Women?s art from inside: Changing perceptions, challenging violence

NCCWP
The Northern California chapter of CCWP (NCCWP) joined with the Humboldt Branch of Women?s International League for Peace and Freedom to cosponsor an exhibit of artwork by incarcerated women during October, 2005 at the Redwood Peace and Justice Center in Arcata, California. The Joan Patchen Fund provided funding for the exhibit.
The October 14th opening reception was part of a community-wide event called Arts Arcata. Because October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, this issue was highlighted through the art of women prisoners, including beautiful pieces by Linda Lee Smith, Donna Shaner, Theda Rice, Dolores Macias, Sheri L. Kelly and Demittri Bishop. They committed all money made from the sale of their art to go to support the work of Free Battered Women. Theda Rice sent a note that said, ?Thank you so much for the opportunity to do our drawings.? Donna Shaner also sent a poem entitled ?Alone.? The art display also included the essay from Our Voices Within ?How Living in Prison is Like Living with Your Batterer? by Brenda Clubine.
Works by activist, poet, artist, and political prisoner Marilyn Buck, including her Jericho ?98 sculpture, were displayed in the exhibit. Marilyn, in her 20th year of incarceration at the federal prison in Dublin, CA, sent a statement that said in part:
?In the world of hostages, imagination only escapes the shackles of women as victims. Creativity, when it surges forth, is life for any of us, but particularly for prisoners whose sorrows and losses in the midst of cruelty threaten to drown us. Creativity is desire, the spirit of life in this deadening, dystopic world designed to kill desire and spirit.
“Each act of art is an act of affirmation, of resistance, conscious or not. My own art grows out of the conscious and irrepressible necessity to live and to speak against the injustices of war, imperialism and white supremacy.
“Women must be the conscience of liberation, justice and humanity.?
The show had a powerful impact on the many people who saw it and left messages in the guest book. Here are some of the comments:
?Beautiful and haunting? These images trigger very strong emotions when I look at them? It?s difficult to look at them for very long, they make me feel sad and angry,? and finally, ?Thank you for sharing all your powerful and passionate pieces of art. Your story and struggle are not unheard or forgotten.?
Karen from NCCWP, one of the exhibit organizers, wrote that this work deepened her commitment to freeing all women prisoners and ending the cycle of violence.

Finland?s prison reforms

Urszula Wislanka
This summer I was fortunate to visit Finland. I heard about their experiment in reducing incarceration so I took the opportunity to find out more.
Mr. Jari Lohi, the head of Finish prisons, apologized for possibly offending me, but wanted to say that while President Bush talks about human rights, U.S. practice gives lie to this principle. His job, he stated, is to make sure that human rights are, in fact, observed in Finland.
He sees prison as part of society, “criminal policy stems from social policy.” He continued, “people who come into the system have dropped out of society, they have social problems, such as drug use.”
The national conversation about how to deal with social problems started in Finland in the 70s. Finland launched a large number of reforms that reduced the number of offenders brought to trial and the numbers of imprisoned. The “crime” of public drunkenness was removed from the criminal code, as was refusing conscription into the military for religious beliefs. They changed statutes on larceny and drunk driving. They increased use of conditional prison sentences based on a growing conviction that imprisonment decreases the offenders’ chance of adapting to society. Judges attended seminars on new sentencing procedures, imposing more fines, for example, rather than prison time. Over the period of 15 years Finland cut their prison population from about 8,000 to 2,000.
The current prison administration’s number one task is to reduce recidivism and break off the cycle of social exclusion, which causes crime. To that effect, they count the prisoners differently?each prisoner, rather than each admission to prison. They found that while 70% of admissions are repeat offenders, they comprise only 30% of prisoners. Having better data about the scope of the problem, Finland is now developing individual sentence plans, especially for those whose sentences are over 2 years.
Prisoners are encouraged to acknowledge their problems and acquire skills that will help them “stay out of trouble.” About 1/3 of prisoners serve time in “open” prisons: you spend the night in prison, but go outside everyday to your job and your life. 40% of prisoners work 8 hours a day and are compensated prevailing wages. 60% participate in some activities (work, drug treatment programs, education, etc.)
Mr. Jari Lohi said they would like to treat the “disease”, why people are anti-social, not just the symptoms: drug use, violent fights, etc. They really believe in rehabilitation. The success of their approach is to make people fit into their society.
But prisons are one way in which the difference between the “society” and the individual is made manifest. Here, prisoners in their concrete struggles whether for decent health care, or food, or “ban the box”?the campaign by former prisoners to remove the “Have you been convicted” box on job applications?are demanding that they be recognized as human! I see this as a part of a process of changing society so that society does not remain an abstraction opposed to the individual, but that each individual is the social entity and that each participates as a self-reflective part of the whole.
Charisse Shumate called this becoming a “we” person, instead if an “I” person. In her article for the first Fire Inside, she questioned in her own way the whole self-alienating concept that isolates individuals as egos under capitalism and reduces them to the status of things. She said, “for those who ask why they should care [about women prisoners] or believe we are asking for ‘Cadillac care’, … [how] sad [it] is [that] we are compared to a car. Is it because they forgot we are human?”
What the prisoners, and former prisoners, are challenging is the conception of society, of the “we” that excludes them, that is opposed to them as individuals, that leaves their “I” out. Capitalism does this to everybody, but it is from prisoners that the challenge to what society is comes forth explicitly. This is the lesson that can help us get more than prison reform, a whole new society!

Katrina aftermath

Karen Shain
[Karen Shain went to New Orleans and worked with others assisting Common Grounds, a grassroots organization there.]
As the drama of Katrina and its aftermath exploded across the news in September and October, one area of the crisis was kept relatively quiet. What happened to people in prisons and jails during the flooding of New Orleans and other areas across the south?
There were rumors that prisoners were drowning and left for dead across the region. We heard that some women were sent to Angola Prison in Louisiana (one of the most notorious men?s prisons in the country). Hard news was hard to come by. This is what we know (thanks to the Critical Resistance web site for this information):
* Around 8,500 Louisiana prisoners were moved from flooded prisons and jails to 35 different Louisiana prisons and jails
* Federal prisoners were moved to a Federal prison in Florida. There is still not a full accounting of what happened in the evacuation of Old Parish Prison in New Orleans (OPP), although troubling reports have been received. According to a September 22nd Human Rights Watch report, 517 prisoners who were being held at OPP remain unaccounted for. Prisoners told HRW workers that they were left without food or water in rising flood conditions, with water as high as their necks. While some were able to save themselves, they said other prisoners below them, left locked in their cells, were crying and asking for help.
* Another, earlier story explained that guards moved people up floors & then into a gym, leaving them for two days without food and water. Most were able to break windows and escape rising water, swimming out of the jail. There are reports, thus far unconfirmed, that people who were locked in holding cells were left to drown. According to these reports, those who escaped from the flooding prison turned themselves in and were eventually transferred.
* Reports about prisoners who were evacuated indicate that they were held at gunpoint on New Orleans overpasses awaiting transport for hours, even days.
* In some areas affected by the storm, prisoners are being used as a labor force, providing relief services and clearing debris.
* Prisoners reported being refused the right to call home to check on loved ones.
In addition, hundreds of people were arrested for survival crimes in the days after the flood?trying to take care of themselves and their families. CCWP joins Critical Resistance and other community activists in the New Orleans area in calling for complete amnesty for everyone charged with trying to take care of themselves, their family and communities?and for those who were already in the system, whose cases are affected by Katrina.
For more information, check out the Critical Resistance website: www.criticalresistance.org

A Family Survives Katrina

as told to Yvonne Cooks
[Danielle Metz, of New Orleans, is incarcerated at Dublin, California (see story in The Fire Inside #11.) Her sister, Adrienne Bernard, moved to Stockton to be closer. She went back to New Orleans to try to find her granddaughter. While she was not able to locate the child after the hurricane, she saw such need that she asked her church in Stockton to help. The church sent down three busses. Members of CCWP responded by collecting supplies for the families and publicizing the plight of those 131 people. Here is a story of one of the families brought to Stockton by this modern-day ?underground railroad?.]
Andre Gautreau is a fifty-five year old retired public service worker, born and raised in New Orleans. Andre has bounced back after other hurricanes in his lifetime. Katrina proved to be nothing like any past experience for this family of nine:
We?re a closely-knit family. When Katrina hit we were living together in a beautiful townhouse in Gretna, Louisiana, about 15 minutes from downtown New Orleans. We moved everything we could upstairs anticipating flooding, but the hurricane blew the roof off our townhouse and the upstairs floors collapsed. Water was everywhere, trees were blocking the streets and we were flushing the toilets with water from the swimming pool.
Three days after the flooding (September 3rd) our family decided to leave; our living condition could not go on like that. We gave our remaining food supplies to our neighbor, packed what we could into a few bags, put them into a shopping cart and headed toward the Elevator Expressway.
When we arrived buses were waiting. Only families with children were allowed to board buses at that time. When you got on the bus you didn?t know where you were going, the buses weren?t marked. After driving for several hours the bus stopped next to the interstate in a large grassy field in Jenner Louisiana. It was about 3 o?clock in the morning. There were several hundred buses lined up, as this was the ?staging? area. This stop was very difficult to deal with, there were no toilets, flying insects were everywhere and we had no food. The children were very tired and just fell asleep on the bags we brought with us. We re-boarded the bus after daylight still without any idea where we were going.
When we arrived at the Houston Astrodome there were at least 18,000 people crammed into this temporary shelter. There weren?t any hot meals for the first 2 days.
By the 5th day Adrienne Bernard came through asking if anyone wanted to re-locate to Stockton, California. New Orleans was our home and we didn?t want to leave. We decided to go because the situation at the Astrodome didn?t seem as if it would get any better soon.
A church bus and driver from Stockton, CA. was ready to re-locate us at no charge. The trip from Houston to Stockton was very difficult. We had to ride without stopping in a hotel or other shelter for the entire trip. We arrived in Stockton after several days.
The welcoming in Stockton was very warm and loving. Church members and their friends have been generous and kind. FEMA had agreed to pay for temporary shelter for several families at the Comfort Inn. I tell my family we must be patient while pacing the floor myself trying to figure out the next step. I know you?re never too old to start over.
The holidays are quickly approaching and although we appreciate the Comfort Inn, we want the children to have a house of their own to sleep in at night.
One of the hardest things I?m confronted with is the mountain of paperwork I?ve had to fill out in order to receive any type of services. It is very frustrating. The children are in school now and although we?ll be moving soon, we don?t want to disrupt their lives again so soon. They seem to be bouncing back and adjusting to the new surroundings.
I reflect on the devastation of our city. I just don?t want to believe that more value was placed on property than human lives. Our family is moving into a house of our own soon and we?ve decided not to return to New Orleans. We thank all the good people who have helped us in this most difficult time.

It’s Your Health: Domestic violence on the inside

Pam Fadem
On recent CCWP visits, women have raised concerns about the issue of domestic violence by an intimate partner inside the prison walls. There are women inside who are already trying to address this problem. Here are some of the emotional and psychological aspects of domestic violence, some strategies for safety, and most important, to let our sisters know?you are not alone!
Domestic violence happens in all communities. It happens regardless of age, race or class, or whether the couple is a man and a woman, two men or two women. Prisons reflect the racism, sexism and anti-gay attitudes that the rest of our society does. Every woman knows that she is often not believed when talking about being abused, and women of color and immigrant women may have an even harder time getting help. And when abuse happens between two women, there are particular problems that the person being abused faces in getting help. The abuser can: threaten to ?out? a partner?s sexual identity; say that the violence is mutual or even consensual, especially if the woman being abused tries to defend herself; tell the woman being abused that the abuse is a ?normal? part of the relationship; or that it can?t be domestic violence because it?s happening between two women.
Violence against women by anyone is always wrong, whether it is a lover, friend, family member, or an ?official? like the police, an immigration agent or a prison guard. Abuse is not your fault. You did not cause the abuse to occur, and you are not responsible for the violent behavior of someone else. An important part of getting help is recognizing that you are being abused.
Signs of Abuse
If the person you love does any of these things to you, it?s time to get help:
watches what you?re doing all the time
criticizes you for little things
constantly accuses you of being unfaithful
prevents or discourages you from seeing friends or family, or going to work or school
gets angry when drinking alcohol or using drugs
tries to control what you do, including your use of needed medicines
humiliates you in front of others
destroys your property or things that you care about
threatens to hurt you or people you love, or does cause hurt (by hitting, pushing, shoving, strangling, punching, slapping, kicking, or biting)
uses or threatens to use a weapon against you
forces you to have sex against your will
blames you for her violent outbursts
If you are abused or have a loved one who is abused, get help.
Here are some things you can do:
First, believe in yourself and your feelings. You?re not alone. Many, many women are victims of domestic abuse.
Don?t ignore abuse. It won?t go away.
Don?t keep it to yourself. Get help.
When a woman in prison wants to get help, she is faced with even more limits than a woman on the outside. How do you ?escape to a safe place? when you?re already locked up?and maybe sharing the same cell? You may be afraid that you will be ignored or not taken seriously if you expose the abuse, or that it will lead to an increase in anti-gay attitudes and a crack-down on the many loving and supportive relationships inside. Can you work together with other women inside to make a network of support?people you can go to in an emergency?
We hope this is the beginning of a discussion, not the end of one. Please write to us and tell us what strategies you know of or have used that have been successful. Or just write to share your experiences or tell us what you think. Our power and strength comes in our building supportive communities. No one can do it alone.
Some places to get more information:
Free Battered Women
1540 Market St., suite 490
San Francisco, Ca., 94102
Phone: (510) 255-7036 x 320 Fax: (415) 552-3150
Web site: http://www.freebatteredwomen.org
California Coalition Against Sexual Assault
1215 K Street, Suite 1100, Esquire Plaza
Sacramento, CA 95814
Phone: (916) 446-2520 TTY/TDD: (916) 446-8802 Fax: (916) 446-8166
Web site: http://www.calcasa.org

Parole Beat

Precious Releases?
Ollie Johnson wasreleased from prison in November 2005 after serving 18 years for killing her abusive boyfriend. All of Us or None co-founder Dorsey Nunn mobilized widespread community support for Ollie in their shared hometown of East Palo Alto. Dorsey and Ollie’s family were principle forces behind East Palo Alto’s City Council passing a resolution calling for Ollie’s release.
Lorrie Sue McClary was paroled in November 2005 after serving more than 30 years in prison. Lorrie Sue has been reunited with her loving parents, Dot and Walt McClary, her sister Cydne, her Uncle Lew, and her friend Caroline Rose Homan who also was freed in January of 2005. Lorrie Sue’s family have been calling for her freedom for decades and they generated considerable community support for her return home.
Outrageous Denials?
Incarcerated survivor Mary Shields was denied parole for the fourth time at her hearing in May 2005. Having already served 15 years in prison, she was told she needed to program more, attend more self-help groups and continue her education. Mary has been disciplinary-free for 15 years.
Joy Cordes was denied parole at her 15th Parole Board hearing. She was told she needed to participate in more self-help groups, upgrade her vocational training, and not get any more disciplinary write-ups ? her last write-up was over ten years ago.
Flozelle Woodmore?s parole was overturned by Governor Schwarzenegger for the fourth time on August 12, 2005 after she was again granted parole by the Board of Parole Hearings.
Thanks to Free Battered Women for the information on releases and denials of incarcerated survivors. WE INVITE OUR READERS TO SEND US INFORMATION ABOUT YOUR OWN RELEASE DATES OR DENIALS!