Editorial: On the tenth anniversary of CCWP

This year is the 10th Anniversary of the founding of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. It is a time for celebrating our history as we did at our wonderful anniversary event on June 9th. It is also is a time for reflection, evaluation and looking forward!
When we are asked ?what have you accomplished, what has changed for women prisoners in the past ten years?? the answer might not be immediately obvious. Despite all the consistent efforts of our members inside prison and outside to change conditions and challenge the prison industrial complex, health care is still abominable, overcrowding is getting worse, life-term prisoners are not receiving parole, and women inside still face sexual harassment and abuse from correctional officers. So what is there to celebrate?
Ten years ago, the fact that women were the fastest growing sector of the prison population was a well kept secret, and the problems they faced were largely invisible. CCWP?s founding member, Charisse Shumate changed that when she became the lead plaintiff of the class action lawsuit against the CDC, challenging the gross neglect of the prison health care system. Women prisoners over the years have led the way in developing peer education and organizing strategies which have empowered women to deal with HIV and hepatitis C, to file habeas petitions and 602 grievances, prepare for parole hearings and initiate petition campaigns against abusive guards. They joined with people outside to form a grassroots organization which could advocate for women prisoners on both sides of the walls.
From the start, CCWP has been committed to ?raising public consciousness? by giving voice to women prisoners. The Fire Inside provides a forum for women inside and for communicating and organizing. Inspired by the determination of our sisters inside, family members and advocates have organized rallies, spoken at conferences and classes, written letters to the editor of local papers. Most recently, we produced a video about the fight of Charisse Shumate and her sister-prisoners for basic health care. Together we have helped change the terms of the debate about prisons and the level of public awareness has changed significantly. Now when you go to the worldwide web and type in women prisoners, you see 14,300,000 entries on this subject and the CCWP website is at the top of the list!
But we have not just built awareness. We have built active solidarity between family members, advocates and incarcerated women through consistent visits and joint projects. We have created a community of people who are genuinely dedicated to changing the institutional violence, and the racial, economic and gender inequities that are at the foundation of the prison industrial complex. Building community hasn?t always been easy. We have had to struggle to be honest about the way in which racism operates not only in the prison system but also among all of us to keep us divided. We have also tried to overcome other walls that separate us, between straight and queer, between abled and disabled, between people of different religions and cultural backgrounds.
Since 1995, we have been determined to promote the leadership of women prisoners and former prisoners. We are particularly proud that on our 10th anniversary, our new executive director, Yvonne Cooks, is a former prisoner and a woman of color! We are also proud that our organization continues to be based on the work of volunteers who together contribute hundreds of hours each year.
Clearly, we have monumental tasks ahead of us. But we have laid a solid foundation to sustain this fight. We are especially excited that our new CompaƱeras project is beginning to address the specific, aggravated problems of immigrant women prisoners. We have learned and accomplished a lot over the past 10 years and we sincerely hope that all of our readers will continue to join us in ?Caring Collectively for Women Prisoners? in the decade to come!
* * *
[To remember the founders of CCWP who have since passed away, we print their pictures throughout this issue.]
Charisse Shumate, lead plaintif in the class action suit Shumate v. Wilson, which charged that CDC?s medical practices constitute cruel and unusual punishment. CCWP was formed to support the organizing inside that led to over seventy women prisoners participating in the law suit.
Sherri Chapman?s abysmal medical care was investigated by Amnesty Internatio-nal, which helped bring a spot-light on the issue. She refused to accept second-class medical care for herself or others.
Judy Ricci, HIV and HEP C peer health educator, hospice volunteer, tireless fighter for women prisoners? right to be healthy and well
Patrisia Gutierrez Contreras, third life term prisoner to receive compassionate release in California?s history. She held that as painful as it might be to struggle for justice without seeing signs of change, it is far better to die not having one?s hopes realized than to die without knowing hope at all.