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Legal Issues for Women in Federal Prisons

Marilyn Buck and Laura Whitehorn


The federal prison system, like the state systems, has many unique problems because it has its own set of inconsistent and irrational rules. The system does not accept that women prisoners constitute a very different population from men. Officials will readily admit that many rules are made for men, but, being "policy," are applied to women. Because the population of women in the federal system is so much smaller than that of men, and because of sexism, our particular needs and situations are disregarded or minimized. Thus our whole condition is deformed. For example, there are only two FCIs (Federal Correctional Institutions, medium-maximum prisons) for women. As a result, most women are locked up thousands of miles from home – stranded and isolated from their communities. This means few or no visits, little contact of any kind. and general abandonment by any community. While some of our legal problems may not seem so different on their face from imprisoned men's, this increased isolation affects all areas of our lives, from the legal to the social.

access to legal aid

Here in FCI Dublin there is no legal aid program. There have been programs (law schools/students) which have been willing to come into the prison, but for various unknown reasons, no outside program has been allowed to function. Given that there are very few experienced and accomplished jailhouse lawyers here, it is difficult for the prisoners to pursue legal remedies in their own cases or in relation to legal issues that arise in the course of imprisonment.

Access to the legal community outside is further hampered by the restrictions on phone calls (We are restricted to a pre-approved phone list.), and on legal visits, which must also be pre-arranged. No papers can be brought in by lawyers without prior clearance of each item. Finally, all phone calls are monitored.

child care/custody

Women are usually the ones primary responsible for their children. There are not facilities to aid or support women in their legal struggles to maintain the integrity of their family structure or to ensure their children's rights to a safe, healthy environment. Even for those whose children are fortunate enough to live with a family member, trying to obtain aid to families with dependent children (AFDC) is difficult from inside. If other issues arise, such as abuse, rape of children, getting legal aid is virtually impossible. Besides a lack of legal aid, there is no financial aid available for children to travel here to visit their mothers. Most women never see their children.

language difficulties

Approximately one third of the population is composed of foreign nationals, most of whom speak little or no English. These women's legal rights have generally been trampled on from the day of arrest. As xenophobia and legal proscriptions against immigrants escalate in this country, women prisoners are also profoundly affected. Here in the federal system, a prisoner may work for UNICOR - prison industries – and be paid a salary comparable to the slave wages paid to workers in countries like El Salvador, South Korea and the Philippines. This is most women's sole means of support for themselves and to send money home. Foreign nationals are in danger of losing their jobs. given the rapid changes in federal laws and policies.

threat of sexual abuse

Male guards are in the housing units; pat searches by the male guards are routine. These practices result in the complete absence of privacy and the constant threat of abuse. For women who have been sexually abused (some figures say as high as 85% of women in prison), invasive pat searches by men are especially damaging. For all of us, these searches serve as a constant humiliation and reminder that we have no right to dignity and safety. Male guard pat searches of women have been ruled illegal in California, yet they continue unabated throughout the federal system.

racism, sexism, and sentence disparities

The disparities in sentencing between crack cocaine and powder cocaine has had a profound effect on the prison population as a whole. Women have been wrenched from their homes and children for 5, 10, or 15 years for mere possession. Given that the majority of those imprisoned for crack are Black, this has affected the entire social structure of the black community – more children without others, cast into inadequate and hostile social welfare system. It is perhaps one of the most blatantly racist laws designed to implement cultural genocide. That a large percentage of young Black men are imprisoned under this law is fairly well-known and admitted. That a large number of young black women are, as well, is seldom mentioned. (Typically, women involved in drug conspiracy cases have no access to the things that qualify as "mitigating circumstances" for shorter sentences. Being in the lower echelons of most conspiracies, or because they are related to a man who is their main tie to the conspiracy but have refused to "cooperate" –snitch –, many women receive very long sentences.

While the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) equivocated about the reasons for the mid-October national lockdown of all federal prisons, it seems clear that this level of cultural genocide and racism – fortified by Congress' refusal to correct the sentencing disparities for cocaine – is heightening the contradictions. There is a steady march to increased repression and brutality. In modern times there has never been such a lockdown. The lockdown itself – a preemptive strike it might be called – provoked responses from prisoners so arbitrarily locked down. That occurred here: when women were forced to go to work during the lockdown, trash can fires were set in all the living units on a Monday night. A sweep followed. In the next days, around 60 women were rounded-up – mostly Black women. They were summarily tried, most convicted, and nearly 40 shipped off to a federal men's prison in Coleman, FL, where they remain locked down in the segregation unit there. With few legal resources, especially no legal aid programs at our command, there was little we could do from inside.

Some of these problems are not unique to women prisoners, but they have a particular and distinct impact on women – and through us, on our families and communities as well.

This article was first printed in The Legal Journal, Newsletter of the Prison Law Project, Tenth Issue, Volume IV, Number 1, Winter 1996. (c) 1996, Prison Law Project, National Lawyers Guild (Permission is granted to freely reprint this Legal Journal for non-profit purposes only. We ask only that it be reprinted accurately, and that its content to be credited to the Prison Law Project of the National Lawyers Guild.) Reprinted here with permission of the authors.

Marilyn Buck on mural by Susan Greene

Marilyn with AIDS support group inside Marianna prison, with Silvia Baraldini Susan Rosenberg and others.