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Fighting for The Rights of Our Vulnerable Sisters In Prison

Formerly incarcerated women and feminists speak out against housing men in women’s prisons

Jessica Williams
Jessica Williams

For most people, thinking about who is actually locked up in any given prison is not a regular occurrence, if the thought occurs at all. As a radical feminist and as an ex-incarcerated woman, this topic stays at the forefront of my mind.

A little over a year ago, I spoke during an International Women’s Day weekend event in Brisbane, Australia organized by IWD Brisbane Meanjin. During my speech, I shared my observation that many feminists were overlooking women in prison (albeit not deliberately) and I pleaded with feminists to advocate for women in prison just as diligently as they do for other categories of women. Other ex-incarcerated women have spoken out, too.

It has been uplifting to see the recent and major uptick in the support being shown for incarcerated women, particularly in relation to certain policies and laws that many insist are a breach of women’s human rights.

"These policies are putting thousands of incarcerated women at serious risk: risk of injury, sexual assault and rape, serious bodily harm, and psychological trauma."

On April 2, 2022, Keep Prisons Single Sex (KPSS) and other feminist groups and women came together for a protest outside of HMYOI Polmont in Brightons, Scotland, a prison which houses young offenders & women. The Scottish Prison Service initiated a policy in 2014 which renders this facility mixed-sex, and, according to KPSS, men are currently being held with women at HMYOI Polmont. Approximately 70 women participated in the protest for the sex-based rights of imprisoned women and girls.

In the lead-up to International Women’s Day 2022, on March 6th - 8th, the first annual Global Prison Protests occurred. Hundreds of women from locations all over the world took a stand against incarcerated women’s sex-based rights being denied and breached. There are efforts in the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Australia, Ireland, Canada and other countries to raise awareness about alarming changes being made to prison policies.

Around the world, corrective service and justice departments are implementing policies that allow biological males to “self-identify” as women in order to be considered for placement in women’s prisons. Advocates for the sex-based rights of incarcerated females are adamant that these policies are putting thousands of incarcerated women at serious risk: risk of injury, sexual assault and rape, serious bodily harm, and psychological trauma. In fact, there are already reported incidents involving biological males being housed with women in prisons and inflicting physical and/or sexual harm onto one or more of the women incarcerated with them.

Incarcerated women are extremely vulnerable; arguably the most vulnerable women on the planet. Incarcerated women show high rates of sexual and/or physical abuse and trauma previous to incarceration, high rates of Post Traumatic Stress “Disorder” (PTSD), and high rates of traumatic brain injury (TBI), and, of course, they cannot leave prison until their sentence is complete, which could be months or years long.

Further research shows the distinct differences between crimes committed by males versus crimes committed by females, and the level of violence displayed while incarcerated when comparing rates of violence between male inmates versus female inmates. Males are convicted of more violent crimes (in number and in seriousness of violence) than females are, and males are much more violent while incarcerated than females are.

With all of the available data and research, how on earth could officials allow men to be housed with women? Whatever the reasoning, it is happening to incarcerated women and it is happening to detained and imprisoned girls.

To many of us that are in this fight, the solution seems blatantly clear. Male inmates that are at higher-than-average risk of harm from other male inmates due to not fitting rigid sex-based stereotypes must have their safety and dignity needs to be addressed within the male estate. Their safety and dignity, or the lack thereof, are male problems to be handled within male prisons and jails, not female problems to be handled within female prisons and jails.

"What is happening to incarcerated women in the name of inclusivity is unforgivable and must be stopped."

There are logical, reasonable, historical, and imperative reasons why prisons and jails are segregated by sex. Even when penal facilities do hold both sexes within one facility and segregate them in different wings, female inmates are still vulnerable to and at risk of harassment and harm.

The issue of having male guards and prison officers within some female penal institutions is a historical issue that prisoner rights advocates have worked to raise awareness about, and this issue will not be wholly addressed until we have universal standards which prohibit any member of the male sex from working in, or being housed in, a female prison, jail or pre/post-release center.

Until then, advocates must continue raising awareness, lobbying and protesting for the rights, dignity and safety of our vulnerable sisters in prison.

As an ex-incarcerated woman, it is distressing to know that vulnerable, traumatized women are being further harmed by the people that are entrusted (and employed) to look after them. Yes, they are prisoners, but they do have human rights and among those rights are internationally protected sex-based rights. What is happening to incarcerated women in the name of inclusivity is unforgivable and must be stopped.

Get Involved

If you would like to get involved with supporting incarcerated women and girls, please check out the following organizations:

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Photos used with permission in an earlier version of this article have been removed upon request.

Op EdOpinionprisonwomen's spacesactivismmen in women's spacesGender Identity

Jessica Williams

Activist, feminist, political lobbyist, writer and mother. Ex-incarcerated woman and survivor of non-state torture (term coined by Linda MacDonald and Jeanne Sarson) and other forms of male violence.