When bedtime comes for the guests at the prison California delicately identifies as its Central Women’s Facility, the loudspeaker is reported not infrequently to announce, “All you bitches and whores, get into your rooms.”

One little-noticed index of our advance toward gender equality is a 400 percent increase in the number of women in prison since 1980. The majority of new arrivals are drug offenders, and the rise in their numbers reflects the criminal society where the man deals and the woman carries the stuff and is thus the easier to catch.

Organized feminism has paid small attention to this mark of progress and displays infinitely livelier concern for prisoners chafing under glass ceilings than those sealed round with stone walls. This neglect is now handsomely redeemed by the report on sexual abuse of women in state prisons that Human Rights Watch’s Women’s Rights Project has called “all too familiar.”

Most female prisoners serve their terms in an atmosphere where the ratio of men to women corrections officers is at least two to one. The Women’s Rights Project cannot, in justice, object to men guarding women because it is too sensible not to concede that most men tend to be decent. Its proper grievance is, rather, that there are no rules to inhibit those who aren’t and who are allowed free play to treat their prisons as their deer park.

We would argue foolishly if we suggested that convicted miscreants have not forfeited most of their rights. But we would argue infamously if we denied them any redress for violations of the very body that is pretty much all still theirs.

The occasions of redress for the abused are rare, stingy, and disdainful of the equities owed to the respectable. Sexual harassment has been so prevalent in the corrections department of the District of Columbia, capital of the free world, that last year eight of its female employees successfully sued the department and were awarded $1.4 million in damages.

A few months before, a civil jury had found a District of Columbia corrections lieutenant guilty of raping a woman inmate. The defendant claimed consent. The plaintiff’s attorney pointed out the reality that there is no such thing as consent in prison, and the jury agreed. Her reward was a $5,000 judgment against the district. Such is the scale of penalties for delinquent prison officials: more or less $175,000 for every employee you have subjected to sexual harassment and $5,000 for every inmate you have allowed to be raped.

Small though this fallen but still proud woman’s victory was, it shines as a signal triumph over the universal jailhouse rule that no prisoner’s word can be taken against her guard’s. Georgia goes so far in discounting any prisoner’s unsupported testimony as to refuse to accept it even when the complainant passes and the complained against fails a lie detector test.

Still, Georgia deserves some credit for trying, however easily discourageable it may be. In 1992, the Georgia Department of Corrections fired the deputy warden for “security” at its women’s center after complaints of rape and prisoner intimidation. After the county prosecutor had dropped the attendant criminal charges, the accused was rehired elsewhere at captain’s pay.

We would deceive ourselves, however, if we traced all these evils to a male guard force alone. The Women’s Rights Project report is replete with complaints against doctors, high school equivalency teachers, and even one chaplain. Even women wardens are an insecure assurance. In the Eighties, Illinois installed Jane Higgins as warden of its women’s facility. She was especially zealous in pursuing sexual misconduct charges. When she left, a more complaisant sister took her place and reforms ceased. We men can always count on a woman to do what we want to have done.

Copyright å© 1997 Newsday, Inc.

This Issue

February 6, 1997