On March 6, 2018, my ReInventing ReEntry organization joined with #cut50 for the Second Annual National Day of Empathy to call attention to the need for dignity for incarcerated women. I am well aware of the absence of dignity, as I was an inmate in Arizona Department of Corrections from 2002 – 2009. Already diagnosed with stage 3B breast cancer before I was incarcerated, I had my mastectomy in the Maricopa County Jail before I went to prison. Twenty-eight lymph nodes were removed putting me at high risk of lymph edema. The doctor ordered that I be given a pillow to rest my arm on and relieve the stress. The jail refused.
As I worried in my cell, the other inmates used their precious supplies of sanitary napkins to weave together a pillow – without any cutting or sewing implements. They returned to my cell and told me to close my eyes and put out my arms. I did. They placed the pillow in my arms and when I opened my eyes, I cried and I can never forget them. This is the story behind the symbolism in the sanitary pad pillows that were delivered to the legislators. Two bookmarks were attached to each – one telling my story and one giving statistics about women in prison.
In another instance, the doctor had written an order not to cuff my right arm because of the surgery. But for every trip to court, we were shackled and handcuffed to another woman. When I gave my permit to the guard so he would not cuff my right arm, he shoved it back at me and said, “You forged that” as he grabbed my arm and cuffed it tightly.
“You could be gentle,” I said.
His answer, “I am being gentle. You aren’t lying on the ground bleeding.”
One woman I met in prison was seriously depressed and jumpy. She was 23 and in prison because she was addicted to drugs. Since childhood, she’d been raped by all the men in her family especially her father. When she was 12, she gave birth to her father’s child. I couldn’t wrap my mind around that. “Surely she’s an anomaly,” I thought. She was not. I heard that story replayed too many times by too many women. Upwards of 80 percent of women in prison have been sexually abused.
Yet since 1980, the number of incarcerated women in the U.S. has increased more than 700 percent. The U.S. now houses 30 percent of the world’s women in prison. Upon entering prison, they are immediately strip-searched, given a uniform and a number. Their humanity and their dignity are stripped along with their clothes. Women are in dark dorms or cells with wretched food, rationed toilet paper and rationed menstrual pads.
Humiliation, bullying and sarcasm are rampant behind bars. Not from all staff, but from enough to dig at your heart and impact your feelings of self-worth. In my seven years of experience behind bars, I witnessed too many instances of intentional psychological harm and not enough of intentional examples of respect.
Is making that point to our legislators a stunt? Is illustrating the humanity of women behind bars a stunt? I don’t think so. We are Americans – we can do better.
— Sue Ellen Allen is the founder of Reinventing Re-entry.
The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.