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Hitting Bottom: Incarcerated Women in the Prison Hierachy

02/23/2015 04:40 pm ET | Updated Apr 25, 2015
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A prison can't function without its pecking order. Call it what you will, chain of command, hierarchy, rank, it all comes down to power. Who's got it, who doesn't. Who's on top, who's on bottom. It's an all-inclusive, endemic culture: Wardens, top assistant wardens, captains, sergeants and rank and file officers. Frontline COs top inmates, and inmates top whomever they can.

Support staff is notched in there somewhere, just one step above inmates. These "civilians" --medical workers, teachers, social workers, chaplains -- are viewed by corrections with almost as much suspicion and contempt as inmates. I know firsthand all about that suspicion and contempt from my years teaching high school offenders locked up in an adult county prison. You get the message pretty quickly when time after time you're kept standing behind some prison gate or security door, waiting in plain view for an officer to buzz you through while he or she finishes joking with their buddy or finally looks up from their crossword puzzle.

Inmates' lives are dominated by this same top to bottom hierarchy. For them it's a food chain that is more blatant, more calculating. The only way to survive is to have your heel, in one way or another, on other inmates' necks. The young men I worked with had an apt image for making it out alive: "We're all crabs in a pail scrambling to get out, pulling down the guys in front of you, stepping on them, shoving them down to the bottom so you can make it out." Extortion, physical strength, ruthlessness, a coldhearted distrust of everyone are the "tools" of survival. Without them an inmate's well-being and safety are in jeopardy.

You might expect that locked up young kids are on the lowest rung of that ladder both on the block and in the general prison population. Certainly their age, undeveloped thinking and decision-making processes, their inability to physically fend for themselves (despite their bluster and bravado) make them more vulnerable to intimidation, abuse, threats, bullying and physical force.

But it goes lower: incarcerated women, what I call the invisible prison population. Despite the fact that more women are being locked up -- an 800 percent increase in the last 10 years -- you seldom hear what prison life is really like for them (forget the make-believe you see on "Orange is the New Black").

The prison I worked in is one small example of how women are unfairly treated in lockup. Aside from the brutal fact of female inmates' increased vulnerability to sexual assault by staff, the women's unit in this particular prison was more overcrowded than the men's, and women had limited or no access to any kind of recreational facilities, while their male counterparts had both gym and yard privileges on a daily basis.

Added to the usual indignities experienced by all women imprisoned in the U.S., the female inmates in the county prison where I taught had to endure the callous authority of a male warden. Among the many arbitrary restrictions he imposed (for example at holiday time teachers on the men's units were allowed to bring in donuts and hot chocolate while permission was denied for the women's block) he instigated several "cost saving measures:" rationing of toilet paper; and most egregious and insulting, limiting the feminine hygiene products each woman could receive. This has got to be the bottom of the prison hierarchy for locked up women. How could it not be? To have a man dictate how many tampons you're allowed to use regardless of your body's needs.

But it's not. Some women sink even lower in the prison pecking order. As limited as the public's awareness of female incarceration is, an even more neglected population are those women in solitary confinement. There has been a lot of attention lately to the U.S.'s overuse of solitary confinement. The United Nations Committee on Torture strongly criticized our use of this form of cruel and unusual punishment, making it clear that it was a form of torture -- criticism that the U.S. diplomatic delegation sloughed off with America's usual disdain whenever confronted with its own human rights violations. But even in the media's coverage of the hearings and its own investigation of solitary confinement abuses one often heard about the sufferings of male inmates but nothing about those women in isolation.

In 2014 the federal Bureau of Prisons had agreed under some pressure to conduct an "internal audit" on the uses of solitary confinement. Initially no women's prisons were included on the list of sites to be examined. Under pressure from human rights groups some women's units were added. However no one was able -- or willing -- to say exactly which ones. Once again locked up women, this time women held in solitary, didn't even exist. Solitary Watch, the website which is a fierce advocate for all people held in "special housing units," called these women "buried." Another word comes to my mind, one borrowed from repressive Latin American regimes: "disappeared."