Women in Prison

1.

Cassandra Collins was a thirty-four-year-old mother of two daughters when she was sentenced to six months in Florida’s Gadsden County Jail for passing worthless bank checks. She began serving her time in November 1995. Worried that her daughters, then twelve and fourteen, were not being adequately supervised while she was in jail, Collins asked a captain in the county jail if she was eligible for a furlough program that would allow her to spend the night and part of each day at home with her children. The officer agreed to permit Collins to enter a program under which she would work in the jail laundry from 8 AM to 3 PM and then return home. But the captain warned Collins when she began her furlough, “Now you belong to me!”

It was not long before Cassandra Collins learned what the captain meant. At first he demanded that she pay him for being allowed to go home after work. Collins, as he knew, had recently settled a claim for a workers’ compensation injury; she would eventually give him more than $5,000.

Soon, however, the extortion took a different form. After insisting that Collins come into work on Christmas Eve, the captain told her that he would pick her up in his truck. But instead of heading to the jail, he pulled into the parking lot of a funeral home. He briefly showed Collins the gun under his seat and then forced her head into his lap, insisting she perform oral sex. Collins jumped out of the truck and escaped, but a few weeks later she was not so lucky. This time, with the connivance of a sheriff’s deputy, the captain got Collins into his car, drove her to a deserted spot in a nearby wood, and raped her.

When Cassandra Collins was released from jail, she told her story to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLA). The FDLA decided that it could not win a case against the officer and refused to press charges. But, according to Collins, her accusations prompted one of the captain’s fellow officers to claim that she, too, had been a victim of sexual assault at the captain’s hands. In November 2000, the captain pleaded guilty in that case and is now serving time in federal prison.1

Cassandra Collins’s experience of rape is unusual only in that it took place outside prison property. The number of women in US jails and prisons has more than tripled during the past fifteen years, from about 39,000 in 1985 to close to 150,000 today, and with that increase has come a sharp rise in reported incidents of sexual harassment and assault.2

More than 75 percent of women in prison are doing time for nonviolent offenses, thanks in large measure to increasingly punitive drug laws. Women often act as the transporters, or “mules,” of the drug trade; when they are caught they rarely have the kind of information about drug bosses that permits male drug dealers…


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