by Karen Shain
Two-and-one-half years ago, in August 1997, it appeared we may have won the Shumate lawsuit. Just before the case was to go to court, the state of California agreed to make important changes in the way it provided medical care to women at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) and California Institution for Women (CIW). Less than a month later, Minerva Gonzalez, a prisoner at CCWF, died from dehydration over Labor Day weekend. Minerva’s cellmates begged that she be treated by prison doctors who refused to come out to the prison over the holiday weekend.
Since that time, we have heard from women at both prisons that most medical care has not improved at all, and in some cases it is even worse. Despite all this, in January 2000, the court-appointed monitor and his staff of assessors released a lengthy report stating that CCWF and CIW brought their medical care into “substantial compliance” with almost all aspects of the settlement agreement. The report has been sent to Judge William Shubb, and California’s state’s attorney’s office has requested that the lawsuit, Shumate v. Wilson, be dismissed. Attorneys for the women are opposing this dismissal. Monitor William Keating and his staff of asesssors wrote their report after three brief visits to each institution. They refused to meet with women or staff members who had significant information and wanted to speak with them about the cover-up that was happening. Instead, they relied on written documentation and records provided by the California Department of Corrections.
No matter what happens with this lawsuit, we in CCWP vow that women who placed their names on the suit, the over 700 other women who provided evidence of medical neglect and malpractice on the part of the institutions and their so-called “doctors,” and, of course, ALL of those women who died and continue to die under horrible conditions ? often needlessly ? will never be forgotten. The Shumate lawsuit successfully raised the issues of women prisoners’ medical care throughout California, across the country and around the world. It was because of this lawsuit that Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International came to California to investigate other forms of human rights abuses ? namely sexual assault on women prisoners by guards. It was also because of this lawsuit that Ted Koppel came to California to investigate medical care and Security Housing Unit (solitary confinement) conditions at our newest women’s prison, Valley State Prison for Women.
CCWP started in 1995 in direct support of the women who filed this lawsuit. We know that medical care has not significantly improved at either CCWF or at CIW. For those of us on the street, even those of us with inadequate medical insurance or none at all, we have the right to choose our doctors or the hospital to which we are sent (even when those choices are severely limited). Women in prison have no choice whatsoever. If they experience abuse from a doctor or racism from a nurse, their only options are to accept that treatment or to refuse any medical treatment whatsoever.
To the Calnia Department of Corrections, we warn that WE ARE WATCHING YOU! We will continue to demand adequate medical care for all women prisoners. We will continue to report on all human rights abuses happening in California’s women’s prisons. We will not go away.
To all women in prison, we promise that we will continue to listen to you. We ask that you write and let us know what is happening with you so that we will still be able to speak the truth.
To the Shumate warriors, living and dead, we salute your strength and your courage as you fought this historic and truly important battle. We know that this struggle is not over.
NOTE: As we go to press, we learned that the case was not dismissed! We will provide more details on our next issue
by Karen Shain