ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women and non-binary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence.
The series will run every Tuesday afternoon. Each week we will highlight different voices and stories.
The Forgotten Women
Day two of processing into county jail. I have not yet had anything to drink or eat. We stand there—a line of twelve women—in a freezing open warehouse that is so huge you could assemble a volleyball court inside of it. There are hundreds more waiting to march inside. We twelve are nude while deputies with guns order us to squat and cough while they shine flashlights up our anuses and vaginas. The woman next to me, probably in her forties, is on her period.
“I’m bleeding,” she says. She is crying softly.
“Shut up and squat,” her deputy says.
I watch her menstrual blood flow to the floor.
A rabbi who I spoke to for comfort in the days leading up to my surrender to Century Regional Detention Facility said, “They can take your clothes, but they can’t take your dignity.”
He was wrong.
I know this now as I comply with orders in this barn-like structure. It is intolerably cold and dark and cavernous. I am not afraid. I am outraged.
Even in the years to come, long after that experience was placed in the rearview, I cannot release the shame of such indignity, the exposure of my most private body, under threat of gun and billy club, to people who collect a paycheck for probing me there.
I know something about the way women are abused and debased in lock-up. I was sentenced to ninety days in Los Angeles County Jail for three misdemeanors related to drunk driving, the fallout I experienced during a year-long relapse after decades of sobriety.
The painful question for me—because I want to be happy about all this female empowerment—is why haven’t the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements spoken up for our most silenced minority, incarcerated women?
LA County women’s jail, Century Regional Detention Facility, also known as Lynwood, has a capacity for 1,500 inmates. While I spent six weeks there in 2014, about 2,300 women were stuffed into cells not much bigger than the size of a Toyota truck bed or sleeping in three-tiered bunks in the dayroom. We were constantly being moved around not only to accommodate more, but so that what we saw of the abuse by our male deputies could be silenced.
I remember being appalled by the overcrowding, and worse, the one-pad-a-day allotment for women during their cycle. Inmates were required to write their names down in a ledger when they checked them out, a devastating affront to dignity.
This was only one of the many abuses I witnessed at Lynwood. To state the obvious, incarcerated women have much different emotional, physical, and spiritual needs than their male counterparts. Yet when we are processed in, we are given men’s T-shirts and men’s socks. We are not allowed birth control, even if it’s prescribed by a doctor for medical reasons like hormone imbalances, cystic acne, and mood swings. Antidepressants—so necessary for women who’ve been sexually abused, raped, beaten, and, in most cases, who have had no sustained psychological help or redress for the crimes against them—are taken away, and replaced by a drug called Seroquel. This drug turns the women into zombies and you see them, sleeping twenty-four hours a day or walking in a daze during the one hour of program we are allowed outside of our tiny cells each day.
Pregnant women do not have prenatal care while incarcerated in county jail unless they put in a request, which is often ignored or set aside until it’s too late. One of the saddest days of my incarceration occurred while I was housed in the pregnant dorm. During program a very pregnant inmate fell to the ground in a seizure. In moments, her crotch was stained by blood. It took deputies about forty-five minutes to locate a “stretcher” for her. It was actually a large flat furniture dolly. They threw her on board and rolled her out, like a broken desk.
Other reproductive issues such as painful endometriosis, uterine fibroids, or interstitial cystitis are treated with Tylenol, when women can get it. Most women with these conditions lie around in pain, rarely leaving their bunks. I met one woman who’d had a yeast infection for the duration of her stay, six weeks out of a three-month sentence she received for selling a pound of marijuana. The day before I left, a few days ahead of her release date, I saw her scratching her crotch and weeping. She told me her vagina was raw and bloody. She had yet to see a doctor.
My own experience, when I needed to see a doctor, was absurd. I needed a laxative. My vegetarian stomach was not used to the lard and fat served in our meals. We received no fiber in our meals, unless you counted the rancid cabbage they served. It took me almost my entire time there—nearly four weeks—before I was able to see a doctor.
I waited seven hours on the day of my appointment. Some women that day, many of whom were much sicker than I, never made it in, and were returned to their cells only to repeat the degrading process the next day. As I waited I saw one inmate return from the dentist. She held a blood-soaked napkin to her mouth. But the blood spilled over and dripped from her hand, and in a few moments it was everywhere. When I asked her if I could help her, her eyes rolled back in her head. She wrote down on a piece of paper that they had just pulled seven teeth out of her mouth. All the other inmates waiting for doctors moved to the other side of the room because of the copious amount of blood pouring onto the chairs and floor.
My three-minute appointment ended with the doctor shaming me for my constipation. She told me as an afterthought that the laxative would be there at pill call that night but it wasn’t. It took another two days for the order to process through. It was then that I shuddered over the idea of having breast, uterine, or cervical cancer while locked up.
According to a recent ACLU study, seventy-nine percent of women in federal and state prisons report previous physical abuse, and sixty percent say they’ve been sexually abused. The number of violent assaults a woman has sustained in her lifetime directly correlates to the severity of her drug and alcohol dependency, which in turn leads to criminal behavior—the cause of our revolving door incarceration. I can say, anecdotally, every woman I spoke to in Lynwood—every single one—had been either raped or sexually abused or physically beaten and most were in jail for reasons related to their addiction and the mental illness that accompanies it.
And yet, access to substance-abuse counseling and treatment for women is so limited as to be practically non-existent. Nearly seventy-five percent of women in the criminal justice system in the United States used drugs and or alcohol prior to their arrest, but only twenty-five percent of state and federal prisoners who are female receive treatment for their drug and alcohol addictions.
As a female dual-addicted inmate in county jail, I can say this: while I was there, sober six months, I saw only one Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I was able to attend, but it was shut down early because the deputies had a birthday party that night and needed to lock us down so they could attend it.
There were “life skills” classes and the heartless Christian church services—I thought of them as shame factories—which I managed to sneak into, motivated solely by the need to get out of my twenty-three hours a day of lockdown. Never once did anyone talk about drug or alcohol addiction or violent sexual or physical abuse in life skills. At “church” I witnessed a daily onslaught of sexual shaming, especially for lesbians, and addiction shaming, but never spiritual guidance or help for those suffering from addiction or withdrawal, rape, incest, or domestic violence.
But perhaps even more frightening for incarcerated women who have been beaten or raped, or who were sexually abused as children, is the constant presence of male guards. The men are free to walk by our cells at any time. Our toilets were right next to the door, beneath the cell door window. I’ll never forget the morning of my release. I happened to be on the toilet when the deputy showed up to release me. He saw me urinating and stopped to watch.
Women with a history of sexual abuse and rape are strip-searched when processing in—a re-traumatizing experience that can have devastating effects. Women in jails are also subject to warrantless searches where male deputies linger on their breasts and crotches, in front of other inmates. I can’t tell you the number of times I witnessed this. Drug addicts slept with deputies or performed oral sex in exchange for favors, which sometimes included a reward of drugs.
One day, I watched as a woman with notably large breasts was dragged from her cell and displayed in the dayroom, for all the other inmates to watch, as she was searched by a male two-striped sergeant with such force that she fell to her knees. When he got to her crotch, he searched repeatedly through her pants, rubbing her vagina over and over again. He then used his gloved hands to probe her breasts under her shirt. We all watched through our teeny tiny windows in our cell doors. My bunkie and I were deadly silent. That was our mirror. We were watching ourselves down there. It is almost impossible to describe the powerlessness I experienced while witnessing a public sexual assault on a fellow inmate. I filed a complaint on her behalf but there was never any follow-up. The joke at Lynwood was that deputies used our complaint forms to wipe their asses because the paper was softer than the toilet paper provided.
It is frustrating that few people believe me. “Really? Seriously?” is the first response I hear every time I share this appalling truth, as if such a thing could never happen, not here. On February 22, 2018, however, a ten-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department named Giancarlo Scotti was charged with six felony counts and two misdemeanor counts of sexual assault. Two of his accusers filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the sheriff’s department. In the complaint, they say that after they spoke to investigators they were mistreated by jail staff. One was denied mental health services and the other was denied special meals for pregnant women. (She was pregnant when he forced her to perform oral copulation. The other inmate saved his semen on a tissue after he raped her in the shower.)
I was overjoyed when I heard about the charges. Then depressed, because I know what my eyes saw, and there are so many more like him who will never be arrested.
When I reflect on that wretched place, and now four years later, marvel at the fast-moving fire of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, I do not celebrate. These movements—designed to give voice to the millions of women who’ve been sexually harassed, raped, and abused on the job and in the home—have forgotten prisoners.
Through the power of social media and celebrity, access to which women behind bars lack, we have called each other to arms. We have said, “No more.” But why have so few said so little about the hundreds of thousands of women who are raped and beaten and abused in our jails and prisons every day? A movement that hinges on breaking open the silence and violence that women encounter every day of their lives has profoundly failed those women who have no voice whatsoever.
I hope that the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are not just for the wealthy, the beautiful and the famous. I have yet to see a housekeeper or nanny up on the glittering Hollywood stages. And I have never heard from a woman behind bars. The forgotten, the voiceless, the powerless, the poor—women who represent the purest definition of victimhood, women whose skin color and poverty, addictions and mental illness have paved the road to their incarcerations—are left behind. From my own experience as victim of and witness to the abuse incarcerated women face every day, I implore the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements not to cosign the patriarchy’s abuse and silencing of our most vulnerable mothers, sisters, and daughters.
Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.
ENOUGH is a Rumpus original series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women and non-binary people that engages with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence. We believe that while this subject matter is especially timely now, it is also timeless. We want to make sure that this conversation doesn’t stop—not until our laws and societal norms reflect real change. You can submit to ENOUGH here.
Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.
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