Prison-based sadism hints at widespread social sadism

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, August 7, 2008 21:49 EDT
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The ACLU Reproductive Rights Project sent a press release to me to alert me that they, in conjunction with other branches of the national organization and with the Arizona branch, are filing three separate cases against Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County. The reign of Arpaio, who fashions himself a little dictator within our supposed democracy, is a classic example of how far gone this country’s right wing politics have gone, and why instances like Abu Gharib were not anomalies, but entirely predictable, stemming as they do from our culture. The director of the Arizona ACLU wrote a post explaining what a wretched motherfucker Arpaio is.

His stunts include reinstituting chain gangs (they include women and juveniles), erecting a tent city where over 2,000 convicted men and women serve out their sentences in 120 degree desert heat, feeding prisoners only twice a day (he’s bragged of serving green bologna), and forcing them to wear pink underwear.

Much of the ACLU’s legal docket in Arizona is devoted to challenging Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MSCO) policies that violate the constitutional rights of women, prisoners, and immigrants — for starters. Arpaio has spent hundreds of thousands of local taxpayers’ money defending his indefensible and unconstitutional practices.

The case that’s being filed now is about reproductive rights, and I think it’s really interesting because it shows how the anti-choice, anti-sex movement is linked far more strongly with the would-be fascist control freak racist right wing than it is any soft, liberal-esque concern about “life”. As you can imagine, abortion access is a big deal for incarcerated women. Most people—male or female—heading to jail are doing so at the height of your fertile years, and so there’s a lot more pregnant women being put in jail than you’d probably guess at first blush. And a whole lot of them want abortions, which makes sense. Even if giving birth in prison were an easy undertaking—and it’s not, especially since some prisons chain women to the delivery table—the idea of having your baby in prison probably makes a lot of women, regretfully or not, want to take a pass until their own situation is better. I don’t really see what downside there is for society to draw down the number of children born in prison, but even if there was some tangible downside, women’s reproductive rights would trump it. Creating a life is too momentous a task to be forced on someone, even a convicted criminal. There’s more than a whiff of slavery-esque human rights violations in putting women behind bars and forcing them to give birth.

But Arpaio didn’t think that women in jail who want abortions should get them, even if they pay for the abortions themselves. And he felt so strongly about this that he refused to give women access to an abortion provider, even after the Superior Court told him he had to.

What’s interesting about this example is that it shows how forced pregnancy is, in the eyes of anti-choicers, a punishment. Arpaio is punishing women that he has control over, and not for the crimes that landed them in prison, but for the crimes of sex, being female, and being subject to his power. The sadism of his behavior is laid bare, and hopefully people will be smart enough to extrapolate to the sadism that underpins the entire anti-choice movement’s punitive approach to female sexuality.

Lest you want to start squawking about how female prisoners are criminals and don’t deserve our sympathy, let’s consider what people go to jail for. Violent crime is only a fraction of it, especially amongst women who commit fewer violent crimes than men. I suspect you’re seeing a lot of women receive this treatment who are in jail for prostitution and drug offenses. (According to this, over 1/2 of men in prison committed violent offenses, but only a little more than 1/3 of women.) There’s also a real problem, in the War on Drugs, of women convicted for conspiracy offenses that were actually the lowest person on the totem pole of the conspiracy—there’s a lot of women who were the girlfriend of someone in the conspiracy and maybe drove the car, but got the longest sentence because they had no one else to give up to the cops, because they weren’t really in the conspiracy. Which isn’t to say that there’s not female drug dealers. There are. But that person being forced to bear a baby against her will that is so easily dismissed could very easily be there because she dated the wrong guy or because poverty drove her to sell her body on a street corner. Just because someone is a “criminal” in our prison-industrial complex doesn’t make them a criminal.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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