Female prisoners report abuses, lack of privacy

Published Dec. 24, 1999|Updated Sept. 30, 2005

In the bathrooms of Florida's female prisons, male guards sometimes stand by as women inmates use the toilet. They are there when women take showers. They can look on as the women change their clothes.

In a new survey of 153 inmates, more than a third reported that male guards are present when they are in various stages of undress. More than half reported inappropriate sexual, verbal or physical behavior by male and female prison staff.

For the most part, the complaints against female guards involved verbal abuse, such as calling an inmate a "whore." But 40 percent of the complaints against male guards involved inappropriate sexual behavior.

The survey sample was small, and survey takers allowed inmates to define what they considered inappropriate. But the experts who compiled the numbers, after two high-profile inmate suicides last year, say they are significant because so many of the female inmates reported being abused before coming to prison. Forty-one percent said they had been physically abused, while 58 percent reported sexual abuse.

"It's a training issue _ if you have been abused and they have the feeling men are watching you or they pat-search or strip-search you, how do you think that might make you feel?" asked Maxine McConnell, assistant executive director of the Florida Corrections Commission, a prison watchdog group set up by the Legislature that helped conduct the study. "She may go berserk, and the officers may think she's misbehaving if they don't understand the issues."

A history of abuse also may lead to the need for specialized mental health care, according to a report by the Correctional Medical Authority, another watchdog group set up by the Legislature that participated in the study.

For instance, abused women may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and have trouble controlling anger.

"Interacting with authority figures and men in general . . . being physically threatened, restrained or locked down, and being naked can cause flashbacks," the report said. "If this disorder is not addressed adequately and appropriately, increased use of staff time, unnecessary use of valuable and limited resources, as well as retraumatization of the offender will result."

The survey is just one of several efforts under way to better understand Florida's female inmate population in the wake of suicides at Jefferson Correctional Institution in 1998. State prisons house 3,834 women. More than half the officers guarding them are men, according to the Department of Corrections.

Although many of the questions focused on how inmates felt they were treated by guards, the survey also covered health care and nutrition issues as well as needs specific to women.

For instance, 45 percent of those surveyed felt they did not receive an adequate amount of undergarments weekly. Of those, 43 percent said they were provided only one to three panties each week. Sixty-one percent said prison bras did not provide them with adequate support.

Both the Florida Corrections Commission and the Correctional Medical Authority have put together recommendations for the Department of Corrections.

Department of Corrections spokesman C.J. Drake said the department will carefully consider the recommendations. Drake said Secretary Michael Moore, who arrived in January of this year, already has made several decisions he hopes will better address the needs of female inmates.

For instance, the department shut down Jefferson Correctional Institution and transferred the women to a prison in South Florida. Because many inmates are from that area, they will be closer to families, Drake said. Jefferson will become a male prison.

In addition, Drake said the department is considering changing its training to better inform officers of female inmates' needs. A memo went out in April asking prisons to try to avoid putting male officers where they would see undressed female inmates.

"We need to be more sensitive," Drake said.

Some additional recommendations to the department include:

Prohibiting pat searches of female inmates by male guards except in emergencies.

Requiring that a woman supervise any strip searches of female offenders except in emergencies.

Ensuring that female officers staff dormitories during the hours female offenders are most likely to bathe or change.

Requiring male officers to announce their presence when entering female dormitories.

Providing more training on sexual misconduct, and taking additional steps to better track and investigate sexual misconduct allegations.

Extending the law that prohibits department employees from engaging in sexual misconduct to include employees of privately run prisons.

Including other state agencies and outsiders with expertise in sexual abuse, domestic violence and similar issues on its special advisory committee on female offenders.