by Gloria Killian, CIW
The election of Governor Gray Davis signals a possible shift on crime and punishment. Early in 1999 several bills were introduced that impact incarcerated women.
One of the most important is Senate Bill 128 which concerns life sentences and parole dates. Introduced by Senator Polanco, this bill provides that for a first time offender convicted of only one crime. the Board of Prison Terms shall not deny a parole date solely on the gravity of the offense. Since BPT parole denials are routinely based on the heinousness of the crime, this bill could have a significant effect on the number of parole dates granted.
Changes in the political and judicial system also require changes in us. We are not powerless and it is time to stop acting as if we are helpless. At CIW we have initiated a massive letter writing campaign in support of SB 128 and it is creating an impact. A message from Senator Vasconcellas stated, “I will support this bill. Please drum up more support.”
We all write letters to friends and family, so put those letters to good use. Ask everyone you know to contact their elected representatives by letter, phone, fax, or e-mail to support this bill. We do have a voice and it is time to make ourselves heard.
by Judy Greenspan, HIV in Prison Committee
Mother, sister, daughter, comrade, friend, lover and warrior.
Yvonne “Bunny” Knuckles was all of these and her tireless fighting and loving spirit lives on inside of every person whose life she touched. Bunny, a formerly incarcerated woman living with HIV and Hepatitis C, peer educator and former board member of WORLD, Women Organized to Respond to Life-threating Diseases, died on Saturday, May 8.
During her last trip to both the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) and the California Institution for Women (CIW), Bunny found out that she was HIV postive. She suffered a large dose of the AIDS-phobia of the prison system, while being shuttled from place to place and told she had “AIDS” and was going to die.
Five years ago, Bunny wrote in WORLD’s newsletter, “When I was in there, I got my mind clear and my body clean and had a chance to figure out just what I wanted. Did I want to live or die? That was easy ? Bunny has always wanted to live, for in my heart I’ve always loved myself.
“Everyone said I couldn’t change because I had been a user for too long. They said I would be back [in prison] in 6 months but that was a lie. I’ve been home 19 months now (in July 1994)and because I chose to let God take control and not do things my old ways I have changed. . . .”
Bunny left prison in 1992 and true to her promise never returned. Bunny transformed herself from being one of the biggest drug dealers in West Oakland to one of the most courageous peer educators that the HIV epidemic (and later the Hepatitis C epidemic) has ever known. Bunny left her old ways behind but never left the streets her fellow addicts still hung out on. I used to drive Bunny home after meetings and speaking engagements to her apartment in West Oakland. She knew everyone on the street corner by name and always had a condom, a pamphlet, some friendly words and (later) a packet of bleach to give them. Bunny was in “recovery,” devoting her life to abstaining from drugs, but she was nonjudgmental too, and embraced the harm reduction movement with a passion.
Everything that Bunny did, she did passionately and with a lot of love.
Bunny truly enjoyed talking to young people about her life and experiences. She wanted to make a difference in their lives. The students at Berkeley High School wanted to listen to Bunny. She became one of the most popular speakers at this school.
Once Bunny and I attended a World AIDS Day celebration at the federal women’s prison in Dublin, California. At least 15 women came up to her to say hello. Bunny was the first person that women prisoners with HIV called when they were released. She would personally bring people coming out of prison down to the social security office to sign up for benefits or to the HIV clinic at Highland Hospital for medical treatment.
Over the last year, Bunny started writing and speaking about testing positive for Hepatitis C. She was seemingly indefatigable. She used to joke about being a senior citizen with HIV when she turned 60 two years ago. But Bunny just kept on going – if someone needed her she was there.
I am truly honored to have had the precious gift of working with Bunny. She will be missed incredibly by her sisters and brothers on both sides of the prison walls.
On Friday April 16 CCWP held its first vigil in support of medical care for women prisoners. The vigil was held in downtown San Francisco. Friends and advocates of women prisoners wore black and held up photographs of women prisoners such as Tina Balagno who died of cancer a week after being released from the CCWF in Chowchilla, Sherrie Chapman whose breast cancer went untreated for nine years, and many women who are living with HIV. Drummers accompanied a dance performance and a number of people passing by joined the vigil.
Women in Black is an international movement which has roots in Argentina, Israel, and Bosnia where women stand in witness for those who have been dispeared, tortured and abused by repressive governments. CCWP wants to connect the situation of women prisoners in the United States to those around the world who were subjucted to human rights abuses. The vigils will be held once a month and will focus on specific issues each time. The May vigil focused on lack of care for women prisoners living with HIV.
by Valerie Fritzel
A mother of three is given a 20-year prison sentence?because her boyfriend was involved in drugs.
A young man with no police record is given three life sentences for an arrest in which no drugs, no drug money, and no physical evidence were ever found.
An entire community is destroyed when 70 people are arrested and convicted on the word of one person.
Sound like horrible mistakes? Not at all. These are all common events, the result of the U.S. Government “War on Drugs”. Luckily for us, director Ofra Bikel chose to make these events the subject of “Snitch” a PBS Frontline news special.
“Snitch” focuses on federal prosecutors’ use of informants in cases involving illegal drugs. The use of informants is accepted as a necessary source of evidence for prosecution. However, when informants are used as the only source of evidence?and those informing face extreme sentencing under mandatory minimums?the result is a deadly combination which endangers everyone’s rights. Ms. Bikel uses the testimony of snitches, their victims, and legal professionals to prove that the use of informants by the government undermines the very foundation of our legal system.
In “Snitch” Ms. Bikel dives deeply into the many facets of the government-declared “War on Drugs” and illuminates the impact it has on people’s lives and our legal system. “Snitch” is a documentary we can’t afford to miss.
The Fresno Bee of 4/10/99 reported that Dr. Mayna Meah Choudry, who works in the prisons at Chowchilla, was arrested in Modesto for raping a woman he drugged into unconsciousness.
The many complaints from prisoners about the medical staff should be a warning to us all. One can’t help concluding that it is prison staff who are the criminals. When their crimes are commited against prisoners, they are tolerated by the criminal in-justice system. But they take away from all our humanity and put us in clear and present danger.
On May 4, in a split decision (one vote for release), the Parole Board denied Theresa parole for the second time. Theresa’s abuser was at the hearing reading a five page statement to block her parole. The Parole Board ruled that she was still “a threat to society” and told her to come back in a year. In another setback, the ninth district circuit court has reversed the ruling overturning Theresa’s conviction. The only way Theresa will win her freedom is if we make her case a public issue which cannot be ignored! CCWP is circulating a letter to be signed in her support. Please contact us to help with distribution.
On Saturday April 24, Mumia Abu-Jamal’s birthday, tens of thousands marched in San Francisco, Philadelphia and in many cities around the world to stop Mumia’s execution and demand a new trial. All along the West Coast shipping ports were shut down by dockworkers who refused to work that day in a strong show of support for Mumia. CCWP marched in San Francisco in a contingent which included many high school students and other youth who gave passionate and insightful spoken word performances before the march began. As Mumia said in a letter he wrote for the day “This is far more than one man’s birthday celebration. It is a celebration of life and a clarion call for something that is missing from the courtrooms and cages of America. The call for justice, for people’s justice, where a man or woman is not damned because of their poverty or their politics, where death row is not a black reserve situated out in the boondocks, where judges are not mere politicians in black robes.”
CCWP recieved copies of more than a dozen letters from members of Amnesty International in Sweden. Those letters are addressed to Commissioner Terhune, Governor Davis, Secretary Shalala, Bill Lockyer, Bill Clinton and other officials. They urge the officials to set up policies and monitoring programs that will ensure that the treatment of women in custody in the USA complies with international standards, that prisons and jails provide adequate physical and mental health services for inmates free of charge and specifically prohibit sexual relations between staff and inmates.
We thank the Swedish AI, congratulate them on their efforts and hope to make it count even more by adding to the pressure they are exerting!