Pubdate: Mon, 6 Dec 1999
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 1999 Chicago Tribune Company
Contact:  435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611-4066
Author: Elise Auerbach


CHICAGO -- As I read "Back in safe arms again" (Page 1, Nov. 24), on the
release of Jennifer Davis, who spent three years in a Peruvian prison, I
was struck by the hypocrisy and misplaced sympathies of her supporters.
According to your article, people from across the country rallied behind
Ms. Davis, a middle-class white woman from Illinois who was sentenced to
prison in Peru after she foolishly attempted to smuggle a quantity of
narcotics out of Peru in return for a cash payment.

They condemned the "long" prison sentence of Ms. Davis and the "brutal"
conditions of prison for Americans overseas.

I wonder whether all of Ms. Davis' supporters know or would even care about
the abuse and inhumane conditions suffered by the predominantly brown and
black inmates at women's prisons and jails right here in the United States.
Ms. Davis' family and supporters were appalled that she was sentenced to
six years in prison for smuggling drugs (she only served three years). Yet
in this country, tens of thousands of poor minority women are sent to
prison for far longer periods of time for non-violent drug offenses.

Many of them are first-time offenders who were caught with only tiny
amounts of narcotics.

Unlike Ms. Davis, who had no need for the money she was promised and who
was on a foolish lark, these women often become involved in drugs because
of their desperate life situations. When they go to prison for lengthy
periods of time, they leave behind their children, whose already struggling
relatives must then scramble to care for them.

Ms. Davis' supporters deplore the brutal conditions that exist in women's
prisons in Peru, where women must even ward off sexual advances from
guards. Across the United States, widespread sexual abuse of women in
prisons and jails has been documented in recent reports by both Amnesty
International and Human Rights Watch. A substantial majority of guards in
detention facilities for women in the U.S. are men. According to the
reports, male guards routinely conduct intimate body searches of women
during which they take the opportunity to grope and molest them. Male
guards observe women during showers and strip searches.

Large numbers of women report sexual assaults by guards, and the use of
blackmail and extortion to obtain sex.

Medical care in women's prisons is woefully inadequate; when women do
receive medical care they are shackled to their beds, sometimes even when
they give birth.

Why don't Ms. Davis' friends protest against the outrageous prison
conditions right here in the United States? Why should privileged white
American women be treated with kid gloves in foreign countries when they
break their laws, while poor women of color are treated like garbage in
American prisons?

Foreigners coming to this country receive no special treatment either when
they run afoul of our law-enforcement agencies, especially if they happen
to be black or brown.

I would suggest that Ms. Davis' supporters turn their righteous indignation
toward the real problem faced by poor women who get caught in the criminal
justice system here in the United States.

Elise Auerbach
American Institute of Indian Studies
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