Irony

by YaVonne M. T. Anderson
Quiet as kept, prison is not for rehabilitation. It serves its purpose as far as punishment goes, yet was codesigned for mental damnation. The essence of who we are, if we have ever found ourselves, we are raped by authority. If you’ve never appreciated what you once had, being here you will, assuredly. We’re forbidden to express emotions of happiness because we are suspected of being inebriated. Should we dare show emotions of anger, it is then “security risk” related. In the event that we are saddened, mental health is recommended. Yet if we appear as nonchalant, we’re unremorseful and too independent. Ironically, this is the place we’ve been sentenced to to learn some sort of lesson. But while putting into action the act of change, it is deemed an act of transgression. Although change must come from within, and may not occur if it is forced, The conditions that we are subjected to make it all the more tough a course. If you don’t find yourself worse off then you were before coming to this place, You’ve mastered defeating the true purpose of prisons through God’s good will and grace. I’m a better person not because of prison, yet because of what I have done for me. They merely provided the tools for me to muster up strength and courage to succeed. So am I rehabilitated? Yes, I’ll admit, but I did all of the footwork on my own. And whether I’m released soon for it, or not, in my heart I’ve been on the road that leads to home.
10.17.03

Perry Fund Scholarships

The John W. Perry Fund, a project of the DRC Net Foundation in association with Students for Sensible Drug Policy, provides college scholarships to students losing federal financial aid because of drug convictions. The Fund has money for 2004-05 school years. Eligible students are urged to apply as soon as possible.
Please visit their website (http://www.raise yourvoice.com/perryfund/) or call DRCNet at (202) 362-0030 for further information.

Welcome New Volunteer Coordinator Patricia Chase!

Patricia ChaseWe are thrilled to introduce Patricia Chase to our readers. Patricia was born and raised in Peru and lived in Mexico for 11 years. She has a tremendous amount of volunteer coordination experience behind her. She comes to us because of a lifetime of dedication to struggling against injustice, poverty and discrimination, both in Peru and in the United States. In particular, she has worked with women on the border between the U.S. and Mexico who work under the most brutal sweatshop conditions. Patricia believes that the struggle for the rights of women prisoners is part of the same struggle that she has participated in throughout her life. She hopes to build different networks in support of women prisoners. She wants to make sure that the issue of women behind bars is as visible as possible. She also intends to coordinate the work of CCWP with the work of others who are working for prisoners’ rights.
Patricia will be working half time for CCWP. She can be reached at the office.

Bienvenida a la Nueva Coordinadora del Programa de Voluntarios/as Patricia Chase!

Patricia ChaseQueremos introducir a Patricia Chase ante nuestros/as lectores/as. Patricia nació y creció en Perú y también vivió en México por 11 años. Ella tiene una gran experiencia en la coordinación de trabajo con voluntarios. Ella viene de una larga historia de lucha contra la injusticia, la pobreza y todas las formas de discfrimanacion, tanto en Perú, México como en Estados Unidos. En particular entre los trabajos que ella a hecho este el haber trabajado con las mujeres de las maquiladoras en la frontera norte México-Estados Unidos, quienes son unas de las que más sufren las brutales condiciones de explotación y maltrato. Patricia cree que la lucha por los derechos de las mujeres en la cárcel es parte de la misma lucha que ella ha tenido a lo largo de su historia. Ella espera constribuir a la construcción y fortalecimiento de una red de apoyo para las mujeres que estan presas. Ella quiere asegurar que la lucha de las mujeres en la cárcel se haga cada vez mas visible así como possible. Ella también visiona coordinar el trabajo de CCWP con el trabajo de otras organizaciones que estan en la lucha por los derechos humanos de los presos/as.
Patricia estará trabajando medio tiempo para CCWP, pueden localizar a ella en la oficina.

Our Voices Within: Healing from the Inside Out

by Andrea Bible and Diana Block
Cheryl, Janisha, Gloria, Marva, and Juliette at the eventOn October 12, 2003, nearly 200 community members joined Free Battered Women for the second annual “Our Voices Within” event – an inspiring afternoon celebrating the release of three survivors of domestic violence from prison and supporting the healing of their sisters inside.
Survivors Marva Wallace, Susan Deering, and Cheryl Sellers each shared their amazing journeys to freedom. Marva Wallace was the first woman to be released through the help of the Habeas Project* after serving 17 years of her sentence. Susan Deering was also released through the Habeas Project after serving 22 years in prison and Cheryl Sellers is one of the very few people to be paroled by Governor Davis. Former prisoner Gloria Killian who was released in 2002 when her conviction was overturned was also present and reflected on the many forms of injustice which women prisoners face.
African Canadian lesbian singer-songwriter Faith Nolan roused the crowd with songs of social justice and her humor. The all-woman, multi-racial dance collective Dancers Without Borders amazed everyone with their compelling performance, which reflected both the anguish and the strength of women who survive.
Friends and family members read poetry from women inside, and the audience bid on the remarkable artwork of incarcerated women in a silent auction. During the open mike time, family members and friends shared their feelings about the impact of their loved one’s incarceration on their lives. All together the event raised $2,900 for the work of Free Battered Women!
The people attending were clearly moved by the strength and talents of currently and formerly incarcerated survivors and they committed to carry on the work to gain the release of those who remain inside.
Commemorative books of survivors’ writing and artwork created for the event are available for $15 by contacting Free Battered Women. Free Battered Women is always looking for artwork, poetry and testimony for our website and next year’s Our Voices Within.
*The Habeas Project was established by a coalition of groups, including Free Battered Women, to assist battered women in California state prisons to seek retrials or reduced sentences under Penal Code 1473.5 effective January 1, 2002.

It’s Your Health: A Tribute to Peer Counselors

by Edaleene Smith, CCWF
The cover of the book Focus On Living: Portrails of people with HIV, showing a young black man with a shaved headIn this issue of The Fire Inside we focus on the critical role of peer health counselors and educators in building strength and unity among women prisoners. Against the odds, and often at risk of retribution from the prison authorities, these women make sure that other sisters are educated and supported in dealing with their health–from HIV to Hepatitis C, cancer to how to survive life inside the walls. A recent book, Focus on Living by Roslyn Banish, features two peer counselors from CCWF. We are proud to print this review of their work.
* * *
My name is Edaleene Smith. I’m a long-termer with a sentence of 36 years. I’ve been in prison for almost 6 years. I want to tell you about two peer counselors who wrote their life stories to help teach other women in prison. When I first came over the wall from A Yard I feared so many things: the signs all over the place warning us about Hepatitis C and HIV; being surrounded by so many sick, infected people; and being afraid that I would die. I was thinking, “How could I live a normal life in prison around so many sick women?” At the time I didn’t know that two peer counselors BH and JR were sick.
They both reached out to me with open arms. They are always helping someone and teaching about good health. From them I learned how to take it one day at a time, dealing with my time and realizing that at any given time one could get sick. I learned from BH and JR not to mistreat or be scared of women who are ill, and learned more about myself. Just the fact that these two women who are both sick can help others made me a believer. I know that I am not better than anyone who has HIV or Hep C because it’s a fight for everyone to stay alive every day. I know now that people who are sick can also live strong and healthy lives.
Thank you BH and JR for sharing your stories and teaching other people to become strong, to believe in ourselves and to know that we all can live normal lives.

A New Northern California Chapter of CCWP Formed

by Karen Diers
The Northern California Coalition for Women Prisoners was launched on October 21 with a showing of Truth to Power: Women Prisoners Testify at Legislative Hearings. The event was held at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Ca. and co-sponsored by the Women’s Center on campus and Bar None. It was attended by about 25 students and members of the wider community.
Before the video, members of NCCWP–Liz, Alex and Jessica–read selections of poetry from Our Voices Within: Healing From the Inside Out. After the video, there was a lively discussion. Many people in the audience seemed to have similar experiences to those described by the testimonies. Amy of the campus Rape Crisis Center offered the center’s services to anyone who needed them. Several people showed interest in joining the newly formed NCCWP.
We were sorry that Stormy Ogden, who was to lead the discussion, could not be there due to an illness. We wish her speedy recovery.

Dia de los Muertos in San Francisco …

Tin foil birds over Dia de los Muertos altar in San Francisco.On a rainy evening in San Francisco, thousands of people joined the annual Dia de los Muertos procession which ended in Garfield Park in San Francisco’s Mission district. There, under a large, leafy tree decorated with dozens of handmade tin foil birds was a beautiful altar dedicated to the many women who have died in California’s prisons, many from medical neglect. Pictures of Patty Contreras, Charisse Shumate, Gina Muñiz, Sherrie Chapman and many others were lit up by candles. Each picture was surrounded by flowers, sugar skulls, pan del muerto and the woman’s favorite objects – from chocolate bars to cigarettes. Throughout the evening people stopped to gaze at the display. Many stayed to talk, ask questions and find out how they could become involved in the effort to stop the gross health care violations inside the prisons. All were clearly moved by this loving memorial which honored not only the women but also the families who suffered such horrible losses.
The altar was done in collaboration with the women inside who sent photos, memorials from the prison chapel, and their own memories of their sisters inside. On the outside, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Justice Now, Out of Control Lesbian Committee for Women Prisoners, California Prison Focus, and community artists worked with family members to make the altar a reality.

…and in Los Angeles

On November 1, 2003, The Action Committee For Women In Prison(ACWIP) held its very first fund raiser, The Dia De Los Muertos., in Los Angeles. The event was designed to honor all women who have ever been victims of violence, and the lives of these women were commemorated with beautiful and poignant altars. Artist Edith Abeyta contributed a powerful and touching installation entitled “I Miss You”. The event featured great food, raffles, a silent auction, and fabulous live music provided by Jamie Green and Frankie Trush. The uniqueness of the event was marked by the presence of four women who had served life sentences together at The California Institution for Women: Cheryl Minicelli, Susan Deering, Cheryl Sellers, and Gloria Killian who is now the Executive Director of ACWIP. Another lifer, Yolanda Ochoa, who recently passed away while in custody, was present in spirit and represented on stage by her daughter, Mona Infante, who drove up from San Diego in honor of the event. Although the event was successful as a fund raiser, the real joy of the evening came from demonstrating the beauty and power present in the lives of women who are too often marginalized and forgotten.