Charisse Shumate, a role model for so many women, inside the walls as well as outside, died on August 4, 2001. Charisse was a founding member of CCWP and wrote regularly for The Fire Inside.
Charisse had sickle cell anemia and hepatitis C as well as cancer. But even during the last year of her life, she struggled for the rights of all prisoners for decent medical care. She testified at Senator Polanco’s committee hearings on conditions of confinement for women prisoners that were held at Valley State Prison for Women and California Institution for Women in October 2000. At those hearings, Charisse spoke eloquently about the realities of life for so many women prisoners – the agony of separation from children and family members, the fear of sexual assault by prison employees, and the pain of seeing other women dying from medical neglect. She talked about the importance of solidarity among prisoners and about the loneliness of knowing that she would probably die in prison without ever seeing her son.
Charisse was the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit named after her – Shumate v. Wilson – which stated that the medical care for women prisoners in California was so bad that it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and, therefore, was unconstitutional. She was the best possible lead plaintiff because she was fearless in speaking out for all women, regardless of why they were in prison or who they may have been before their incarceration. She was able to gain the respect of virtually every prisoner and even many staff members because she consistently spoke the truth and always spoke from her heart.
When there was a chance that there would be a new lawsuit at Valley State Prison for Women, Charisse wrote an open letter to whoever would become the lead plaintiff for that new lawsuit:
“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.”
Charisse had something to say to everyone. She was a tireless fighter for the human rights of women in prison. To the prison system, she was a nemesis, a constant reminder that she held them accountable for the suffering they were causing through medical neglect, callousness or outright brutality. To other prisoners, she was and continues to be an inspiration, encouraging everyone to look in themselves to find their own humanity and strength in their relationships with each other. To many activists outside she was the center-point for support for women prisoners.The world is a sadder place without her, but her legacy to us is to ensure that the fire will continue in all of us for a new humanity.