Two Women’s Prisons Face Allegations Of Unsafe Conditions

Supermajority Education Fund

November 25, 2019

Plenty of reporting shows that women’s prisons can be rife with unsanitary conditions, toxic cultures, and sexual violence — and that incarcerated women can do little to seek accountability and safety. Two separate, recent cases reiterated this reality. This month, the media outlet KQED reported that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation fired at least six male correctional officers between 2014 and 2018 for sexual abuse of inmates and this week, incarcerated women at Huron Valley Correctional Facility for Women in Michigan brought a federal lawsuit against the prison for being “denied hygienic conditions and movement.”

One of the fired officers in California was Israel Trevino. The officer had already been warned for his comments to inmates before he was fired in 2018 for sexual misconduct. Although Trevino and others were fired for their behavior, that level of accountability is all too rare, experts on criminal justice inequities say. “Where you find sexual assault, you will find physical assault, corruption, and poor security practices,” Amy Fettig, Deputy Director of the National Prison Project at the ACLU, said. “It’s never just one thing. It’s a combination of toxic factors.”

This culture of abuse and impunity can lead to officers tying incarcerated women’s basic needs to sexual favors. One former inmate of Central California Women’s Facility, Amika Mota, told KQED that she and other women felt that dealing with sexual advances from correctional officers was the only way to get phone calls, tampons, and clean laundry, among other things.

Incarcerated women in other prisons have reported similar experiences. In 2014, the Justice Department released findings that officers at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Alabama forced women to engage in sexual acts “in exchange for basic sanitary supplies.”

Physical threats against incarcerated women can take other forms, too. A new lawsuit in Michigan, brought on behalf of Krystal Clark, Paula Bailey, and Hope Zentz, claims prisoners have been exposed to mold for years and have had mold-related symptoms, according to WXYZ. The Michigan Department of Corrections stated to the outlet, “We disagree with the claims in the lawsuit, but we do not comment on pending litigation.”

Women of color are most affected by these poor living conditions and acts of sexual abuse.  In 2017, the imprisonment rate for Black women was twice the imprisonment rate for white women, and Latinas were imprisoned at 1.3 times the rate of white women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Women, who are the fastest-growing segment of the incarcerated population, are often incarcerated for crimes related to lack of economic opportunity. 

“The vast majority of women behind bars at the state level are there for drug-related crimes and property related crimes that are related to economic status because the vast majority of women going into the criminal justice system are poor,” Fettig added. “It’s basically a population being preyed on by the police and the system.”