In early June, prisoners rights activists at California Prison Focus, California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and Amnesty International received information from women housed in the VSPW SHU that sexual harrassment and intimidation by staff, which has been constant since the prison opened in 1995, has gotten much worse. Twelve women signed a joint grievance against prison staff stating that the mistreatment consisted of sexual assault, improper touching, leering at women in showers, intimidation and constant verbal harassment. For your bravery in fighting back against abuse, we dedicate this issue of Fire Inside to the whistle blowers in the VSPW SHU.
by Laura Whitehorn, Federal Correctional Institution, Dublin, California
On June 1, Rosalind Simpson Moore-Bey died at home in Washington, D.C. To anyone who has passed through the D.C. Jail or CTF (Central Treatment Facility), Roz’s name is not only familiar–it is well known. Roz was a warrior.
Roz did time in D.C. and at the old Federal Women’s prison in Lexington, Kentucky, in the 80s and 90s. It was a time when AIDS and HIV were surrounded by even more ignorance and prejudice than today. The medical establishment, the government and the media didn’t even recognize that women get HIV and many women suffered terribly and died quickly with AIDS, undiagnosed and uncared-for. The earliest mention of HIV, as a virus that infected women, was when men claimed to have contracted HIV from prostitutes. The sex workers remained faceless: they existed only as vectors of the disease, a danger to men.
Despite the extensive number of HIV-positive women prisoners at Lexington in the early 90s, there was absolutely no effort by the prison to educate women about HIV. When a group of prisoners got together to educate ourselves and conduct discussion groups, we found that the other prisoners were too frightened of being suspected of having HIV even to attend the events. Confusion, fear, and suspicion were rampant.
In this climate, Roz did one of the bravest things I’ve seen in over 13 years in prison. She stood up in a meeting of over 400 women and said, “I am living with AIDS. I am proof that AIDS is not just a death sentence. We have to love ourselves and one another.” Her words, her courage and her dignity forced a crack in the dam. What followed was an outpouring of interest, grief and need–all of which enabled us to do an enormous amount of education, counseling and support. Rosalind was at the heart of this work–even when she was stuck in the prison hospital for days and weeks at a time.
I know she saved some lives with her teaching and preaching; I believe she saved some souls, too. The cost to her was not insignificant: she often exhausted herself working when she should have been resting. And she was often the target of idiotic AIDS phobia. All the while she was doing battle with her own demons, including the pain of rejection by some people she loved. Roz refused to fight these battles for herself alone, but turned them into weapons to strengthen others. I once watched Roz lead a support group for an hour and a half, weeping the entire time, but never allowing her grief to silence her. She had to keep speaking, because the other 15 HIV-positive women present in the group were still so shocked and terrified by their disease, that they could not yet articulate what they desperately needed to say.
In 1993 Roz was one of the earliest beneficiaries of the D.C. Medical Parole process. Prisoners with AIDS could receive compassionate release on parole. Roz, who had been at death’s door enough times to be paying rent there, was a clear candidate. With the strongest spirit imaginable, she fought through illness after illness, amazing her wonderful doctors, medical workers, family and friends. A year after her release, she married a terrific partner, James Moore, and together they struggled for her life.
Not once in the 5 years since her release did she stop fighting for other prisoners with HIV and AIDS. Toting her portable oxygen tank, walking despite painful neuropathies that had her in a wheelchair for a while, she returned over and over to lead support groups at the D.C. prison, and to speak to any group that would listen and might help. When I meet women who have been sent into the federal system from D.C., they never say, “Oh, yeah, I’ve met Roz.” Instead, they tell me how she helped them, did something for them that no one else had been able (or willing) to do. How necessary she has been to so many people.
Every day for the rest of my life I will miss Rosalind achingly. None of the words meet the task of describing her–inspiration, example, heart, courage, dignity, perseverance, commitment–not one measures up. But any time a prisoner with HIV or AIDS manages to ease their pain, Roz would have been present. And any time any person decides not to turn their back on the needs of prisoners, Roz’s tremendous spirit will be felt.
by a prisoner, Marianna, Florida
I received my copy of The Fire Inside this week and read it from front to back. I was really impressed with the article about Theresa Cruz, I pray she is now with her children.
I can truly sympathize about not being represented properly. I have been incarcerated for over 7 years now, because my case should have been represented as Battered Woman’s Syndrome. However, mine was simply another court-appointed case. I gave my attorney a list of 15 people who would testify on my behalf. Not one of them were called. I have spent the last seven and a half years in federal prisons.
The camp in Marianna, Fl., where I have been for the past 18 months, is 12 hours from my family. I have requested several times to be moved closer to home, but that has not been a choice for me.
I have participated in every program that has been recommended. About a year ago I was given “community custody.” This enables an inmate to go into the local community and work on various projects. However, I am not allowed to go. Because of my violent nature. What a joke! I have been told I will not even be considered for a furlough.
I will be expected to walk out of here sometime next year and have a job within 3 days. What do I wear for my job interview? My gray sweat suit that the prison was kind enough to sell me for $30.00? That, by the way, is an entire month’s worth of wages for a lot of women in here.
You had an article about “Fund Education, Not Incarceration.” I have been enrolled in a computer and accounting class for approximately six months now. I have not had a single class. There is no teacher. I was issued books and I’m sure someone is receiving money for our attending these so-called classes. In the meantime, when I get released I will not have any kind of certificate stating I participated in this course.
Hopefully, once I am released I will find the right channels to make things different for the women who come here. The federal prison system is in need of someone’s immediate attention.
Sincerely, someone who has been here for seven and a half years.
by Diana Block
After 18 precious days of freedom with her family, Theresa Cruz was forced back to prison by the state of California. A federal judge had granted Theresa bail while the state of California appealed the ruling that overturned her conviction. Her mother had just managed to raise the property to bring her home. But the San Diego district attorney’s office appealed the bail ruling to the Ninth District Court and won. Theresa spent her brief time outside the prison walls helping her older daughters to find part-time jobs, volunteering in a recovery program, and reconnecting with her son and her youngest daughter whom she has never had a chance to live with. Now she is back in the California Institution for Women, struggling not to lose hope. On the day before she was to return to prison Theresa wrote: “It’s so hard to believe that one moment I can touch, feel and love my children, and the next minute it is all taken away so fast for no reason.”
We, her supporters, are also in a state of shock, wondering why the San Diego District Attorney and the state of California are pursuing this woman in a way that amounts to psychological abuse. Is it because she is a battered woman who dared to stand up and say that she was unjustly convicted? Is it an issue of political ego and male pride on the part of the District Attorney’s office?
Theresa, her mother, and her children are trying hard to hold on to the strength that has enabled them to fight for Theresa’s release all these years. More than ever, they need our support! Write to Theresa Cruz at #W-40058, CIW, Frontera, CA 91720. Send domations to: Defense Fund for Theresa Cruz, Accnt. #6832 217806 (write accnt.# on check), Wells Fargo Bank, Bonita Office, 4180 Bonita Rd., CA 91902. Send protest letters to: Office of the District Attorney, Attn: Paul J. Phingst, Hall of Justice, 330 West Broadway, Suite 1300, San Diego, CA 92101, Fax# 619-237-1351.
Staring into the eye of the Critical Resistance icon we see the importance of such a symbol for these times: before you can open your mind, you must open your eyes. Thanks to mainstream political and media neglect and distortion, the deliberate location of prisons in remote areas, and the social stigma ascribed to prisoners, the eyes of many Americans have been clouded or closed when
turned toward the prison system in the United States. We have reached a point, however, when society can no longer turn this blind eye toward the prison industrial complex and its injustices.
From 1980 to 1996 an absurd number of new repressive laws (over 1200 in California alone) swarmed the books. These laws, such as the fiasco known as “three strikes,” disproportionately target the young, the poor and urban people of color.
For the past two decades, women have been granted “preferential” entry into California prisons. Incarerated at a rate faster than men, more and more women are being convicted for substance abuse crimes, which require lengthy mandatory minimum sentences, and for property crimes, which reflect their worsening economic situation. Yet, most women inside do not receive drug treatment, the majority of rehabilitation programs have been discontinued.
Women who resist their abusers because they have been given no other course by the system are given life sentenes and the history of abuse is most often ignored.
While rehabilitation has been abandoned, prison industry is growing at an unprecedented rate. State and federal prisons provide private industry and its investors with dirt-cheap labor without the inconvenience of foreign limitations and tariffs, employee rights and regulations, or “pesky” unions.
More than 80% of women prisoners have children. More and more children are placed with overextended relatives or in foster care and are at a higher risk for incarceration themselves. The cyclic nature of this system is clear, and the only way to end the continued suffering by those on both sides of the prison wall is to end the cycle. Society cannot afford to treat these women and children, or any
one, as disposable people.
Women and men who have been politically active in exposing and fighting the system have in many cases been framed for crimes they didn’t commit and have been given disproportionately harsh sentences for their acts of resistance.
The tough-on-crime posturing by U.S. politicians and others is merely an evasion of the truly tough social issues of economic injustice and sharp racial disparities. The crisis in the United States is not some “crime wave” but the increasing distance between the haves and have nots, between “us” and “them,” between the dominant white society and communities of color, which are suffering the brunt of this crisis.