by Urszula Wislanka
San Francisco, Ca.-On May 17 California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) sponsored a meeting to give a voice to women in prisons.
Poetry for the People, a group conducting writing workshops at the federal prison in Dublin, Ca. read some of the poems from women prisoners that will be included in a forthcoming anthology of prisoners’ writings.
Recently released prisoners told of their experiences. Other prison advocates spoke of how they are trying to help individuals and change the mood of the whole country.
CCWP members spoke about some of the issues we learned about in our visits. The previous day, for example, we found out how sharp the lines separating prisoners and guards are. Correctional Counselors are supposed to help prisoners with procedures related to their release. Yet many women report that they not only do not help, they go out of their way to hurt. Women learn not to trust anyone in any position of authority.
The only place where a prisoner might be able to turn for help are other prisoners. At Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, Ca., rules do not allow women to stand up once they start eating their meals. They have to remain seated, or face discipline. They are supposed to get 15 minutes to eat, yet the guards allow no more than 5 minutes. It’s no wonder that in such a big hurry one of the women started choking. She was clearly distressed, unable to breathe and turning blue. The guards stood around, watching and not helping. Another prisoner risked discipline in order to help. She stood up and raised the hands of the choking woman in preparation for doing the heimlich maneuver. She managed to get the air passage clear and saved her life. Since then, many others have been resisting the guards’ rule of 5 minutes for meals. They don’t want to acquire habits that make them “cave women.” They want to be able to eat at a reasonable pace using utensils, like a human being.
We heard that Theresa Cruz’s conviction was overturned. (see story, p. 1) While she has not been released yet, the overturning of her conviction is precedent setting and a great victory not only for her, but for thousands of others.
Listening to prisoners you get to hear the voice of humanity amidst the barbarity of this society.