Because her name is on the lawsuit, Shumate v. Wilson, she has experienced severe retaliation since the suit began. She gets a transfusion for her sickle cell anemia once every three months, at most. This has resulted in unspeakable pain. Despite the pain and the harassment, Charisse carries herself with dignity and courage.
Charisse is doing a life sentence at CCWF as a result of being battered. She is a member of the battered women’s support group at the prison. She works with other women with sickle cell, to understand this disease and she fights for compassionate release for women dying of AIDS and other illnesses.
Charisse, for your courage, your dignity, your humor and your leadership, we are proud to dedcate this issue of The Fire Inside to you.
by Charisse Shumate, CCWF
As the lead plaintiff of the Shumate v. Wilson, I fight hard trying to receive the proper medical care for myself as well as each and every woman here at CCWF, as it seems medical care is on the very back burner of CDC (California Department of Corrections) list. We now have what is known as the Chronic Care Program here at CCWF. They are trying to show that they are doing something. We the inmate population ask, “Trying to do WHAT? Put us on another waiting list?” If and when you see a doctor he tells you he can only talk to you about whichever of the three chronic care clinics he has been appointed to work that day, so it’s still hurry up and wait. While the cancer grows on and we get sicker and sicker. There is still no hematologist for those of us who may suffer with sickle cell, lupus and other blood diseases. The faces keep changing in the medical department. It seems no one is here to stay.
Now ask me why is the battle so important to me and I ask you is life not important to each and every one of us? What I see within the CDC medical care is a living nightmare that must be changed. For all of those who have helped to try to get this changed, please DON’T give up. For all of you who want to help, please join in. We need you. And for all of those who feel we have nothing coming, I stay in prayer for you to have a change of heart.
Women prisoners tend to stick together. When someone is sick, she will look to support from other prisoners long before she will try to see a doctor. At Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), where women live eight to a cell, women have learned many of the basics of emergency medical procedures, not because they they have dreams of becoming doctors, but because they are human beings. But women prisoners also believe that they have a constitutional right to medical care, that their punishment is being in prison and should not be compounded by being forced to live in constant pain and fear of death.
On April 4, 1995, women prisoners at CCWF and California Institution for Women (CIW) filed a lawsuit against the state of California because of the abhorrent medical conditions they face daily. The lawsuit claims that women are not being given adequate pain medications even when they are in the late stages of AIDS or cancer, that the procedures for emergency care are grossly inadequate, that the protocols for pregnant women barely exist, and that chronic illnesses are not treated in a consistent manner. Actually, the list of complaints is a lot longer than this. Shumate v. Wilson is a class action lawsuit which represents the interests of all women prisoners at CCWF and CIW. As of April 6, 1997, this is over 5,100 women!
The lawsuit has been through many changes since it was filed two years ago. But the most consistent aspect of the suit has been the tremendous courage and determination of the women behind it. Some women have died since the lawsuit began, and many more women have come forward with descriptions of medical care which is similar to torture. Just today, while this article is being written, two women called a law firm related to the suit and stated that their cellmate had been returned from the infirmary with an open, infected wound which was the result of an amputated toe. The toe was amputated because it had become gangrenous following weeks of complaints while this woman begged to be seen by a qualified doctor, to no avail. Several days after the surgery, she was returned to her cell and is now in tremendous pain and was given nothing to keep her wound clean and no instructions on avoiding further damage to her foot!
A woman gave birth in the waiting room of the infirmary at CIW. The nurse on duty refused to assist her because she could not find gloves. The baby was not breathing right but was not given oxygen or suction. Paramedics finally arrived and took the mother and the baby to the outside hospital. The baby died because of severe brain damage.
The stories of abuse, torture and complete neglect go on and on. For every story we have heard, we know that there are hundreds more which have gone unreported. The women involved in the lawsuit are taking considerable risks in linking themselves publicly to the suit. They face daily harrassment, some of it petty, some of it life-threatening. But the lawsuit also has meant taking deliberate steps in fighting for themselves and their sisters. Marcia Bunney, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, puts it this way: “The public asks why prisoners sue. The prisons, they are led to believe, are luxurious establishments which provide us with everything we need, including medical care. The women prisoners of California are suing because our human rights, as well as our civil rights, are violated on a daily basis by public servants who believe themselves to be immune to rules and beyond the reach of the law. Shumate v. Wilson is not one of the “frivolous” lawsuits the Attorney General claims is a waste of tax dollars. Far from it, we are suing for the sake of our health and our lives, and in memory of other lives lost as a direct result of the dangerously inadequate medical care routinely provided to women prisoners…. Behind prison walls, the State of California maintains its own killing fields.”
Shumate v. Wilson will be going to trial in Sacramento soon. The trial will take four to six weeks. CCWP will be at the trial regularly. We will hold a demonstration on the first day, and we will be there for the testimony of the women inside. They are the ones taking the risks. We on the outside will be giving them support.
Carpools will be going from the Bay Area during the trial. Please call 415/255-7036, Ext. 4, or 510/834-5657, Ext. 3150, for more information.
by Karen Shain and Urszula Wislanka, CCWP
Bay Area, CA. – On Saturday, March 8th, about 250 women and men gathered at San Francisco’s Women’s Building to honor California’s women prisoners at the California Coalition for Women Prisoners’ 2nd annual Women’s Day Celebration in an evening of music, Native American poetry, and Philippine creation story permance.
A highpoint of the evening was the presence of Norma Jean Croy, a Native American political prisoner who did over 18 years in state prison for a murder she did not commit. There have not been too many victories lately, so when Norma Jean appeared on the stage, the audience went wild!
The focus of the event was support for women prisoners’ struggle for decent medical care in the state prison system. Cynthia Martin, a plaintiff in the lawsuit Shumate v. Wilson, spoke about the difficulties faced by disabled prisoners who have to live in units which have doors too small for wheelchairs. Cynthia, who had been severely burned prior to her incarceration, had been unable to get the most basic care for her burns – not even a skin moisturizer so that her scars could stretch with her skin! Upon her release from prison, Cynthia had to go through several painful surgeries, many of which could have been avoided if she had been given the most basic medical care while she was inside.
Dana spoke about the destruction of selfhood that the prison attempts by trying to convince women that they are nothing, that they deserve the inhuman treatment they are getting. She thanked the audience for helping her and many others know that there are people on the outside who think the guards and the system are wrong.
We heard a report about the progress of the law suit Charisse Shumate and 5100 other women prisoners filed against governor Wilson, California Department of Corrections, many wardens, commending officers, down to the individual doctors, nurses, medical assistants and guards who all murder women by denial of medical care.
The prison system’s defense is that the medical treatment inside the prison is not substantially different than that available “outside.” This is totally untrue. The worst public hospitals in the country give qualitatively better care than the medical systems in California’s women’s prisons. But when the women prisoners who are part of the suit talk about abuses in prison, they are not coming it to outside. They point to the basic inhumanity of their experiences and are appealing to the absolute human right to medical care.
Several members of the Coalition have been visiting the women inside. They told how inspiring the visits can be. The women inside fight not bound by what is possible, but for what is right, thus helping make what is right possible. As much as they are asking us to help them, they are helping us sustain the passion to root out the entire system and create a wholly new, human society.
by Desiree Glover, CCWF
I have a story about some Fire Inside the CCWF walls. I came to CCWF on 6/30/94 being classified and getting a job in Graphic Arts 1, not knowing anything about printing, also not knowing how unfairly I would be treated. I liked my class, learning and being taught, not by my instructor but by inmates.
I got better and better. It took 14 months before I got a chance at a pay slot. I was showing great performance and printing quality work, and I was impressing my boss. But one thing was missing that I did not understand. I was BLACK. I thought I was a convict so ethnicity didn’t matter. I was wrong. I found out that in this Graphic Arts 1 class, Blacks can only go so far. Now as far as getting a pay slot a Black had to leave the program in order for the next Black to get in, but that didn’t go for other races.
I remember talking to my boss about a pay slot being available. I was next in line due to my performance in his class. He told me it wouldn’t look right if he put a Black in that pay slot, so it was given to a white inmate. The white inmate that got the pay slot had only been in the class for 3 months to my 10 months. I was the one who trained her.
Well, I finally got a pay slot but that didn’t last long because my time was up. The key was that BLACKS do not stay in Graphic Arts 1 class for over 1-1/2 years. And using the Appeal Process did not help. Oh! Yes it did, it helped me get put in c/c (closed custody) status. That means you are unassigned, put in a room where you program for only two hours a day and are locked down for the rest of the day. That was for fighting for what I thought was unfair and unjustly being BLACK in CCWF Vocational Training Program, unable to complete a vocational trade while serving a four year second strike sentence.
by Linda Field, CCWF
I am fat. I’ve been fat since I was 13; I am now 48. Over the past ten years, the medical department of California Department of Corrections (CDC) has elaborately referred to me as obese, grossly obese and morbidly obese. Fat. That is all they see. The diagnosis ends there.
I have arthritis. It’s because I’m fat. Lose weight and I will lose arthritis.
I am borderline diabetic and have been for 22 years. Rather, I was until entering the CDC system ten years ago when I was cured. The cure: I was told the disease didn’t exist; either you were diabetic or you weren’t – there was no such thing as borderline. In December of 1996, after a glucose tolerance test, I was once again borderline diabetic. The cause – fat. Dr. Touya said that I didn’t have a “nanny” to take care of me, do it myself. He stated that I needed to lose 5 pounds a week to cure the problem. There were no diet foods like raw vegetables, simply don’t eat.
I have high blood pressure. Of course this is because I’m fat. Once again I would be cured if I lost weight.
Ten years of medical charting and everyone assumes my “illnesses” were due to obesity. Dr. Touya decided to give me a psychiatric referral. After all, I must be psychotic to be fat, per Dr. Juan Touya.
Discrimination is what I’m fighting. How can anyone who calls himself a physician be so single minded – so blind? Must CDC always take the easy way out? Is CDC medicine to remain in the dark ages?
The medical society has recognized that some people are meant to be fat. The yo-yo dieting, losing and always gaining back more, is unhealthy. Many believe this is more stressful to the body than the fat.
I have had two EKGs, one in 1992, the other in December of 1996. While the EKG lists bundle branch blockage and possible arterial enlargement, Dr. Touya claimed it was perfectly normal. He claimed I was just fat. He claims I was argumentative and belligerent because I requested a different doctor, one who would listen to my complaints.
Repeatedly, I have complained of not being able to take a breath or that my breath catches, dizziness, and disorientation. The answer is that I’m just fat. Why has no one run any tests to rule out a heart condition when I have told them of my extensive family history of heart disease? Why is it assumed that the cause is fat? I can spell. Break down the word assume and you have ASS-U-ME. Maybe CDC is an ASS but this layman inmate isn’t.
I can accept that all my symptoms for the past ten years are due to fat, but I would do so after ruling out other possibilities.
Are CDC doctors so archaic that they practice medicine 30 years behind the times, or do they just not care? Sometimes I wonder if we are really in California in 1997, or is it that we’re part of a mental conditioning experiment performed in a Nazi concentration camp in the early 1940s. Many CDC physicians maintain a neo-Nazi mentality. [To them] inmates are sub-human, dime-a-dozen, and just trying to get out of working.
If you report to medical [sick call], terrified because you lost control – disoriented, right arm temporarily immobile, clammy, panting, unable to catch your breath – you might sit for two and a half hours until an RN takes your temperature and blood pressure, pronounces you normal and charges you $5.00. If you’re lucky, you might be excused from work for several days. If you return again, scared because you don’t understand what happened, you might be told, “If you don’t want to do your work, get a job change.” You might receive another lay-in [excuse from work] for 5 days. You still haven’t seen a doctor, you’re still scared to death, you’re still just fat. (This occurred Monday, 2/24/97 at approximately 6:45 a.m. MTA Alipo brought me inside. Also MTA Dobson. RN Nichols saw me at approximately 7:15 a.m. I saw RN Nichols again on 2/26/97.)
Where does it end? When will someone look into my eyes and see me – not just the fat? Hopefully it will be before I need a fat coffin because I had heart failure or a stroke due to fat. Hopefully, before I die at the hands of CDC medical, with their state of the art equipment that isn’t used – because I’m just fat.
by Karen Shain
It was dark, 10:00 at night, by the time we got to the prison. We had heard earlier that evening that Patty was going to get out on compassionate release, that we could pick her up at any time. Cindy, her lawyer and friend, and I decided to go down and get her that night. We felt that we would not be able to live with ourselves if Patty died that night and missed the chance to spend even one last night outside the prison gates. It never rains in the central valley in mid-April, but it rained that night. It was a very strange night.
Patty Contreras is a woman with AIDS who has spent the last ten years in prison in California. She was the focus of a campaign for compassionate release. This campaign was led by Cindy Chandler of Women’s Positive Legal Action Network in Oakland and by the HIV/AIDS in Prison Project of Catholic Charties of the East Bay. Hundreds of people wrote letters to the parole board, and, finally, the board granted her release.
The prison authorities made us wait on one side of the sally port while they drove Patty to the other side. Memories of old war movies, prisoner exchanges came to us while we waited. What if this were really a trade, if one of us had to spend the rest of her life inside in order for Patty to be let free? And what is a sally port anyway? Isn’t that where the guy got stuck in 2001? As I say, it was a very strange night. A sport van drove up and we could see Patty inside. She was just as tiny as ever, slumped over toward the right, away from the driver, but she was alive! Then they made her get out of the car in the rain and walk over to a kiosk so they could fingerprint her one last time. We had never seen Patty walk. Where was the wheelchair? She was using a flimsy metal walker, still slumped over to one side, slowly going step by step to the kiosk. The guard held her up and moved her fingers away from her body, spread each finger apart, so they could make sure they were releasing the right dying prisoner.
We were standing outside of our car by then, not able to believe that they were doing this to Patty, they couldn’t even bring the piece of paper to her in the van so that she wouldn’t have to stand in the rain. Then, as Patty turned to be led back to the van she saw us. She stood straighter than I have ever seen her and she moved her walker back to the car with amazing dignity. She knew she was going to make it! When she got into the van, she raised her arm in a fist. We knew she was going to make it!
Patty was driven through the sally port, to our side of the wall. We had pillows, blankets, throw-up bags, snacks, everything we could think of to make her ride comforable. But Patty brought her spirit into our car and turned that long ride back into magic. We were disappointed that it was raining so Patty wouldn’t be able to see the comet. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll see it tomorrow night.” It started to hail as we crossed the central valley. “The earth is welcoming me! … Let’s go to a restaurant.” I told her we would not be able to get her into a restaurant without a wheelchair if it was hailing. She opened her window and told the sky to stop hailing. It stopped, so we went to a restaurant! It was that kind of night.
Don’t make any mistake about it. Patty still has AIDS. She is desperately ill, and her compassionate release came very late in the game. But what we saw that night was a deep fighting spirit, a woman who refused to die in prison, who refused to give them that satisfaction.