Women Sue for Healthcare
by CCWP members
On April 4, 1995, 24 courageous women prisoners with grave illnesses, including cancer, heart disease, sickle cell anemia, AIDS and tuberculosis, filed suit in the Federal District Court in Sacramento against Governor Pete Wilson and the California Department of Corrections. The medical care in prison is so inadequate — seriously-ill women in pain are being systematically denied access to doctors and medication — that is amounts to a violation of the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.
The shocking conditions facing ill women prisoners are torturous, as crucial medical attention is delayed and denied. Some women have suffered through the agony of AIDS, dying after having had pain medication no stronger than Motrin. Meanwhile, there is no HIV specialist for women prisoners and access to HIV/AIDS education materials have been denied to prisoners even though the number of HIV positive women in California prisons is growing. Told that there is nothing wrong with them and turned away from the doctor, women in debilitating pain suffer intensely, getting sicker and sicker, only to be diagnosed with life-threatening diseases like cancer after it is far too late for treatment to save them.
Tragically, Brenda Otto, a plaintiff in the lawsuit (Shumate et al v Wilson), died at CCWF on April 28, 1996. When members of the lawsuit team interviewed her on April 4th, she stated that she had had a minor stroke in March which went untreated, because the doctor maintained there were no tests they could do to prove she had a stroke. She also informed the doctor she was having chest pains and shortness of breath upon walking short distances, yet she was refused a stress EKG test. Subsequently, Brenda had another stroke, according to an ex-prisoner, and she was sent to an outside hospital which wanted to keep her for observation. Nonetheless, prison officials insisted that she be returned to CCWF, where she was denied a stay in the infirmary and was placed in her cell for a three-day lay-in. Shortly thereafter, Brenda had a heart attack on her way to breakfast and died.
Other outrages include the removal of all egg crate mattresses (used by women who have disabilities in order to avoid bed sores) from CCWF, according to a woman incarcerated there. Additionally, all prisoners are required to pay $5 for each request to visit a doctor, even if they are not allowed to see the doctor. “There have been many times that I have not had the money to purchase necessary medical supplies because I have been forced to use my limited funds to $5 for each medical visit,” said Charisse Shumate, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. Pregnant women who enter the Department of Corrections system are now being housed at Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, which has no 24-hour infirmary and is not part of the lawsuit (because it opened after the lawsuit was filed). Women who are carrying twins or who have had high-risk pregnancies in the past are not getting proper attention, and the number of babies being born dead is unconscionable. Pregnant women, women with chronic diseases, or those who develop life-threatening illnesses while in prions are not receiving proper healthcare, diet, or medication. Thus, a sentence of imprisonment for crime can turn into a sentence of torture or even death for a woman or her child.
Marcia Bunney, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, gives this compelling analysis: “Whatever one’s commitment offense, it is abhorrent to allow treatment of the kind endured by the women prisoners of this state. The United States is quick to condemn other nations’ brutality and inhumanity while allowing special interest entities and their political figureheads to manipulate the spending of as many tax dollars to imprison and torture our own people as we do to educate them. Californians look to Bosnia, China and Rwanda and recoil in horror and disbelief; yet how many smugly justify the torture of prisoners by saying, ‘Prisoners shouldn’t have rights?’ How many deny, and ultimately ignore the ad hoc death sentences delivered by the California Department of Corrections in the guise of medical care for those in its custody?”
If you have experienced any medical difficulties or know of any problems relating to medical care in California’s women’s prisons, please contact the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) at (415) 255-7036, extension 4, or writ to us at 1540 Market St., Suite 490, San Francisco, CA 94102.
Women Sue for Healthcare