely receive punishment for their deeds. Nonetheless, for the past 25 years, Smith has sought justice.
The Tulsa native received a 20-year sentence in the early 1990s for check and credit card fraud.
While at the Tulsa Community Correctional Facility, Smith, eventually considered a model prisoner, would be approved for a work-release program. Authorities assigned her to do housekeeping at a Drivers License office for the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety in Tulsa.
Once there, Smith alleges her supervisor immediately assaulted her.
During one assault, the supervisor used a glass salt shaker to penetrate her.
“I am a Black woman with a past,” Smith wrote an email to the Black Press saying no one would listen to her cry for help.
“They have been doing this to Black women since our ancestors were brought here,” Smith said. “The white man has always used and violated our bodies. The same thing is going on to this day in the prisons in Oklahoma and I know all over the country.”
Smith has filed and lost numerous civil suits but she said her fight remains about protecting other women behind bars.
A recent Department of Justice report about sexual violence in New Jersey’s Edna Mahan Correctional Facility concluded that the risk of sexual harm has grown to such heights that it has reached constitutional proportions and violated the Eighth Amendment rights of inmates against cruel and unusual punishment.
As recounted in Ms. Magazine, “the DOJ report tells stories of women who were forced into indignities such as being forced to perform oral sex or having to serve as the lookout for their assailant as they were being raped.”
The magazine also noted the DOJ’s 2014 investigation at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Alabama.
“Reading both of the reports, the New Jersey and the Alabama prisons could be the same place: women being called [derogatory names] and coerced into performing oral sex on male guards.
“This level of sex and chaos might be labeled some oddly-situated bacchanalia if women’s survival and freedom — women are threatened with parole-busting discipline reports if they don’t comply with sexual demands — weren’t in the balance.”
Numerous Suits Filed by Inmates Nationwide
In Missouri, no fewer than five federal lawsuits have been filed against the Chillicothe Correctional Center by incarcerated women; at least nine women have accused one therapist of sexual abuse, Ms. Magazine reported.
Eight suits remain pending against Coffee Creek Correctional Facility and the Oregon Department of Corrections for one male nurse who allegedly abused, raped, or sodomized more than 15 women while he worked there.
A woman in Connecticut prison is suing the state for assaults by multiple male officers.
At least 12 officers have been accused of sexual misconduct at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in Vermont. In Florida, too, women say sexual abuse is rampant in the Coleman Federal Detention Facility. It’s also happening in California, Kansas and Pennsylvania.
Incarcerated women are 30 times more likely to be raped than free women.
While women represent less than 10 percent of inmates, their reports account for three-quarters of assaults with men totaling almost three-quarters of staff.
The Sentencing Project noted that the imprisonment rate for Black women is 83 per 100,000, or more than 1.7 times the rate of white women (48 per 100,000) with Latinx women imprisoned at a rate of 63 per 100,000.
While the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act “was developed with good intentions by the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission in concert with prisoner rights’ advocates around the country, it falls far short of what is needed to protect all prisoners, especially women and people of color,” noted The Gender Policy Report.
Earlier this year, and at the behest of President Joe Biden, the U.S. House passed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2021.
The measure, which builds on legislation from 1994, seesk to have sexual assault recognized as a federal crime and to include those victimized while in prison.
Smith Refuses to Give Up the Fight
Despite continued setbacks in her 25-year journey for justice, Smith said she keeps fighting because she has truth, documentation and evidence on her side.
She produced several reports, including from physicians and mental health professionals which support her claims.
“[Oklahoma authorities] have to lie, cheat, obstruct justice, cover-up, abuse their power and conspire against me and my case to get away with all the corruption they have done against me,” Smith said.
“I keep fighting to expose the state of Oklahoma, so they have to keep lying, destroying evidence and misinforming law enforcement and Oklahoma taxpayers to hide their hands and keep from going to jail.”
“They know once the truth comes out, many of them and their buddies are going to be locked up and they don’t want that. They don’t want to answer for their wrongdoings. Accountability,” she said.
Neither correction officials nor government officials returned messages seeking comment.
“It’s not just me but the countless other women and even girls who have suffered at the hands of rapists. Unfortunately, Oklahoma’s whole system and government agencies have let down countless abused women and swept their cries under the rug. I have to keep fighting so that they can have a voice,” she said.