Neil Conway / CC-BY-2.0

The struggle for dignity and respect is alive in women’s prisons.

On Monday, Anne Weills, Mollie Costello, Alyssa Eisenberg and Tova Fry won a $130,000 settlement from California’s Alameda County and the adoption of new, human rights-centered policies at the jail where they were held.

The four were arrested in 2014 during a protest in Oakland, Calif., in which demonstrators demanded that state Attorney General Kamala Harris prosecute police officers who kill civilians. They were charged with misdemeanor trespassing.

An article in the East Bay Times detailed what happened once they were jailed:

After their arrests, the women were taken into a hallway in Santa Rita Jail in Dublin and told to strip down to their bras, [their attorney Yolanda Huang] said.

Fry told Telesur that when the women refused to strip down, prison staff said, “You have no rights. You’re in jail.”

Weills, who is in her early 70s, refused to undress in front of the men and was taken into an isolation cell, Huang said. Weills’ husband, Dan Siegel, was running for Oakland mayor at the time the claim was filed in October 2014.

The women also were held in an overcrowded cell with other women where toilets were overflowing, and women were bleeding on themselves because there were no menstrual pads available, Huang said. Those that did have pads were leaving used ones on top of leftover food because there were no garbage cans inside the cells, she said.

“What’s done in there is subhuman, it’s filthy, full of sexual harassment and intimidation,” Costello said in 2014.

Sixteen or 17 other prisoners were in the cell where the four women were held, according to a statement the four made.

The changes won in the settlement include: installation of privacy curtains where female arrestees can be searched, provision of garbage bags in holding cells and menstrual pads to arrested women needing them, daily cleaning of the cells, and a 16-hour training program for jail deputies. Also, those conducting searches “cannot grasp or knead the arrestee’s body.” The changes are expected to be fully instituted within two months.

Fox-2 News reported that a portion of the settlement sum will be used to continue improving conditions at Santa Rita Jail, including making the policy changes known to those under hold there.

In their statement, the women said they “filed this civil rights complaint in order to be a voice for other women and demand they be treated with respect and human dignity.”

In the shadow of the sexual exploitation scandal which has rocked the Oakland Police Department and neighboring departments, including the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, it is fitting that we are able to announce a small victory in achieving policy changes at Santa Rita Jail … reducing the sexual harassment of women arrestees and improving the conditions under which they are held.

The sex scandal the women mention, which came to light at the beginning of the summer, involved more than 20 officers from departments in Oakland, Richmond and Alameda County and one federal officer who had sex with an underage prostitute. The prostitute said she sometimes had sex with the officers as a form of protection from arrest or prosecution. According to the East Bay Express, she said that “every law-enforcement agent who had sex with her knew she was a sex worker.”

Reached by telephone, Weills, a lawyer, told Truthdig what has occurred since the news of the settlement broke:

“We’ve gotten emails from potential plaintiffs for treatment which is horrible and confirms our experience. One woman was arrested on a DUI, and they refused to get her water. Another said they were denied food for 24 hours.”

Alameda County’s jail isn’t like other jails, Weills said. “If you get busted in Marin, they put you in this nice room and then process you out very kindly. Alameda County is the worst. This jail, the fifth- or sixth-largest jail in the U.S., has gotten away, literally, with murder for the last few years.” Over the past few days, she said, the jail “changed contractors for medical services” because the previous provider was found responsible for “so many deaths in charge.”

“But I think what’s really sad is that this has gone on and on and on for years, and the young women who were being trafficked, or who were in the holding cells with us, said this is the way it always is. They were upset at first that I was raising hell about [the conditions] because they thought they’d be retaliated against. I think because of their class status and maybe their ethnic [or] racial status, they just feel powerless to fight, and being older, white females, we’re aware of our power. And being a lawyer helps.”

Weills added that lawyers should consider getting arrested so they know what the experience is like for the people they’re trying to help. “How else are you going to know? Maybe from this unpleasant thing came a good thing; we have knowledge that we can now use.

“Every little amenity does make a difference to somebody who is a captive, where they have little control over what is going on,” Weills added.

As for the settlement money, “We’re going to create these pamphlets that we’re going to distribute between women’s rights organizations. We’re going to have people go out to the jail and leaflet these little brochures, and we’re going to have a hotline that will come from the Center for Justice in Oakland. That way, we can see if the changes agreed to in our settlement are being implemented and help broaden the struggle for women. And, as you know, rights granted to women usually get extended to men.”

For using their arrest to win significant improvements in the conditions of some of those who fall into the clutches of our criminal justice system, Anne Weills, Mollie Costello, Alyssa Eisenberg and Tova Fry are our Truthdiggers of the Week.

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