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 to bargain down their sentences. According to one estimate, at least half of the overall increase in women prisoners in state prisons is a result of prosecution for drug crimes.3

The US prison system was established to serve a predominantly male population, and men still make up 85 percent of the two million people in American jails or prisons—the highest per capita prison population in the world, with the possible exception of Russia. The prisons are often unequipped to meet the special needs, including medical needs, of women prisoners; even in female prisons, more-over, at least 41 percent of the guards are likely to be male, with far higher percentages in some states.4 Indeed, the National Institute of Corrections concluded in 1998 that no prisons for women had an entirely female custodial staff.5 Part of the reason for this is that US courts have ruled that anti-discrimination provisions in employment law preclude assigning guards to prison duty on the basis of gender.6

One result is that male officers are sometimes present during many of the private moments in the lives of women prisoners, when they dress and undress, take showers, or go to the toilet. Still more of a problem is that in almost all states male guards are permitted to carry out pat-down searches of female inmates, touching women through their clothes, including their breasts and genitals. In five states—Connecticut, Kansas, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania—and in the Federal Bureau of Prisons such searches are routine.7 Since a high percentage of women in prison have experienced some form of sexual or physical abuse earlier in their lives (as many as 37 percent report they had such experience before they reached the age of eighteen8), male touching of this kind can be especially traumatic.


Most prison guards are responsible employees who have never violated a woman prisoner in any way. But allegations of sexual abuse of women in prison and the number of successful lawsuits by women prisoners have both been growing. Serious charges involving well over a thousand women inmates have been brought, and in many cases substantiated, in forty-eight out of the fifty states. And that number almost certainly represents a small fraction of the incidents that occur.


Not all the assaults are carried out by the guards. One case that has had wide consequences involved Robin Lucas, the owner of a hair salon, who was convicted of cashing $7,800 worth of stolen travelers’ checks and sentenced to thirty-three months in the Federal Correctional Institute in Dublin, California. One night, as Ms. Lucas lay sleeping in her cell, she was awakened, as she later described it, “by the hot breath of a man, his body pushing against me, tugging at my clothes, demanding that I be nice to him.” The man was a male inmate from another part of the prison who had paid guards to allow him to go into Ms. Lucas’s cell. Though she managed to fight him off, she was seriously injured. Three weeks later a far worse attack took place, this time involving three inmates who handcuffed and repeatedly raped and sodomized her. Upon her release, Lucas sued the federal government, which settled the case in 1998 for $500,000, one of the first and largest settlements of its kind.9

Since then dozens of other lawsuits have been filed and many have been settled out of court for substantial sums. In addition to correctional officers, prison medical officials, parole officers, and even chaplains have had to acknowledge sexual offenses. In Valley State Prison in California, for instance, the head medical officer was reassigned after admitting to having given unnecessary pelvic exams to female inmates because, he said, “they enjoyed the male contact.” A county sheriff in West Virginia was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison for forcing female inmates to engage in sex acts with law enforcement officers.10

State laws are often inadequate to deal with such conduct. In 1999 fourteen states did not even have laws prohibiting sexual contact between prison officials and inmates. Today, thanks to campaigns in state legislatures, the number of such states has been reduced to five—Alabama, Minnesota, Oregon, Vermont, and Wisconsin. The unions that represent prison and jail guards are sometimes reluctant to endorse laws prohibiting sexual contact with inmates, fearing that officers may be falsely accused. Where there is no law on the books, however, officers who are charged with a sex crime can admit that sexual contact took place but claim it was consensual and thereby escape conviction.

Even in states that do have statutes outlawing sexual misconduct against prisoners, those laws sometimes fail to deal with the issue of consensuality. Most advocates for prisoners would contend that no sexual contact should be considered consensual in a situation where the prisoner is entirely powerless, at the mercy of guards and other officials. Women may offer to trade sex for privileges; but how freely is that offer made when officers have total control over the inmates’ lives and welfare? Three states, Colorado, Missouri, and Wyoming, while making sexual contact a crime, explicitly allow officers to avoid prosecution by arguing that they had the consent of the victim.

In four states the situation is even worse. An inmate in California may be prosecuted under state law if she reports having had oral sex, even if she claims it was forced. In Arizona an inmate who makes a complaint about alleged abuse must admit to having committed a sexual offense and so, theoretically at least, she can be prosecuted even if she was forcibly raped. And in Delaware and Nevada an inmate can be punished if she makes a charge of rape and fails to prove it.11 Statutes such as these, coupled with the often legitimate fear that guards will retaliate against an inmate who complains, make it almost inevitable that many offenses will not be reported.

At least six criteria drawn from international human rights standards could reasonably be used to determine whether a law against sexual misconduct in prisons is adequate12: (1) No punishment should be inflicted on a prisoner reporting the custodial misconduct; (2) The statute should cover all forms of sexual abuse, not just those involving penetration, and should include threatened sexual assault and inappropriate touching13; (3) Consent should not be allowed as a defense; (4) All those who come in contact with inmates, including contractual employees such as kitchen workers, should be liable to prosecution, not just officers; (5) All places in which prisoners are held under detention should be legally protected—city and county jails as well as places outside prisons in which inmates are under custodial control; and (6) Cases involving first- and second-degree assault by guards should be treated as felonies, not misdemeanors.


Astonishingly, only two states, Kansas and Oklahoma, meet all six criteria. That a law may be on the books is of course no guarantee that it will be adequately enforced or that sexual abuse will decline. (In Kansas, Patrick Jones, a prison guard, pleaded guilty in January 2001 to raping two female inmates.14) But a well-framed law would send an important message to everyone who comes in contact with prisoners that, whatever those prisoners may have been imprisoned for, they were not sentenced to be sexually abused.


Women inmates are not the only ones whose lives are affected by sexual violation. With the acquiescence of guards, men in prison are often subjected to rape and sexual assault, usually by other inmates. This appalling situation is known and tolerated throughout the prison system as if it were an additional punishment inmates must suffer.15 What is less well known is that when women are abused in prison, the hidden victims are often their children.

Children may suffer from the physical abuse of women inmates even while the children are being born. At least 1,000 babies are born to women in custody every year. Many states permit and some even require that pregnant inmates be held in restraints, including iron shackles, during transport to a hospital, throughout labor, and again immediately after the child is born. Not only is this a humiliating experience for the mother but it may be dangerous. As Dr. Patricia Garcia, a gynecologist at Northwestern University’s Prentice Women’s Hospital, said in an interview,

Women in labor need to be mobile so that they can assume various positions as needed…. Having the woman in shackles compromises the ability to manipulate her legs into proper position for necessary treatment. The mother and baby’s health could be compromised if there were complications during delivery…. If there were need for a C-section…, a delay of even five minutes could result in permanent brain damage for the baby.16

Inmates in labor are hardly likely to be a danger to themselves or others and they are surely at the lowest possible risk for escape. Such regulations sound as if they have been written by men who know nothing of labor pains. But no matter who wrote them, they obviously seem designed for male prisoners who might conceivably require restraints during transport to a hospital. That the rules have not been adapted to the needs of women seems particularly cruel.17

Once a child is born, moreover, he or she joins approximately 200,000 other children whose mothers are behind bars. This is tragic for everyone concerned but it is also potentially dangerous; mothers who have been sexually abused in prison may be less effective parents as a result. The children of imprisoned mothers are as much as eight times as likely to be prosecuted for crimes as the children of nonoffenders.18

It should not be impossible to prevent the sexual violation of women inmates through a combination of tough laws, fair enforcement, thorough training, and new regulations limiting male guards to administrative duties in women’s prisons. But nothing will change unless politicians and departments of correction are willing to recognize that sexual abuse harms everyone. It cruelly humiliates and damages prisoners who may soon be back in society again, not to mention the spread of venereal disease that sometimes results. It seems too much to hope that the US will soon reexamine the often irrational laws that are putting so many women in prison in the first place. It is surely not too much to ask that it provide decent physical protection once they get there.

This Issue

May 31, 2001