Hedi Smith spent 29 years as an inmate at the California Institution for Women state prison in Corona, California. During that time, she witnessed savagery the likes of which many Americans would have a hard time believing could ever be condoned on their native soil.
“Back during the ’80s and ’90s it was a free for all,” she tells TakePart. “Violence, sexual assault, staff sexual assaults. We even had staff assaulting staff.”
Smith herself was abused in the main ward of the facility. Despite her ordeal, some of the harshest and most inhumane treatment she witnessed occurred during her tenure working as a clerk at the facility’s psychiatric ward.
“Officers were walking in on women in the shower. They were making advances. But nothing happened. If the women said anything, it was like, ‘You were on medication; so this really didn’t happen.’”
Smith says in her more than three years as a clerk, she only saw one correctional officer disciplined for his misbehavior.
“One girl kept coming to me, telling me an officer was bothering her,” Smith remembers. “She took pills three times a day. She used to have violent outbursts. They would have to put her in the padded cell at times. She had concerns. She was on heavy medication. So when she told the staff about it, they said, ‘You’re just dreaming this.’
Doing time is hard enough. We don’t need to be victims to the staff. Part of our punishment isn’t to be sexually violated.
“But that doesn’t mean things weren’t happening to her.”
So Smith started keeping tabs on the officer in question. She didn’t like what she saw.
“He seemed shady,” says Smith. “I took it to my lieutenant at the time. He agreed, the guy didn’t seem right.”
Thankfully for the afflicted woman, lieutenants in the psych ward had the ability to pick their own staff at that time. The officer in question was removed from the unit.
Other mentally ill inmates haven’t been so lucky—and the sexual abuse of the mentally ill continues to be a problem in detention facilities throughout the United States.
A report released last week by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimated that 200,000 people in U.S. prisons have been sexually abused in detention in the past 12 months.
Those with mental illness were up to nine times more likely to be the victim of abuse.
In federal and state prisons, 6.3 percent of the population with mental illness is estimated to have been sexually assaulted in the last 12 months—compared to .7 percent of the rest of the prison population.
The numbers in county jails are almost as egregious—with mentally ill inmates five times more likely to suffer sexual abuse than the rest of the inmate population.
“People with mental illnesses deserve help—no less so if they are inmates,” Just Detention International senior communications officer Jesse Lerner-Kinglake tells TakePart. “Yet prisons and jails are failing to provide these inmates with treatment and, worse still, failing to protect them from rape.”
The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which went into effect last August, was supposed to change all that. Issued by the Department of Justice, the law established a set of standards for protecting inmates in state and federal detention facilities from sexual abuse.
Smith, who was released from prison six months ago, says she got to see the effects of the new law.
“PREA was a game-changer,” she says. “Within six months, the staff became a lot more respectful. Especially the male staff. The incidents we did have, they were definitely investigated. I do know staff were fired because of PREA. A few of them had been preying on us for years.”
“Doing time is hard enough. We don’t need to be victims to the staff,” says Smith. “Part of our punishment isn’t to be sexually violated.”
That holds true for the mentally ill as well.
PREA is a wonderful tool to combat the epidemic of sexual abuse in America’s prison system. But if special attention isn’t paid to addressing the plight of the mentally ill, all the laws in the world won’t be able to protect the men and women most incapable of protecting themselves.
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