by Diana Block
In the beginning of November, ABC’s Nightline news program featured a six part series on women prisoners at Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW). Ted Koppel (the anchor of Nightline) and his team actually spent ten days at VSPW. The resulting program is an important breakthrough in terms of mainstream media coverage of women incarcerated in California. This is especially significant given the media ban on interviews with prisoners which has been in force since 1995.
In the series, women prisoners speak out about their lives – the lack of medical treatment for their illnesses, their pain as mothers forcibly separated from their children, their struggles with drug addiction, and the terrible conditions they face when placed in solitary confinement in the Security Housing Unit (SHU). Because this was network TV, there were many aspects of prison conditions which were not shown. The series understates the daily brutality, humiliation and general mistreatment which incarcerated women face. Correctional officers were not about to push women around, sexually harass them or insult them with the television cameras rolling. In many cases the women who were interviewed in the series were hand picked by the prison administration, and in some cases there was retaliation afterwards against women who did speak out. Still, the program paints a disturbing picture of the many serious problems with conditions in prison.
Poor health care is one of the primary complaints of the women whom Koppel interviews. The problems discussed include untreated cancer, incorrect prescriptions, and unnecessary pelvic exams. When Koppel asks Dr. Anthony DiDomenico, the former chief medical officer at VSPW to respond to the complaint about pelvic exams, DiDomenico accuses the women, in front of the cameras, of asking for the exams “because it’s the only male contact they get.” His statement makes it shockingly clear that such sexist, demeaning attitudes are commonplace and unquestioned among prison staff. As a result of this interview, DiDomenico was reassigned to a desk job and, according to CDC officials an investigation was begun.
The most horrifying exposure of the series focused on VSPW’s Security Housing Unit. In this segment viewers can see first hand how locking women up for 23 hours a day can drive them mad. It shows how women are forced to shower in a main hall area with male guards present. The prison psychiatrist admits that 25-40% of the women in the SHU are mentally ill before being sent there but dismisses Koppel’s suggestion that they should be removed to mental health facilities instead. Unfortunately, the show doesn’t mention the fact that many women are sent to the SHU because they try to speak out about prison conditions and their SHU time is retaliation against them.
This is an important program which gives women prisoners a much needed chance to speak out to the public about conditions which are usually invisible outside the prison walls. Contact CCWP for more information about how to view the program.
by Diana Block