Public or private, prisons are violent, especially for women

If the State determines that you have committed a crime in Washington, D.C., you are sent to prison or jail.  A felony means federal prison, which can be as far away as California.  For everything else, there’s jail.

D.C. has two jails, located adjacent to each other in the Southeast part of the city.  The Central Detention Facility (or DC Jail) is publicly run, while the Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF) is privately run by the Corrections Corporation of America.  DC Jail houses men, and the CTF houses women and men.

Many people distrust private prisons. They think privatization leads to more violent facilities.  Does the amount of violence in a prison depend on whether it is public or private?  Let’s compare DC Jail and the CTF.

Let’s look first at public DC Jail.  One prisoner reported that spending nine years in DC Jail is like doing twenty years in a federal prison.  What kind of conditions lead to this doubling of time?  It could it be the rampant stabbings allowed to take place.  Time drags for those whose painful wounds the State calls “not life-threatening.”   Maybe it is the DC Jail’s shoddy conditions.  The walls are covered in mold, the facilities are overcrowded, the medical care is deplorable, and often there are no windows.  Widespread broken locks leave prisoners vulnerable to further violence.  None of this is good for human beings.

Prisoners commit suicide in the jail.  Mentally ill prisoners also commit suicide, but with the added bonus of their families being told that the State was “extremely concerned” about their well being.  All of this is facilitated by the violence of the prison guards, who assault inmates, especially LGBT ones.  DC Jail, a public facility, is a center of State violence.

Now, let’s look at the private CTF.  Like the DC Jail, the CTF is an awful place for prisoners to live, for many of the same reasons: overcrowding, deplorable facilities, terrible medical care, broken locks, and rampant violence.  But there is one key difference about the CTF—it houses women prisoners.  What do the women report about their conditions at the CTF?   The guards cram women, even ones with medical conditions, into elevators.  Pregnant women are shackled as they give birth.  Guards yell at the women, threaten the women, steal the women’s packages, parcels, and money, refuse to deliver reading materials, and sexually assault the women.  Like the DC Jail, the CTF is a center of State violence.  The difference is that the State has contracted out the violence to the Corrections Corporation of America until the year 2017.

But the difference is also women.  Women are the fastest-growing prison population in the United States.  The gendered violence they face both outside and inside prison constitutes a crisis for the State, which “signals systemic change whose outcome is determined through struggle.”  In the District of Columbia’s case, the struggle resulted in privatization.

Women are the fastest-growing population of test subjects for the State’s violent regime of incarceration.  It is violent regardless of public or private.  Ending the violence of prisons means ending the use of prisons, period.


(Photo Credit: Armando Trull/WAMU)

About Paul Seltzer

Paul Seltzer has worked with community and labor groups in Washington, DC; northern Virginia; Atlanta, Georgia; and currently lives in Louisville, Kentucky.