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Imprisonment of women is a feminist issue

Lindsay Macher

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Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Alabama, is one of the top ten worst women’s prisons in the nation. Since 2009, it has been under investigation for harsh conditions. So what does the phrase “harsh conditions” really mean? Rather than speaking generally, the specific conditions of women in prison – specifically Tutwiler – must be acknowledged because women’s lives are put into danger every day. While the possible causes of incarceration, such as racial targeting, over-policing and jailing for non-violent crimes, and the for-profit prison system are also important to address on a larger scale, first and foremost, imprisoned women’s daily lives and lived experiences must be taken into consideration.

In a prison which was reported as being 256 people over their maximum occupancy in August, it should come as no surprise that Tutwiler has insufficient funds for all of their inmates. According to AL.com, approximately $43 are spent on each inmate a day at Tutwiler, whereas $70 is the national average. Thinking about these figures, it is apparent that our state isn’t adequately funding this institution that affects so many lives. Nicole Brooks, incarcerated in Tutwiler Prison from 2006-2007, reported that the food supply was inadequate and “not fit for human consumption.” She said that it was frequently infested with worms and most prisoners would opt to go hungry instead of eat the food. Brooks also noted that any food donations were not sent directly to the inmates, but rather picked through by the staff and the unwanted pieces were given to the women.

In addition to poor nutrition, the women are also subject to inadequate supplies of hygienic products. Pads and tampons are reported by the women and acknowledged by the U.S. Department of Justice as being unevenly distributed amongst the inmates. Some women reported going months without any feminine hygiene products, and those that did receive them sometimes received as few as two products per day of their cycle. The surplus of these products are biasedly distributed based on the guard’s daily disposition. With clean uniforms and laundry services also being undersupplied, this lack of sanitary products creates inhumane living conditions and embarrassing and unhealthy situations. Bleeding through already dirty uniforms, the women are not only stripped of their dignity, but are also subject to the risk of developing and spreading infection.

Because of the shortage of necessary supplies in Tutwiler, a bartering system has been established. The women have given accounts of trading items like makeup and perfume for materials essential for daily life such as feminine hygiene products.  Women who receive funds from family are able to buy necessities like extra uniforms from prison officials since clean clothing is always accessible for those who can afford it. Basic cleanliness is a luxury only afforded to those who are able to participate in the barter. This creates a system in which women without disposable funds must meet their basic needs for minimal health and hygiene through any means necessary. As a result, these women are often forced into non-consensual sexual relationships with guards as payment for items like tampons, something accessible to most women.

The use of humiliation is practiced in other ways at Tutwiler as well. Women have reported being followed into the shower or restroom by guards, and forced to use these facilities while being watched. Incarcerated women are constantly demeaned in nearly every aspect of their lives. Intentionally watching women as they stand naked at a time in their life in which they are already most vulnerable tells women that their bodies are not respected and that they are not valued as human beings.

By sexually abusing inmates, enforcing dependency and threatening anyone who speaks out, the incarcerated women face daily traumas far worse than being imprisoned alone. The system of forcing women into sex in exchange for basic needs perpetuates rampant sexual assault by the guards. Prison guards abuse their power and prey on women, who are only attempting to stay clean, healthy and fed.

While Tutwiler has been making marginal changes since 2013, there is not one simple solution to eliminate these injustices. The harsh conditions of women’s prisons throughout the country, but especially within our own state, must be acknowledged. More people must begin to care about the lives of these women and and speak out against these injustices. While we as a students cannot immediately end institutional power and violence, our silence only supports it. We must address these conditions and advocate for change. Only then can we tackle the root causes of the brutality in the American prison system.

Lindsay Macher is a junior majoring in chemical engineering. Her column runs biweekly.

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Imprisonment of women is a feminist issue