California “hosts” the world’s largest women’s prison, the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. There are 3 major women’s prisons in California. CCWF and Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW), both in the Central Valley, and the California Institution for Women (CIW) in Corona.
CCWF, VSPW and CIW have a combined capacity of 5010. There are currently 8268 prisoners being held in these three facilities, putting their combined occupation at 161% of design capacity. (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation data).
Though African-American women make up roughly 7% of California’s female population, they constitute 29.8% of California’s female prison population. While white females are around 47% of females in California, they are only 39% of the state’s female prison population. Latinas constitute 26.6% of the female prison population. (2000 U.S. Census Bureau & CDC Prison Census Data February 2005).
Since mandatory-sentencing laws went into effect in the mid 1980’s, the California female prison population has skyrocketed. At the end of 1986, women in California’s prisons totaled 3,564. In 1998, the population numbered 10,897–an increase of 305% in twelve years. (CDCR data).
As of December 31, 2005, 65.7% of women in California prisons were imprisoned for non-violent offenses, the majority of which were drug-related (CDCR). Despite the fact that drug addiction is a reality for many women entering California’s prisons, there is no comprehensive support structure for detoxification when a female addict enters the prison system.
Prisoners who work earn as little as $0.08 per hour. Females incarcerated in federal prisons make a minimum of $5.75 per month. Though inmates from the United States can sometimes make more money through Federal work programs, non-nationals are not permitted to make more than the base monthly amount.
In California state prisons, women are forced to pay inflated prices for basic hygiene products. “Indigent” female prisoners (those with less than five dollars in their prison account) are provided a total of five sanitary pads per month. The prison commissary sells such items at two to three times the market rate. Federal prisons are required to supply a short list of basic supplies to female inmates such as shampoo, soap and sanitary pads; however, the number and the frequency of distribution is up to each warden’s discretion. Such practices combined with the repressive pay scale create an environment where women will barter sex or other acts in order to acquire their most basic necessities.
Persistent privacy violations are a fact of life for women in California prisons. Although Rule 53 of the United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners states that women prisoners be supervised only by female officers, male guards observe female inmates at all times–taking showers, dressing, going to the bathroom and being strip searched. Until early 2006, male guards were allowed to pat search female prisoners (California Prison Focus).
Female prisoners have reported experiencing degrading and sexually explicit language and frequent harassment from guards. If a prisoner protests or files an appeal to the prison administration, it can potentially mean more mistreatment, limited privileges or an increased sentence in retaliation. It is in this powerless environment that some prisoners have endured sexual assault from guards.
71% of women in California prisons report experiencing continual physical abuse by guards or other prisoners. (Human Rights Watch).
Harsh media restrictions have been instituted by the CDCR and are presently in effect for all CA state prisons. The media rules prohibit reporters from scheduling news interviews with specific prisoners. Previous news interviews conducted before the institution of these rules led to publicizing of violations of prisoners’ human rights by CA prison officials. Under the new rules, reporters may only interview individuals that the prison determines available. The new constraints make it far more difficult for the media to obtain the testimonies of prisoners who may claim similar abuses.
Most women in California’s prisoners are from urban areas of the state. However, the majority of prisons are in rural regions of the state. Chowchilla is home to CCWF and VSPW, which house 62% of the total female prison population in the state. Round-trip travel from Los Angeles to Chowchilla via bus takes approximately 14 hours and costs $50 per person. Departing from the San Francisco, the total travel time is roughly 10 hours and costs $70 per person.
Updated March 2007 by CCWP