[Pnews] Women In Solitary Confinement: Buried Inside the Federal Prison System
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Fri Jan 24 10:03:28 EST 2014
Women In Solitary Confinement: Buried Inside the Federal Prison System
January 24, 2014 By Victoria Law
This past September, in response to continued criticism around its use
of solitary confinement, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) began an
internal audit of its "restricted housing operations."
As noted earlier by Solitary Watch
no women's prisons are listed in the Scope of Work
provided by the team hired to conduct the Special Housing Unit Review
and Assessment. The BOP's Public Information Office was unable to
comment on this apparent omission.
Although they are absent from the audit, each women's prison has its own
Special Housing Unit (SHU) where people are locked into their cell 23 ½
to 24 hours each day. In some cases, women are confined because of
behavioral problems or rules violations. But the BOP also has a recent
history of isolating people based solely on their political beliefs.
In 1986, the BOP opened a segregated unit specifically for women
political prisoners. It was built in the basement of the federal prison
at Lexington, Kentucky. "I looked around and was overcome by the sheer
whiteness of the space," recalled former political prisoner Susan
Rosenberg in her memoir /An American Radical./ "It was a bright,
gleaming artificial white, the kind of white that with any lengthy
exposure could almost sear your eyeballs. It was the kind of white that
can make you go mad." Rosenberg and Alejandrina Torres, a member of the
Puerto Rican independence movement who had been sentenced to 35 years
for plotting the bombings of U.S. military bases, were the first two
women transferred to the unit. They were later joined by political
prisoner Silvia Baraldini and two women not convicted of political
actions, Debra Brown and Sylvia Brown. They had no contact with the rest
of the prison population.
Prison officials labeled this a High Security Unit. Rosenberg described
conditions in the High Security Unit:
Every day was filled with confrontations between us and the COs
[correctional officers] over every human need: getting hot water for
a cup of instant coffee, taking a shower, going outside, getting
medical attention, getting a book. We were allowed to come out of
our cells and talk with each other but stayed locked on the tier,
not allowed beyond the gates. There was a camera at each end of the
tier and three gates between the end of the tier and a hall that led
to the rest of the unit. Our cells had windows we could see out of
only by standing on tiptoe on the bed; the view was of shrubs at
ground level in the main inner courtyard of the prison.
Human rights advocates, attorneys, family members and outside supporters
launched a campaign to shut the unit down while the women filed suit. In
1988, following Rosenberg's testimony in court, a judge ordered the unit
closed immediately. The women were transferred to other federal prisons.
While the High Security Unit was shut down, the practice of solitary
confinement continues inside every women's prison. The Federal Medical
Center at Carswell, Texas, opened in July 1994 with an Administrative
Maximum Unit for women who are labeled "special management concerns"
because of escape attempts, violence or other behavioral problems.
But, as in the High Security Unit, women imprisoned for their political
actions, such as war resister Helen Woodson, eco-activist Chelsea
Gerlach and Pakistani national Dr. Aafiyah Sidiqui, have also been
confined there. Not much is known about the unit other than that the
women are entirely separated from the larger prison population and are
often subject to lockdowns.
Other federal women's prisons have Special Housing Units where people
cycle in and out. However, as the BOP's Special Housing Unit Review and
Assessment indicates, these units have garnered much less attention and
outrage than SHUs in men's prisons.
Lashonia Etheridge-Bey has had repeated experiences with the SHU at the
federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut (the prison made famous by the
Netflix series /Orange is the New Black/). Etheridge-Bey recalls that
the SHU was always overcrowded, forcing prison staff to place two people
in each cell. "At some points, they were so overcrowded that we'd be
triple bunked with one woman sleeping on the floor," she recalled. The
women stayed in their cells nearly twenty-four hours a day. Women did
their best to get along under such cramped conditions. "You couldn't
just move to a different cell unless there was a physical fight,"
Etheridge remembered. "You were just stuck."
Staff shortages prevented the women from being taken outside to the yard
during the scant hours they were allotted for out-of-cell recreation.
Instead, they were taken from their cell to another cell. "It was just
an empty cell. There was nothing in it," she stated. Women were not
allowed to bring any of their personal property with them. Women passed
the time by talking to each other or by reading the books from the cart
brought around by staff members on a weekly basis.
The overcrowding too led to longer stays in the SHU. Etheridge-Bey
recalled being written up and sent to the SHU for smoking a cigarette.
(The federal Bureau of Prisons banned smoking in 2004.) Although her
sentence was twenty days, she spent another 22 days in the SHU waiting
for a bed to open up in general population.
In Florida, Yraida Guanipa experienced being locked in two separate
SHUs. In 1996, shortly after her trial, she was sent to the SHU at the
federal prison in Miami. Guanipa recalls that, even before her arrest,
she had experienced years of problems with her menstrual periods. During
her trial, her bleeding was so heavy that her trial had to be put on
hold. Nevertheless, while incarcerated in Miami, she was told that the
Bureau of Prisons would not provide medical services unless there was an
emergency. "I told people I was bleeding too much, but no one listened,"
At the time, Guanipa worked in the prison kitchen. "I spent ten to
fourteen hours a day standing on my feet and doing dishes," she said.
One Sunday, she informed her supervisor that she had been heavily
bleeding for a week and requested medical attention. He refused.
Guanipa then told him that, if she could not receive medical care, she
wanted to go to mass. "My supervisor told me that I could not go to mass
and that I could not go to medical, so I refused to do the dishes," she
stated. Guanipa was sent to the SHU for "disobeying a direct order."
The SHU in Miami took up one floor inside the prison building, Guanipa
remembers. "There was a small window in the wall at the top so at least
you could see the light. And you can hear noise." Oftentimes, that noise
was the sound of other people screaming. "Many had mental health issues.
There would be someone screaming all day or pounding her head against
the wall." When the women screamed, the officer on duty would simply
tell them to shut up. Only when medication was dispensed would the
screaming stop---but only temporarily.
After being transferred to the Federal Correctional Camp in Coleman,
Florida, Guanipa submitted requests for more programs for moms to be
able to spend time with their children. She received no response. "The
Bureau of Prisons rules state that when a prisoner goes on hunger
strike, she is supposed to be placed in a medical institution,
/not/ solitary confinement," she recalled. "So, being the trusting
person that I am, I believed them." Fed up with the lack of programs
and lack of response, Guanipa went on hunger strike in 1999. In
response, BOP officials transferred her to the federal prison in
Tallahassee where she was placed in the SHU. "It was solitary
confinement /inside/ solitary confinement," she remembered. "Those cells
are just for one person. Other SHU cells [such as the ones in Miami] are
for two people, so at least you can talk to someone. It was the worst
inside the worst."
Inside the one person cell was a sink and a toilet. Guanipa remembered
that prison staff did not provide her with water. "The only water you
could get is the water from the sink, which is next to the toilet. It
After 16 days on hunger strike inside Tallahassee's SHU, Guanipa passed
out. She was taken to the hospital inside the prison where a nurse told
her that her kidneys were failing and administered an IV. Less than a
week later, Guanipa was returned to the SHU where she remained for
another two weeks.
"The SHU was separated from the rest of the prison in its own building.
Within that building, there's the 'solitary confinement inside the
solitary confinement,'" she described. Unlike the SHU in Miami there
were no windows. "You don't hear anything, you don't see anything. I
was afraid I was going to lose my mind."
Twice a day, the prison psychologist walked past the SHU cells. "But in
the SHU, if you tell a doctor you're feeling suicidal, they put you in a
worse situation---in the hole without your clothes on, so you don't say
anything," she said.
When she was finally released from the SHU, the experience had shaken
her to the core. "I was so scared after that that I vowed never to do
another hunger strike again," she said.
As in state prisons, women who report sexual assault by staff are
punished with solitary confinement. Guanipa recalled a woman whom she
met at FCI Tallahassee who had been sexually abused by an officer.
After the officer ejaculated on her, she took the evidence to the
investigative unit. The prison responded by placing her in the SHU, then
transferring her to a different prison. Guanipa never saw her again,
although she did see the officer regularly. Nothing happened to him.
When asked about the practice of solitary confinement, Guanipa, who has
been out of prison since 2007, declared, "It doesn't serve any purpose.
It's derogatory. It scars you for the rest of your life. You lose the
capacity to communicate. I would not recommend this type of treatment
for any human beings or for animals. It's torture."
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