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Federal commission highlights harms and civil rights violations for women in prison

Samantha Melamed, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

PHILADELPHIA -- When Naomi Blount was sentenced to the State Correctional Institution Muncy in 1982, there were maybe 300 or 400 women there, and she had a cell to herself.

"Then as the years passed by and the population stated growing, that's when they started doubling us up -- and then quadrupling us up," said Blount, a former lifer who received commutation after 37 years, and now works for the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons.

What she witnessed firsthand was a 600% increase in the female prison population in Pennsylvania -- a trend mirrored in many other parts of the country.

A report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released Wednesday found that prisons around the country have failed to manage that growth in a way that protects women prisoners and serves their needs.

Despite federal reforms, including the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), "Incarcerated women continue to experience physical and psychological safety harms while incarcerated and insufficient satisfaction of their constitutional rights," the commission noted.

It found that women are subjected to disproportionately harsh punishments in prison, frequently lack access to the same programs and services available to men, and risk alienation from their families or even losing parental rights.

 

And, the commission concluded, "Sexual abuse and rape remain prevalent against women in prison." It noted that PREA required the establishment of a prison-rape review panel that would hold annual public hearings; the panel has not met since 2014.

The commission made 34 recommendations, from trauma-informed disciplinary policies, to stronger PREA enforcement, to providing free feminine-hygiene products.

However, many of the problems facing women in prison require cultural as well as policy change, said Claire Shubik-Richards, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society.

In a review of three months of complaints by women prisoners to the Prison Society, she found nearly half were related to harassment by staff. The rest were connected to lack of access to healthcare or to conditions of confinement.

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