Who Watches the Watchmen: Prison guards rape female inmates

English: This is a photo of the Julia Tutwiler...

English: This is a photo of the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women located in Wetumpka, Alabama. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

New measures are being introduced to combat rape in prisons in the US. The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was passed in 2003 and has finally been officially implemented. The issue of rape and sexual assault in prisons is largely ignored in public beyond the occasional joke about not dropping the soap. In the UK even our prison officials turn a blind eye and strenuously avoid investigating allegations of male rape despite the best efforts of the Howard League for Penal Reform. However in places like the notorious Tutwiler women’s prison in Alabama, inmates are constantly under threat of sexual violence and of 50 inmates interviewed by Charlotte Morrison for a report by the Equal Justice Initiative almost all had been assaulted or had seen someone being assaulted. In the wider American penal system 9.6% of former inmates reported being sexually victimised.

Unfortunately these statistics do not really surprise me. What did surprise me was how many of these assaults were perpetrated by staff. Almost half of the assaults reported by former inmates were by guards or people working at the prison. Back at Tutwiler the BBC interviewed Monica Washington who was raped and impregnated by a guard while in prison. Another woman was raped by a male nurse. The EJI report also knew of three more women who had become pregnant by guards since 2009.

The line between sex and rape among inmates can be complex and full of traps. Although  I don’t like it I understand it is problematic. When the assault involves a prison guard however I fail to see the gray area. Yet Monica Washington’s rapist was given a slap on the wrist sentence of 6 months in jail and four others, who also worked at Tutwiler, convicted of the euphemistic ‘criminal sexual misconduct’ never spent any time in jail.

Surely guards have a responsibility to the inmates. No matter how much contempt they may feel for individuals or how much they dislike their job they have a duty of care. Maybe it is hard to think about a duty of care within prisons. Many of the inmates have done terrible things to end up in prison. Perhaps the guards feel, as many do, that they deserve whatever they get. However as a society we have decided how we punish people who do terrible things and nowhere in the penal code of the US or the UK is there mention of rape. Nor is there mention of being indebted to your guards or legal precedent of trading sex for favours in jail.

The American courts have allowed these guards to abuse the trust and responsibility given them with barely any repercussions. These men rape vulnerable women and many are not even convicted. Those that are face the less serious charge of ‘criminal sexual misconduct’ and a lenient sentence far from commensurate with their crime. This is rape pure and simple and should be treated as such by the courts. While these men go free, the women they abused continue to suffer and be victimised. Monica Washington will face suspicion from inmates and guards for the rest of her sentence and when she is released she will have to tell her daughter the story of her conception.

PREA should help to make prisons safer. It allows rape to be reported to an external hotline rather than internally and includes protection for LGBTQ inmates for the first time. Tutwiler is currently under investigation following the EJI report though tellingly the Alabama Department of Corrections would not allow the BBC access to any facilities to check the implementation of PREA. However none of this will matter if guards continue to be allowed to get away with raping their charges. Preventing rape in prisons is admirable but more needs to be done to punish those who commit these terrible acts. Particularly when those people are the very people who are supposed to protect inmates from harm.

A bit of Harry Potter magic infuses Platform 9 3/4

English: Alternate coat of arms of Hogwarts sc...

The everyday life of a Hogwarts student is full of excitement, adventure and really wild things which unfortunately leads to a lot of wear and tear. Maybe your broomstick had been smashed by the Whomping Willow, your wand was broken fleeing your dead parent’s old home, your robes had slugs vomited down them or you have desperate need of a time turner to help your innocent godfather escape prison. None of these would be an excuse for turning up to school unprepared and now a last minute panic over the correct uniform will be a thing of the past. Next to the barrier guarding the entrance to Platform 9 3/4 a new shop can provide all the last minute essentials for the travelling witch or wizard.

For those of us not lucky enough to be boarding the Hogwarts Express in September but who grew up with and deeply loved the stories written by JK Rowling, the Harry Potter Shop is a lovely extension of the Harry Potter world. It’s also a fairly transparent plot to take our money but I am too enchanted to care. Sadly I wasn’t there to see Warwick Davis open the shop on Saturday but I will make at Kings Cross after work this week to check it out for myself. The pictures of the shop look beautiful and full of all the Harry Potter merchandise you could want – it has boxes of wands stacked high behind the counter and school scarves hanging from the walls. It has seemingly everything for a Potter fan (no matter how old) to geek out over on your way through London this Christmas.

This is a break from my usual type of writing I know. This weekend I contemplated writing about the importance of gun control after the Connecticut shooting or the issue of rape in prisons following an article on the deplorable state of American prisons. Today however I decided to put them aside for the time being and bring you a fluff piece because it makes the world feel like a slightly less depressing place. Maybe I will write about gun control and rape in the week but sometimes we all need to take a break and enjoy a bit of magic.

Same-sex Marriage is Coming to Town

A symbolic marriage cake in favor of allowing ...

Italian gay marriage cake

Today, after a public consultation that received 228,000 submissions and much infighting among the Tory party, the government has announced it will legalise same sex marriage. Despite the nonsensical cant heard from Peter Bone, Richard Drax and their ilk over the last couple of days this is not truly surprising though I am very pleased. The government will even allow religious institutions to opt in to performing them should their governing body be amenable. It will allow this for every institution except the Church of England and the Church in Wales. Does this strike anyone else as sublimely bizarre?

I understand that some people and institutions are still so desperately narrow minded that they cling to an out dated, bigoted notion of marriage. I understand that the Church of England in general is one such institution – they can’t even get their heads around women bishops let alone equal marriage rights for everyone. They don’t want me and I don’t want them so fair enough. Yet I know there are people within the church of England, both priests and parishioners who do not believe that. Whether gay or straight themselves they believe in equality and loving thy neighbour etc… It seems strange then to exclude the entirety of the church from this historic occasion by making it explicitly illegal for the CoE to conduct a gay or lesbian wedding.

English: Barry Morgan, Archbishop of the Churc...

No one was ever planning to force the church to perform gay marriages nor were they planning to force anyone to approve of or partake in gay marriage ceremonies – EU legislation protects freedom of religion as do our courts. However making it illegal means that, should the CoE ever wish to join the rest of us in the real world, they will not be able to opt in as every other religious institution can, they will have to pass a new law. Surely you would think that this limits the religious freedoms of the CoE rather than protecting them? No less a man than the Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, called the decision ‘a step too far.’

I do not often side with Archbishops but I think Dr Morgan and I should be friends.

For most people this is a really rather minor blip in what promises to be a very exciting piece of legislation – marriage is now a possibility in name as well as fact and many religious gay men and women will likely be able to get married in Synagogues, Quaker meeting houses and Unitarian churches. None the less it feels like a kick in the teeth from those that continue to hate and fear homosexuality.

What the CoE and their allies have not realised is that this kick is not the start of a glorious fight back. It is the last pathetic spasm of a dying ideology.

Porn actresses are more psychologically healthy than you

IMG_0159 - Stoya

IMG_0159 – Stoya (Photo credit: Anime Nut)

According to a study in the Journal of Sex Research anyway. In the largest study of it’s type porn actresses had “higher levels of self-esteem, positive feelings, social support, sexual satisfaction, and spirituality compared to [other women]”. Their psychological health was measured against established external scales (Rosenberg self esteem scale and quality of life by WHO). Their responses were also measured against a matched set of women surveyed in airports and universities and found to have significantly more self esteem than those women. Researchers suggested a reason for this: these women are comfortable with their own naked bodies. They cited a previous study that found correlation between a woman’s willingness to go topless on the beach and her levels of self esteem.

This makes perfect sense to me. Women should be more comfortable with their bodies in general – it’s the only one you have so you might as well get comfortable with it. I know we’re all constantly comparing ourselves to the conventionally attractive movie stars and becoming comfortable with yourself is easier said than done but its something women should aim for. We need to get over the shame we feel about nudity in general and our bodies in specific. Your body is weird, there’s no getting around it, but here’s a secret: everyone’s body is weird. You know what? everyone’s body is beautiful too.

But back to the porn actresses. A Jezebel article was quick to celebrate this study as a blow to the 2nd wave feminist ‘damaged goods’ view of porn stars. As a sex positive feminist I applaud this – we slut shame too much as it is and hopefully this is a step in a direction that proves a woman doesn’t have to be damaged to enjoy sex and nudity even on film. The article particularly attacks Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon’s view that all pornography is rape and institutionalised gender inequality. This is where, for me, Jezebel goes too far.

While it is patently insulting to both rape survivors and porn starts to say that performing in a porn film is the same as rape the gender inequality aspect should not be dismissed so quickly. Pornography is still primarily made for men and the male gaze. As such it propagates the idea that women are there to be looked at, touched, fucked and generally objectified by men. Even when a woman is shown to be enjoying herself it is primarily for the gratification of men. Porn does not cause gender inequality but it does reinforce a lot of the gendered stereotypes that continue to lead to slut shaming and sexism.

All this is not to say that women don’t enjoy porn or that there isn’t female friendly porn out there or even that porn must be bad. All I want to say is that while on the one hand there are feminist porn actresses like the inimitable, intelligent and enchanting Stoya (pictured above) who should be celebrated that doesn’t give you or anyone a pass to ignore the sexism and misogyny that remains a huge part of the porn industry.