The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Inhumane system of incarceration in U.S. poses special danger to women

New Jersey is closing a women’s prison, but it won’t get at the root of the problem

The long-troubled Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in Clinton will be shuttered, the New Jersey governor announced recently. (Seth Wenig/AP)
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Last week, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) announced his intention to close the state’s women’s prison, Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, as a means of “completely breaking [a] pattern of misconduct.” Murphy reported being “deeply disturbed and disgusted” by an April 2020 Justice Department report citing a “pervasive culture” of violence and sexual abuse in the institution.

Headlines referred to the findings as “shocking,” but they actually echo centuries of accounts of abuse and neglect endured by women in U.S. prisons, as well as more recent reports of mistreatment. While the closure of Edna Mahan may stop cruelty at one facility, it is an incomplete solution to a deeper and widespread problem: The United States’ jarringly inhumane system of incarceration poses unique dangers to women.

That has remained true throughout U.S. history, though prison conditions have varied by period, region and other factors. Reports of physical and sexual abuse in 19th-century penitentiaries were rife, as were tales of extreme neglect. In western New York, in the mid-1820s, women were placed in an attic above the kitchen of the new state prison. Aside from being visited by a steward who brought food and removed waste once per day, they were largely abandoned.

In the South, women in prison camps undertook forced labor — building roads, tending crops — alongside their male counterparts. Under a system that supported both white supremacy and the Southern economy, all incarcerated people faced threats of corporal punishment and abuse. But, as detailed by Talitha LeFlouria, Black women in particular were “subjected to fiendish acts of physical cruelty, often of a sexualized nature, and raped with impunity.”

At the turn of the 20th century, reformers who voiced concerns that prevailing prison conditions undercut public safety and democratic ideals pushed state governments, mainly in the Northeast, to construct all-female reformatories focused on rehabilitation rather than just punishment. Results of prison-based agricultural and domestic education programs at facilities like Edna Mahan — founded in 1913 as Clinton Farms — would be, they imagined, “shown in many happy homes, many clean and upright lives, many parasites turned into producers,” as the Clinton Farms 1917 annual report put it.

Only some were deemed worthy of such high hopes, however. Women’s prisons, like others, were segregated and racialized, and White women had the most extensive access to reformatory-style programs.

In the post-World War II years, many Southern and Western states lacking dedicated women’s prisons invested in such facilities. By that point, the reform impulse had largely waned, and women, like other incarcerated people, were increasingly “warehoused” in institutions hidden from public view and scrutiny.

Constituting a relatively small portion of the prison population, and commanding little sympathy from lawmakers, they increasingly took claims of abuse and neglect to the courts. In cases like Barefield v. Leach in New Mexico (1974), Grosso v. Lally in Maryland (1977) and Glover v. Johnson in Michigan (1979), women argued that they had even less access to vocational and educational programs than their male counterparts.

Other litigation focused on women’s heightened risk of sexual harassment and violence. In a 1977 lawsuit, women incarcerated at Bedford Hills in New York alleged that correctional officers violated their privacy and left them “‘involuntarily exposed’” in a variety of ways, including by looking “‘over the curtain which we use to cover the doorways to our cells when we are on the toilet.’” An appeals court opinion stipulating that women could dress in shower stalls and request that male guards close their cell door slots when they used toilets, Juanita Diaz-Cotto notes, failed to address “the widespread fear among women prisoners … [of] greater sexual and other abuse.”

Women protesting poor treatment faced the prospect not only of being rebuffed, but also of violent repression. According to a 1975 civil action, after receiving no response to written grievances, more than 30 people incarcerated at the North Carolina women’s prison in Raleigh gathered in the prison yard for a “vigil” with the aim of presenting their complaints directly to facility officials. They were met instead by guards wearing riot helmets and wielding billy clubs. As the protesters assumed “the traditional non-violence posture … by lying down and going limp,” the men forcibly moved them inside. By the end of the confrontation, the women said, they had injuries, including scratches on their faces and broken ribs, and they had been tear-gassed.

Although action could be dangerous, incarcerated women and their advocates consistently organized and spoke out. In October 1980, the radical newsletter No More Cages, presented firsthand reports from Ohio’s Reformatory for Women at Marysville. Harsh disciplinary procedures, medical neglect and guards’ physical brutality were rampant, according to imprisoned women. “We are,” they said, “extremely desperate.”

Yet, with the public clamoring for harsher policing and sentencing, prison officials, policymakers and the courts too often ignored such pleas, even as the population of women at risk in U.S. prisons and jails exploded. Over the past 40 years, according to the Sentencing Project, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 700 percent, from 26,378 in 1980 to 222,455 in 2019.

The Justice Department report about Edna Mahan reveals that women in prisons face terrifying dangers — dangers that resemble those encountered and fought by generations that came before them. Perhaps more disturbing, the New Jersey facility is hardly an anomaly.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons last month reached a monetary settlement with more than a dozen women who reported that they were sexually abused and assaulted by guards while being held at the Federal Correctional Complex Coleman in Florida. And in December 2020, the Justice Department reported that conditions at Lowell Correctional Institution, a Florida state women’s facility, were similar to those at Edna Mahan.

Despite the department’s assertion that there have been egregious violations of constitutional rights at Lowell, policymakers and state officials have embraced the twin strategies of intransigence and repression modeled by their historical forebears. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) did not respond to requests for comment from the Miami Herald upon the release of the Justice Department findings and ignored calls to oust Lowell’s warden. Meanwhile, Florida Corrections Secretary Mark Inch maintained that the report “over-generalized.” All the while, conditions inside apparently remained threatening. In February, a judge granted a protective order for women incarcerated at Lowell and other Florida facilities who alleged that they were subjected to “unconstitutional isolation practices” in retaliation for outspokenness about prison conditions.

While Murphy is at least taking action, it remains to be seen whether closing Edna Mahan and transferring the 400 women imprisoned there to other facilities will help them avoid the rights violations, violence and sexual abuse that have long defined the experience of incarceration in the United States.

The “pattern of misconduct” in need of remedy, it is clear, extends far beyond one institution.

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