by Karen Shain
Lawyers representing women prisoners at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) and California Institution for Women (CIW) settled a lawsuit regarding the abominable medical care that the women have been receiving. The settlement gives the California Department of Corrections (CDC) 16 months to provide adequate medical care to the prisoners.
If the settlement is approved by the district court, an assessor will monitor health care in the two prisons with the assistance of four medical experts. To be in compliance, the prisons must, among other requirements, make timely referrals to physicians for patients needing urgent care; ensure that prisoners receive necessary medications without life-threatening delays; provide necessary physical therapy; offer preventive care including periodic physicals, pelvic and breast exams, Pap smears and mammograms; protect patient privacy by restricting access to medical records and ending practices that publicly identify women with HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases.
CCWP member Charisse Shumate, lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, expressed her mixed feelings about the settlement: “We won part of the battle but we are losing the war. The battle won was at least a watching eye on CCWF’s and CIW’s medical departments. MTAs [Medical Technical Assistants] are being trained that we are human. Their attitudes are changing slowly for the better. The war lost is the state still will not admit to their lack of knowledge of women’s medical needs, their outright neglect that caused us to watch each other die behind these walls, who were not sentenced to death by a judge. But our death is on the hands of those who want to put a bandaid cure and call it adequate care. To all of the dream team [the Shumate legal team] I want to say on behalf of myself and every woman here at CCWF, we thank you, our prayers are forever with you. It was a hard job, but my heart says it was a job well done. Thank you for your concern and your watchful eyes.”
“The women who brought this suit aren’t out for money or fame,” said Ellen Barry, director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. “They’ve stuck their necks out and stood up to the state for one simple reason: to hold the state of California responsible for meeting their basic medical needs. We will continue to monitor the situations at CCWF and CIW during and after the assessment period. We are hopeful that the settlement agreement will result in significant improvements in the provision of adequate health care.”
“Everything we did to get this to trial was rehearsal – now we’re ready for the show,” said Marcia Bunney, another CCWP member and a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “I’m ecstatic about this settlement. Finally, we have some standards that we can hold them to. But I’m saddened by the knowledge that they [prison officials] will never live up to this agreement, and I wonder how many women will have to die in here before they will really make a change.”
Valley State Prison for Women, across the street from CCWF, was not part of the lawsuit. But women there, many of whom are pregnant or have cancer, are being denied the most basic medical treatment and human rights.
California’s prison officials will never make a change in favor of prisoners unless they are forced to do so. We demand that they follow the guidelines set up by the Shumate settlement. On October 4, 1997, we are going to the gates of CCWF and Valley State to celebrate the settlement and to show these officials that we will not stand by and allow them to weasel out of this settlement. We will keep our “watchful eyes” on them.
by Karen Shain