This issue of Fire Inside is dedicated to the eight women on California’s Death Row:
Mary Ellen Samuels
by Rosie Alfaro, Death Row, CCWF
They say we must die before we multiply,
I say we must keep on living and not digging
the hole for our awaiting killing.
They say that I’m wicked so I must die.
I say I ain’t got no ticket to be wicked
so I just titter cause I ain’t bitter,
my ticket tells me to keep on ticking till time
takes its tough turn and toll towards tomorrow.
They say I must die cause I’m full of hatred.
I say I’m hanging high, a little hard,
but harmless to even having a harmful
heart that’s full of hatred…
They say I must die cause I’m corrupt…
I say I’m not corrupt, crazy, craven a coward
or even cruel… I’m a coy, canny crony,
capable of caring and I won’t kick you to the
curb cause I care…
They say I must die cause I’m malignant.
I say “my oh my,” I’m not mad, I merely manage
and maintain my mind from all this madness
and mud cause I’m not ma
nant, so I make my
move and move on…
I may be down but I’m not knocked out.
I’ll talk my talk and walk my walk.
They say what they want to say.
They do what they want to do.
And me, I keep my head up high,
I won’t shed a tear cause I don’t fear…
by Charisse Shumate, CCWF
I write from my heart and the experience of a battle that I took on knowing the risk could mean my life in more ways than one.
First of all, have an open mind and trust in God to give you the wisdom and strength. As lead plaintiff, staff will very seldom have any thing good to say to you or about you. Medical staff will feel like you are a threat only when they know that they are not doing their jobs the way they should. So you are labeled as a trouble maker. Now your peers with medical concerns will want you to be able to get them immediate help.
Beware that you have all the facts and as much proof as you can get your hands on. Never give up your only copy of anything and keep close records because CDC also labels you as a liar.
Now please don’t give up. When times get rough hold your head up and know that you may be free or dead if you have acute medical needs yourself before you see the change that we fight so hard for. But stay in peace with yourself that you are doing the right thing. It’s not a me thing; it’s a we thing, and together with the Dream Team and the help of CCWP there is light at the end of the tunnel.
And yes, I would do it all over again. If I can save one life from the medical nightmare of CCWF Medical Department then it’s well worth it.
by Cathy Jacquet Thompson, Death Row, CCWF
The United States houses more women comdemned to die than any other country in the world. Other than when their crimes occur or when an execution date is scheduled for one of us, we remain totally invisible to society. This is probably how society wants it. They do not want to be reminded that they have condemned mothers and grandmothers to die against their will. When they are reminded, they ease their conscience by painting a picture of us as the worst of the worst women on earth, women too dangerous to even be around other inmates in the prison system, women who have committed unspeakable crimes.
The population of condemned women is .01% of the entire women’s prison population. If you take a look back at history, this country has performed 511 legal executions of women starting in 1632. The oldest woman ever executed was 65 years of age, the youngest was only 12 years old. It’s apparent that age has no bearing on our barbaric society.
Executions in the 1600’s, 1700’s and early 1800’s were public carnivals held in the center of towns immediately after sentencings. Women were forbiden to attend executions. A condemned woman was placed on the scaffolds and humiliated before crowds of cavorting men cheering the executioner. It was a show for men.
There are presently over 3,500 men on death row, by far out numbering the 50 or less women. Women sentenced to death are usuually first time criminal offenders. The vast majority of these women come from abusive families and easily fall prey to abusive relationships.
In the book Women Prisoners-A Forgotten Population, the author shows that almost half of the women presently on death row have a history of abuse and are there for the murder of an abusive spouse or lover. When a woman strikes back at her abuser and kills her intimate partner she is given a longer and more severe prison sentence than what a man receives.
Death rows vary from state to state. There is no set pattern. Some states allow women to mingle for meals and yard excercise, while others never allow any contact with another human and women are locked down up to 23 hours per day.
Fifteen years ago many women who were sentenced to death got reversals and sentence modification to life without parole upon appeal. A man who brutally abuses a woman, finally goes too far with the abuse and kills her will receive a manslaughter conviction with a 15 years or less sentence. Depending on which state he resides in, he can get out after serving half the time. If his victim of abuse had killed him out of fear for her life or to escape the beatings and mental abuse, she gets an average of 15 years to life all the way up to death penalty. Obviously, women are not sentenced according to guidelines.
Women prosecutors seem to feel they have to prove they have no gender bias in their eyes and tend to strike out at women that are accused of murdering their abuser.
It is apparent the justice system is still in the control of men as were executions in the 1600’s, 1700’s, and early 1800’s. It is a sad, but true, fact of reality that female prosecutors fear some type of retribution if they show empathy for an abused defendant who killed her abuser.
Most of these cases are improperly defended because of a lack of available funds for defense and investigation. The funds and resources available to prosecute a case have no limit. Is this just one more panel of men making the decisions? Over 50% of the women on death row were represented by male attorneys, their courtroom was controlled by a male judge, and the courtroom bailiffs were male.
Abuse of women starts as a child and ends in the so called justice system. Our Pledge of Allegiance, taught to a child in grammar school, has been challenged for the mention of God. This writer feels it should be challenged for the very last four words we recite “and justice for all.”
There are eight women living on California’s death row at Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. Because there are so few women, they are usually forgotten in discussions of the death penalty. Even if there is a huge media flurry when a woman is convicted of a capital crime, once that woman is sentenced and sent to CCWF, she becomes invisible.
Two of the women on death row are African-American; two are Latina; the other four are white. They range in age from mid-twenties to late-fifties. For many of them, this is their first conviction. Most of them say that they were battered at some time in their lives prior to their incarceration. Many of them have no family outside of the prison. They have built a close-knit community amongst themselves at CCWF. All of their cases are presently on appeal and none of them is expected to be executed in the near future. They are: Rosie Alfaro, Celeste Carrington, Cynthia Coffman, Kerry Dalton, Maureen McDermott, Mary Ellen Samuels, Catherine Thompson and Caroline Young.
There are over 3,000 people on death row in the United States today, 482 of them in California. The U.S. continues to execute people at an increasing rate and expands the death penalty to include more crimes while cutting off death row prisoners’ access to legal representation and appeals. This country stands alone among all of the other so-called developed nations in using the death penalty. We in CCWP believe that the death penalty is barbaric – that taking a life in exchange for a life makes no sense.
The racism so present in every aspect of our society is reflected as well in who gets sentenced to death, and for killing whom. The chances of a black person being executed for murdering a white person are four times greater than those of a white person being executed for murdering a black person.
CCWP was formed in response to the abysmal medical care that women prisoners receive. In the past three months, two women died at CCWF after begging for medical care and one woman almost drowned in the bathtub in the infirmary. Women are receiving the death penalty without even being sentenced!
As women, we experience this country as steeped in violence. We face violence every day as we walk down the street. But the call for “law and order” is no solution. It has meant “force without justice” – the uncontrolled incarceration of hundreds of thousands of human beings 1-1/2 million people in the United States this year. State sponsored violence – from the murder of more than 700 people by police in 1996 to the execution of over 400 people in US prisons since 1973 –
has had the most far-reaching effect on us.
The case of Mumia Abu Jamal, an African-American political prisoner on death row in Pennsylvania, has brought the issue of the death penalty into the forefront of progressive politics around the world. We totally support Mumia in his struggle for freedom. And we know that the struggle for Mumia’s freedom is not for him alone. It is also for the other 3,000 on death row across the country, including the eight women here in California. We believe that we need to increase the visibility of the women on death row as part of the battle against the death penalty, and so this month we join with hundreds of women around the Bay Area in a women’s contingent against the death penalty and to free Mumia Abu Jamal. We ask all supporters of women’s rights and struggles to join with us.
STOP THE KILLING! SUPPORT WOMEN PRISONERS’ FIGHT AGAINST
MEDICAL NEGLECT AND TORTURE! FREE MUMIA, STOP THE DEATH PENALTY AND POLICE BRUTALITY!
by Linda Field, CCWF
We had a friend. She wanted to learn more about God so she moved into our room. We are Christians. We love. We welcomed her into our room, our lives, our hearts. She had a sweet, gentle soul. We all shared in learning.
She loved to draw. She would sit on her bed for hours, shading beautiful flowers.
She had three beautiful daughters, each with a glow in her eyes that spoke of love for her mother. Two daughters awaited the births of their own children.
I was in the room when she received word of the birth of her granddaughter. She cried with joy and with sorrow. Her first grandchild was healthy and beautiful, born while Grandma was in prison. She wasn’t there to comfort her daughter or wipe her brow, she wasn’t there to hold the baby. It hurt. I watched the tears well up and spill over her lashes. I cried with her. I cried for her. I cried for me. I knew her joy and pain for I shared it with her. My granddaughter was seven months old.
Mail came and she shared her photographs. She had such a beautiful family. She shined. The next grandchild would come soon, but not soon enough.
She grew weary and sick with flu-like symptoms. She tried to get help but was ignored. We tried to help, but no one would listen.
She faded away and nothing we did revitalized her. She couldn’t eat. She couldn’t drink. We begged, dear God, how we begged, how we tried. They just didn’t care, couldn’t be bothered.
She just wanted to go home, to hold her precious little girl, to be a family.
When will they care? When will they love their neighbor? Not now. Not yet.
On Friday, she saw Dr. Do and RN Nichols. On Monday she saw MTA (Medical Technical Assistant) Funnye. On Tuesday she saw MTA Chance. On Wednesday … she saw God.
With love to Minerva Gonzalez, who saw God on September 3, 1997.
by Judy Greenspan
Chanting “Health Care is a Right!” supporters of women prisoners and their campaign for basic medical care held a loud and angry demonstration on Saturday, October 4 in front of California’s two largest women’s prisons, the
Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) and Valley State Prison for Women, both located in Chowchilla.
Despite a recent legal settlement reached on behalf of more than 5,000 women prisoners in this state, women prisoners with chronic and serious medical problems face continuing crises and neglect. Over Labor Day weekend, an HIV+ woman prisoner died in her cell. She spent two weeks vomiting and becoming dehydrated. Testimony from cellmates indicates that the medical staff at CCWF never took her condition seriously. One MTA told this woman prisoner that if she could walk to the bathroom, there was nothing wrong with her.
It was the hard work of the women inside, led by HIV+ prisoner organizer Joann Walker, that first brought the medical neglect to the attention of outside activists and lawyers. On April 4, 1995, a class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of women with sickle cell anemia, cancer, HIV, asthma, diabetes and other serious and chronic illnesses at CCWF and the California Institution for Women at Frontera. At the same time that the lawsuit was filed, the California Coalition for Women Prisoners was formed to support the demands of the women inside for basic medcal care.
The demonstration on October 4, which demanded, “No More Deaths – Support the Fight Against Medical Neglect and Torture,” brought the campaign full circle. Women’s organizations and prisoners’ rights groups such as WORLD (Women Organized to Respond to Life-Threating Diseases), California Prison Focus, Abolition Road, Women’s Positive Legal Action Network, Catholic Charities’ HIV/AIDS in Prison Project, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and others addressed the protest.
In December, the U.S. District Court in Sacramento is expeced to ratify the legal settlement. However, the women inside believe that without continuous public pressure and scrutiny, nothing will change. CCWP is planning a demonstration in front of the Sacramento federal courthouse on December 15. Unfortunately, the second largest prison which sits across the street from CCWF, Valley State Prison for Women, is not covered by the legal settlement. Several prisoners have already died there because of substandard medical care. The California Coalition for Women Prisoners is committed to continuing its advocacy efforts on behalf of all women prisoners.
by Keri Kolmer-Gutierrez, CCWF
I am 35 years old. Over the past 23 years, I’ve been in and out of drug rehabilitation. Along with the drugs came dysfunctional behavior, burgularies, robberies, etc. I’ve also been in and out of county jail most of my life, either getting bailed out or doing short periods of time with a program attached. But no matter how hard I’d try to stay clean, I would go back to the needle.
Well, this time county jail just wasn’t good enough for the Ventura County Judge. This time I got myself sent to Hell! The Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla.
I’m a woman living with HIV. Since I’ve been here in prison, I’ve gotten abused, mistreated and emotionally and mentally stressed out. My t-cells dropped a great deal. The MTAs (Medical Technical Assistants) don’t have a clue how to treat any medical problems, never mind serious, chronic illnesses.
One day, my friend walked me to the MTA after I had a bad epileptic seizure in the dayroom. The MTAs told my friend, “She can’t come in here, let her finish her seizure outside.” It was 107 degrees outside. I then went into another seizure. When they finally brought me in, the MTAs told the doctor that I was faking it.
That’s only one incident of many. I never have my medication on time. They started me on triple combination therapy, including a protease inhibitor, and never told me about the side effects of any of the drugs, including Crixivan. “Just take it,” they said. “Now if you’re late taking that medication, it’s extremely detrimental.”
Since I’ve been here, I’ve witnessed a lot of women going through the same terror every single day. We’re not “allowed” to be sick except on the days we are scheduled for sick call. If we are ill with some serious infection like boils, the MTAs give us bandaids and tell us to go to work anyway. In the heat, when it’s 90 degrees or above, they give “heat cards” to women on psychotropic medications. But if you have epileptic seizures or heart problems, then you are out of luck!
Two weeks ago, I witnessed a young lady pass away in my unit, possibly of food poisoning. She was also ill with the HIV virus. She had been trying to go to sick call for weeks. One day, I heard one of the corrections officers tell her, “if you can walk to the bathroom, then you can walk to the MTA.” They just refused to help her or even call for a wheelchair.
Funny thing, isn’t it? Most of us women who are HIV+ are willing and able to work and we do! All we want is the “proper” medical attention that we deserve. All these so-called doctors need to be put behind cell doors for having the nerve to practice at all. The MTAs also. One MTA in particular really needs to be put away. If you’re dying or even close, she’ll still refuse to see you.
I’m a very angry woman, though not for myself so much. I’m paroling next year. But what about the other thousands of women left behind in this institution? My heart really goes out to the other HIV+ women in here. I want to help and I am going to. This abuse has to stop! No one asked to come here to die. We just want to do our time and make it out alive. Lately, that doesn’t seem likely.
We do not want to die in here alone. Pray for us, please, say a special prayer for the lifers. Thank you.
by Urszula Wislanka
Most progressive reports from prisons concentrate on the horrific abuses perpetrated against prisoners. These abuses are pervasive, shocking and deserve a lot more exposure and attention than they are actually getting. However, concentrating on the gross abuses one might be led to believe that they are isolated incidents that could be reformed. One might then miss what is wrong with the whole “principle” that governs prisons.
At my recent visit to Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, Ca., inmates talked about the fact that without fail every woman prisoner speaks about the hardship imposed by the delays in getting mail. The guards have a polcy of opening (and thus presumably reading) all prisoners’ mail before they deliver it. A letter that the post office delivers in a day, takes 7-10 days to be delivered to prisoners. Sometimes mail is sent back to the sender and the prisoner is only notified that mail came for her and was sent back.
Mail is the women’s primary link to their families, loved ones, anyone they care about. Delaying mail aims at severing the most meaningful social ties. As an ex-prisoner pointed out in a Women’s Review of Books article, “Aristotle said we’re all political animals, political in the sense of social, that we need other people.” She continued, “The stronger the societal tie, the less likely I am to break it.” In other words, what makes us human are relations with other human beings. They reinforce our humanity. Denial of those connections is a direct denial of our humanity.
Once conceived of in this way, mail delay is not just a petty inconvenience. It exposes the institution’s systematic denial of what is fundamental to women’s humanity, not only in the horrific abuses routinely perpetrated there, but in their very policies. It shows the lie of Teena Farmon’s (CCWF’s warden) statement that “I work for a department that wishes to be, wants to be, a humane organization…. ”
VSPW opened only 2 years ago. It was built as the women’s equivalent of the infamous Pelican Bay prison. Long-term prisoners, who have served in several other institutions, complain that it is the most sterile environment they have experienced. They cannot have any pictures displayed anywhere in the cell, they have lockers for all of their personal possessions and they must be in that locker at all times unless they are being actually used. There are very frequent inspections. If the guard sees a cup on a table and a woman is not actually drinking from it, it will be confiscated. If she puts the book she is reading on her bed and not actually holding it in her hand, the book will be confiscated. All of these rules are further ways of denying women’s humanity and the need to make the space one’s own.
The prisoners’ complaints point to the fact that these are not just “isolated incidents” of abuse but indicative of the whole prison system which must be abolished. Yet the dehumanizing prison system is not out of place in this anti-human society. It is its logical extreme, just as the logical conclusion of denial of one’s humanity is the death penalty. Abolition of prisons is a step towards transforming this whole society.
I am Sherron Longfeather, a former prisoner and one of the founding mothers of R.O.S.I. I am also a prison reform activist of 18 years.
I am writing to let you know it is time for R.O.S.I. “Remember Our Sisters Inside” Rebirth. In 1989 I wrote you, the women behind the walls, saying I was going into the hospital for surgery and would be right back to you. It has been 8 years since that time, and I want you to know I am sorry if I caused you any hurt or grief.
In that time, the road of life took me to death’s door and down drug road. Now I am back strong in Body, Mind and Spirit, with three years and ten months clean and sober. I would like to start out fresh with you and continue to carry your message to the outside world. So, what do you say??? Want to give it another try with R.O.S.I? I have never forgotten you, my sisters inside. R.O.S.I’s printed material, which another strong woman and friend kept for 8 years, has been returned to me. I’ve been waiting for the day to come when we could reach you again!!
We could do art shows, slide shows, educate the public, get women to write to you and a lot more.
If this sounds like something you could hang with, write Sherron Longfeather, 2619 School Street, Oakland, Ca. 94602.
Thank you again,
Sherron Longfeather & Jake Davenport
P.S. If given a chance, I will be your arms and legs and will carry your messages in my heart and on my lips. LET’S DO IT!!!