Women Prisoners Will Have Their Day in Court

Women prisoners tend to stick together. When someone is sick, she will look to support from other prisoners long before she will try to see a doctor. At Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), where women live eight to a cell, women have learned many of the basics of emergency medical procedures, not because they they have dreams of becoming doctors, but because they are human beings. But women prisoners also believe that they have a constitutional right to medical care, that their punishment is being in prison and should not be compounded by being forced to live in constant pain and fear of death.
On April 4, 1995, women prisoners at CCWF and California Institution for Women (CIW) filed a lawsuit against the state of California because of the abhorrent medical conditions they face daily. The lawsuit claims that women are not being given adequate pain medications even when they are in the late stages of AIDS or cancer, that the procedures for emergency care are grossly inadequate, that the protocols for pregnant women barely exist, and that chronic illnesses are not treated in a consistent manner. Actually, the list of complaints is a lot longer than this. Shumate v. Wilson is a class action lawsuit which represents the interests of all women prisoners at CCWF and CIW. As of April 6, 1997, this is over 5,100 women!
The lawsuit has been through many changes since it was filed two years ago. But the most consistent aspect of the suit has been the tremendous courage and determination of the women behind it. Some women have died since the lawsuit began, and many more women have come forward with descriptions of medical care which is similar to torture. Just today, while this article is being written, two women called a law firm related to the suit and stated that their cellmate had been returned from the infirmary with an open, infected wound which was the result of an amputated toe. The toe was amputated because it had become gangrenous following weeks of complaints while this woman begged to be seen by a qualified doctor, to no avail. Several days after the surgery, she was returned to her cell and is now in tremendous pain and was given nothing to keep her wound clean and no instructions on avoiding further damage to her foot!
A woman gave birth in the waiting room of the infirmary at CIW. The nurse on duty refused to assist her because she could not find gloves. The baby was not breathing right but was not given oxygen or suction. Paramedics finally arrived and took the mother and the baby to the outside hospital. The baby died because of severe brain damage.
The stories of abuse, torture and complete neglect go on and on. For every story we have heard, we know that there are hundreds more which have gone unreported. The women involved in the lawsuit are taking considerable risks in linking themselves publicly to the suit. They face daily harrassment, some of it petty, some of it life-threatening. But the lawsuit also has meant taking deliberate steps in fighting for themselves and their sisters. Marcia Bunney, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, puts it this way: “The public asks why prisoners sue. The prisons, they are led to believe, are luxurious establishments which provide us with everything we need, including medical care. The women prisoners of California are suing because our human rights, as well as our civil rights, are violated on a daily basis by public servants who believe themselves to be immune to rules and beyond the reach of the law. Shumate v. Wilson is not one of the “frivolous” lawsuits the Attorney General claims is a waste of tax dollars. Far from it, we are suing for the sake of our health and our lives, and in memory of other lives lost as a direct result of the dangerously inadequate medical care routinely provided to women prisoners…. Behind prison walls, the State of California maintains its own killing fields.”
Shumate v. Wilson will be going to trial in Sacramento soon. The trial will take four to six weeks. CCWP will be at the trial regularly. We will hold a demonstration on the first day, and we will be there for the testimony of the women inside. They are the ones taking the risks. We on the outside will be giving them support.
Carpools will be going from the Bay Area during the trial. Please call 415/255-7036, Ext. 4, or 510/834-5657, Ext. 3150, for more information.