WASHINGTON — A comprehensive review of conditions facing women in American prisons has found that incidents of rape, sexual abuse and medical neglect are widespread among inmates nationwide.
The study, released Thursday by the human rights group Amnesty International, cited unacceptable conditions in prisons and jails for many female inmates, whose numbers have tripled in the last 15 years to about 138,000.
No other state incarcerates more women than California, which has 11,500 female inmates and is home to the two largest women's prisons in the world. Both of those facilities, in the small San Joaquin Valley town of Chowchilla, have been plagued by recent allegations of sexual abuse and inadequate medical care.
Female prisoners suffer much of the abuse at the hands of prison guards and other workers, the vast majority of whom are male, the study found. And women behind bars often are provided with shoddy medical treatment or denied medical services altogether, the report said.
"While women who commit crimes deserve to be punished, they do not deserve to be brutalized," said Dr. William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA.
The 103-page report was based on prison visits and a yearlong series of interviews with prisoners, attorneys, social workers and physicians across the country. However, it offered few statistics to illustrate the problem.
Some experts criticized the report's methodology and questioned its conclusions.
"If you look long enough and hard enough, you'll find incidents, and if you put enough incidents together, it looks like a crisis," said Jim Turpin of the American Correctional Assn., which represents wardens, sheriffs, psychologists and other correctional facility workers nationwide. "But that doesn't mean it's the norm out there. . . . It's not the problem that Amnesty is making it out to be."
This is the second such report released in the last year that has found a serious problem of abuse of female inmates nationwide. An earlier study by Human Rights Watch, a New York-based organization, discovered that female inmates were frequent victims of sexual assault and that procedures to report and investigate such abuse in California and other states were flawed and biased in favor of guards.
Cal Terhune, director of the California Department of Corrections, said Thursday that the Amnesty International report and other studies have prompted him to create a new organizational structure for the state's four women's prisons.
He said female inmates pose different challenges from men. Fewer women are imprisoned for violent crimes, and often they were victims of violence themselves.
"We need to do a better job responding to the needs of women inmates, including a high percentage who suffer from battered women syndrome," Terhune said. "Because of the differences between men and women [in] prisons, we're taking the women out of the organization chart and giving them their own ombudsman and regional warden."
But Ellen Barry, director of Legal Services for Prisoners With Children in San Francisco, said organizational tinkering may not be enough. She said her group is preparing a class action lawsuit on behalf of scores of inmates who allege sexual abuse at the Chowchilla prisons.
"We've interviewed hundreds of female inmates, and we found a climate of sexual terror, everything from groping to intrusive pat searches to rape," Barry said. "It doesn't involve a few bad apples. It's systemic."
The Amnesty International study of women's lockups nationwide relied heavily on anecdotal evidence, including the case of Robin Lucus, a former inmate at the Federal Correctional Institution at Dublin in Northern California.
While in an isolation unit within the men's facility, Lucus, who served 33 months for conspiracy to commit bank fraud, was sexually assaulted by three male inmates who paid a guard for access to her cell, she said. Lucus joined two other Dublin inmates with similar allegations in filing a lawsuit, which was later settled for $500,000.
"I was ready to give up my liberty, not my soul; not my human dignity," Lucus said in a written statement.
The report also cited the case of another California inmate to illustrate the inadequate health care it says many female inmates receive.
Sherrie Chapman, imprisoned at the California Institution for Women near Chino, discovered lumps in both her breasts in 1985 but was not allowed a mammogram until 1994, when one lump was visible externally, she said.
She eventually underwent two mastectomies and a complete hysterectomy, both to treat cancer. She has filed a lawsuit against the prison alleging gross medical neglect.
Dr. Kim Marie Thorburn, who spoke at an Amnesty International news conference Thursday, said most prisons are designed for men and are ill-equipped to provide health care for female prisoners.
The report also detailed the use of shackles during and after labor, even on inmates with no history of violence.
And Amnesty International condemned the almost immediate separation of female inmates and their newborn children in most states. California, where the Community Prison Mother Program allows eligible inmates to remain with their infants throughout their sentence, was cited as an exception.
The report's recommendations included allowing only female guards to supervise female prisoners, passing state laws that expressly prohibit sexual contact between inmates and guards, and providing adequate women's health care at prisons.