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Thursday, March 4, 1999 Published at 18:38 GMT

World: Americas

US women prisoners 'abused'

In US women's prisons, 41% of the officers are men

Human rights organisation Amnesty International says many female prisoners in the United States are sexually abused by prison staff.

In a report, Amnesty says complaints are widespread and range from offensive language to rape.

Angela Right, writer of the report: "In California, uards allowed male prisoners into the unit to sexually assault the women"
The report - entitled "Not Part of My Sentence" - says the blame lies mainly in the large number of male prison officers in women's prisons, 41% overall, two thirds in California and Idaho, nearly three quarters in Kansas.

Male guards, it says, often have access to areas where they see female prisoners naked, a practice that human rights campaigners describe as degrading and abusive.

Amnesty calls for the US to come into line with international standards and ensure that women prisoners are guarded only by female officers.

'Not what I was sentenced to'

But Amnesty says some abuse stems from procedures that are perfectly legal under US law - like the so-called pat searches of women prisoners carried out by male guards.

The co-author of the report, Joe Szwarc, recalls what one prison inmate in California told him: "She said some of the male staff took the opportunity to run their hands across her breasts, some of them knocked her heavily in the genital area when they were conducting searches along the inner thigh."

"And she said: 'hey, that's not what I was sentenced to, that wasn't part of my sentence, to be touched like this.'"

In another case, a woman inmate who had complained about sexual abuse said that in retaliation she was beaten and raped in her cell in the middle of the night.

Discrimination laws hinder change

Laws against sexual discrimination in the United States make it difficult to change the situation: prisons cannot refuse to employ men to guard women inmates.

An independent expert on prisons in Europe, Silvia Casale, says that is absurd

"There is a special circumstance in a women's prison, which means that for equal protection - that is for the women to get protection which is equivalent to that of men - you cannot actually apply the equal opportunities policy in that way. It's a nonsense. So it's the policy that's at fault," she said.

She says that in western Europe, the authorities have signed up to international standards recognising that the preponderance of staff in women's prisons should be female and that in sensitive areas men should not be around at all.

Amnesty wants Washington to ratify without reservation several human rights treaties, especially the Convention on Eliminating Discrimination against Women.

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