Bring Our Families Home: Reclaim 15 Billion Prison Dollars for Community Health and Safety
?Break the windows! Break the walls! ?Til all the prisons fall! ?Til all the prisons fall!? was one of many chants shouted at the demonstration in Chowchilla, CA at the site of the two women?s prisons currently caging 8,200 people. Over 250 people traveled from Oakland, Los Angeles, and Fresno, gathering at Chowchilla to show their support for people inside. We demanded that communities get what they really need to be safe and healthy?jobs, education, healthcare, and social services, not prisons and policing. The Coalition for Accountable Healthcare?a coalition of groups that work with prisoners, former prisoners, and the loved ones of prisoners?organized the demonstration in part to hold accountable leaders like Governor Schwartzenegger, Federal Receiver of California prison healthcare Robert Sillen, and Wendy Still, Associate Director of Women and Children Programs and Services at Adult Institutions, all responsible for their actions and inaction on inhumane conditions inside.
Holding signs stating ?Prisons Are Concentration Camps for the Poor? and ?Enough Is Enough?Parole Lifers Now!? we gathered at the entrance to Central California Women?s Facility(CCWF) and marched the mile to the entrance of Valley State Prison for Women(VSPW). We were led by Loco Bloco, a performing arts and drumming group for youth based in the Mission District of San Francisco. We wanted to drum hard enough and chant loudly enough for people in the prisons to hear us and know we were there.
As we marched along the orchards that surround the perimeter of CCWF, we passed a gap in the trees between the road and the CCWF prison yard. Through the gap we could see that folks were on the yard?and not only could they hear us, but they could see us! We stood there for several moments, shouting to the people on the yard, waving and sharing the connection between inside and outside for as long as we could. People on the other side of the fence were walking towards us, waving and smiling. We felt for that instant that we were breaking through the isolation that the prison system creates. For many folks outside, it was the most powerful and memorable part of the day.
The march ended at the entrance to Valley State Prison for Women. Members of Free Battered Women arranged a vigil for people who died inside over the previous year. We heard the testimonies of people?s experiences with the prison system and the targeting of communities of color, poor communities, women, youth, and queer people by law enforcement and the criminal legal system. Speakers included CCWP?s shawnna d. as the M.C., Debbie Reyes of California Prison Moratorium Project, Hamdiya Cooks of All of Us or None and CCWP, Dee Mariano from Justice Now and the Family Advocacy Network, Kelani Key and Lala Yantes from Transforming Justice, Crystal from the Los Angeles based Youth Justice Coalition, and Marlene Sanchez from the Center for Young Women?s Development. After the organized speak-out, we went into an open mic, kicked off by Fresno poets and radio hosts Lady Bombay and Lady J.
Between speakers we held a mock awards ceremony, giving awards to those in power for things we wish they?d actually do. Governor Schwartzenegger was presented with an award for repealing AB 900, the bill that puts an additional $15 billion into the prison system. Federal Receiver Robert Sillen was recognized for stopping the construction of 10,000 more prison hospital beds and standing against any plans to build geriatric prisons. Wendy Still, Associate Director of Women and Children Programs and Services at Adult Institutions, was celebrated for releasing people from women?s prisons back into their communities and families. And the wardens of the two Chowchilla prisons, Tina Hornbeak(VSPW) and Deborah Patrick(CCWF), were awarded for banning the use of ?orange crush,? a particularly horrific pepper spray that remains on human skin for days and is re-activated when attempts are made to wash it off.
To make sure the ?honorees? knew they were receiving the mock awards, we passed around hundreds of thank-you cards for members of the community to sign and mail to their offices. Even though things may not change anytime soon, it was important for us to let California?s prison leaders know we are paying attention. We are holding them accountable for real health and safety in prisons and in our communities.
There was a lot of participation from people inside to mark the day. One prisoner told us that in her unit out of over 200 people only 8 people went to dinner the night of the demonstration, shocking the correctional officers. Other people wore a certain color or made bracelets to show solidarity, in spite of the risk of retaliation or punishment from the prison administration.
Overall, the day was a big success?bringing people together from different parts of California, with different experiences with prisons and policing, from different parts of the anti-prison and prisoner rights movements to get grounded in collectively challenging human rights abuses of prisoners, fight for letting people out instead of building more prisons, and demanding that resources be put into our communities instead of locking up more and more of our loved ones and comrades. We felt bonded and united, empowered and hopeful?feelings we hope will carry into years of struggle to come.