Critical Resistance: Expanding Our Vision of What Is Possible

For three years now California Coalition for Women Prisoners has been inspired by the resistance of women inside California state prisons. Through our activities and writings, we try to bring out the voices of the women.
Sometimes it is a “simple” story of resisting systematic de-humanization through expression of indignation and anger.
Sometimes it’s a story of helping other prisoners with their daily life: setting up peer counseling for HIV+ prisoners, helping new women know their rights, helping them fill out a complaint against a particular case of abuse, as well as millions of other ways. Guards consciously play one prisoner against another, heighting racism and all other divisions present in society. Any act of solidarity is precious in that it resists that form of control.
Sometimes this resistance takes the form of an out-right challenge to the whole system, such as when Charisse Shumate agreed to become lead plaintiff in a suit charging the whole Department of Corrections, Governor Wilson and the State of California with cruel and unusual punishment of women prisoners through intent or non-existent health care. She wrote: “Now my concerns are no longer for myself. But my sisters…who I have seen die.”
The courage and vision of the women inside inspire us on the outside to find ways to fight the de-humanization existing in society. The critical connection between the women inside and those on the outside, is the way in which the women inside expand our thinking of what is possible. For example, the Department of Corrections claims that the health care given to women inside is comparable to care given on the outside. While that is clearly a lie, Charisse stuck to her position, that the quality of care be measured in absolute human terms, not as a comparison to what someone else might or might not be getting.
An important question for the conference on Critical Resistance is: what do we bring to meet the voices and vision from inside? Can we, in solidarity with women on the inside, make it possible to expand what freedom means, so that it does not merely mean releasing prisoners into a society that creates prisons in the first place?
Critical resistance is when…

  • Charisse Shumate, who endures constant painful flare ups of her sickle cell disease, makes the difficult decision to become the lead plaintiff in a suit against the California Department of Corrections, for its medical abuse of women prisoners, standing up to a system that is slowly killing her.
  • Robin Lucas files a suit agains the Federal Prison in Dublin for systemic rape
    perpetrated by the guards and other prisoners, instituting, for the first time, a rule that any sexual activity between a prisoner and a guard is illegal.

  • Theresa Cruz refuses to accept abuse by the injustice system after years of abuse by a former partner, and wins a habeas corpus ruling that overturns her conviction in a legal climate where that is nearly impossible
  • Women in the Valley State segregated housing unit blow the whistle on guards who are sexually harassing them even though they know they will face harsh retaliation.
  • Mumia Abu-Jamal keeps writing eye opening, passionate columns from his cell on death row where he has been kept for sixteen years .
  • Women and men in the outside world refuse to cast a blind eye on the horrors that are going on inside prisons all over this country and join with incarcerated people to say we will watch you, expose you, and bang at the gates of the fortresses you try to hide until there is real change!

Inhumanity of Central California Women Facility Is in Full Effect

by Cynthia Russaw, CCWF
Inhumane, lacking pity or compassion, cruel, without emotional warmth, not suited for human beings. Sexism, brutality, deadly disease, corrupt staff, unsafe living quarters, unlawful influence by staff, unsafe food and drinking water, slave labor, threats against inmates, lack of adequate education, falsification of rule violations and little or no medical services.
Yes, CCWF’s inhumanity is in full effect! It is a present day slavery. The rationale may be to make society safe under the disguise of the Right Wing’s law and order. But, the truth is the enslavement of minorities and third-world citizens. Rehabilitation is a code word for turning inmates into animals, treating us inhumanely before we are released from prison, if ever we are released. We can get lost in the system forever until we are searched for by someone from the “free” world.
It does not come as a surprise to learn that prisons are the number one growth industry in the United States of America. The prison industry is a lucrative business reminiscent of days when our beloved ancestors were held in chattel bondage. I contend that the crime bill and imprisonment of inmates in CCWF is no more than the process of legally perpetuating inhumanity, backed up by the United States Constitution.
Upon release the State Prison System refuses to give any means of financial support, causing many to participate in unscrupulous activity. Then we are systematically re-imprisoned. We are faced with the same forced labor and the same brutal treatment given to the chattel slave.
The prison guard, street cop, F.B.I., judges and Congress from the big house to the White House are all advocates of this complex conspiracy. Billions have been earmarked to keep the present day slave imprisoned.
Understand that none of the monies are for vocational or educational programs. They pretend to educate inmates. However, they try to keep us ignorant because they realize that education is knowledge. Knowledge is the beginning of freedom.
There are presently over one million people locked behind the institution walls – duly convicted. In essence, there are over one million slaves. The entire prison system is overcrowded, but so are county jails. That doesn’t stop the haul.
More and more correctional officers are being hired who are equipped with sadistic mentalities and licentious demeanors. They are hired to keep the prison system running smoothly and trouble-free. They organize like a paramilitary composed of racist whites armed with slave-controlling apparatus. They use guns, night sticks, shackles, mace, full riot gear and fists, all of which can be used on the slave at the pleasure of the overseer.
Because of the racism that bubbles from beneath the surface of this nation’s psyche, the whole criminal network including cops, courts and the United States government will remain corrupt. The system will do anything to the prisoners to keep them stigmatized, socialized and brainwashed into believing that they are inferior in order to keep them “penally sub-servient.”
We must unite against this inhumane war against us. Universal law dictates that a closed fist (symbol of unity) is stronger than an open hand (symbol of division). We must strive to understand the necessity to be a united front.
Together we will win from the inside.

Former Prisoners and Activists Speak Out on HIV Behind Bars

by Urszula Wislanka
The HIV in Prison Project (HIP) held an event last July 29th which attracted close to 100 former prisoners, activists and supporters in Oakland. Judy Greenspan, Chairperson of the HIV in Prison Committee of California Prison Focus, discussed the growing crisis in prisons. There are many epidemics, not just HIV. The medical care is horrendous in the prisons. There are 280 men at the HIV unit in Corcoran, for example, where they are isolated and given no care. That unit should be closed and prisoners moved to appropriate care facilities.
Cynthia Chandler, Director of Women’s Positive Legal Action Network, described how much she learned about courage and dignity through her work with HIV+ women prisoners. The medical staff is totally inadequate. Medical coroners do not do an autopsy on any HIV+ woman. Thus women can die of virtually any cause, and there is no way to investigate it!
Corey Weinstein of California Prison Focus asked how the care can be so bad when the state spends millions and millions on prisons. The inhumane treatment of prisoners shows that are treated as the enemy in California. SHUs (Security Housing Units) were supposed to isolate the most violent prisoners. But violence in prisons has increased since the SHUs were built. It is not a case of “few bad apples” among the guards. These are systemic wrongs.
Former prisoner, jailhouse lawyer and organizer Ezra Davis found out he was HIV positive 8 years ago. He was put in a room, not allowed to see anyone and given no care for 3 months. He survived. But while in the Security Housing Unit he saw many who could not do anything for themselves. That’s when he became a jailhouse lawyer, filing suits on behalf of those prisoners. Ezra described life in prison made as inhuman as the guards can make it. He said, “Hope for us is people like you caring to come to an event like this.”
Paulette Santos Martinez has spent time at Frontera and Chowchilla. She has watched many women die. Most are not getting any meds at all. As a woman with AIDS she says it helps her to help others. She writes for them if they have trouble expressing themselves.
Bunny Knuckles, of WORLD, Women Organized to Respond to Life-threatening Diseases, has been working since ’92 with HIV positive men and women coming out of prisons. Many are homeless or living in shelters where there are no refrigerators to keep their medications. Pointing to the picture of Joann Walker on the podium, Bunny said “Joann was my friend. She was a fighter. We have to keep the fight going.”
We heard moving stories from families of prisoners who have died or who are still inside, living with HIV/AIDS.
All of the speakers stressed the need for forming a movement on the outside to support prisoners on the inside. They did not want to dwell on the horrors of prisons, but rather chose to focus on the importance of prisoners knowing that there are people outside who care, who would come to hear about them.

Convicted Battered Woman Seeks Relief from Same Court System That Allowed Exclusion of Women from Jury

by Christy Marie Camp, VSPW
Christy Marie Camp was convicted by an 11 man, 1 woman jury for the death of her husband. In the jury selection for her trial, her male public defender (now deceased) opted to select a virtually all-male jury to hear the case where the defense was Battered Woman’s Syndrome. He thought men would be more “sympathetic” to her plight. In a statement he made at sentencing he admitted he made a “grave mistake.”
It took Ms. Camp six years to gather adequate arguments to present to the courts. The district attorney’s office vehemently argued against overturning her conviction. “I hadn’t asked for an attorney, because I had done all the research and preparation of this petition myself.
“The Judge listened to me fight for my life for an hour and a half. He commended me on my self-representation and encouraged me to go to law school. He denied my petition based on the fact that trial counsel was deceased and could not be questioned and because I ‘waited’ six years to file my petition. His ruling didn’t even address my raising the excluded jurors’ rights (based on a 1994 Supreme Court case, J.E.B. vs. Alabama, where the Court ruled that eliminating potential jurors on the basis of gender violated the Constitution).
“It’s difficult to convince anyone to admit there was a mistake. Especially the judicial system which is [supposed to be] based on fairness.”
Even though J.E.B. vs. Alabama prohibits selecting a jury based on gender, the practice is still occurring. “I just met a woman last week whose conviction was rendered by a 10 man, 2 woman jury in 1995. That’s why I am making this wake-up call. People need to know exactly what is going on.”
You can help. Pass it on. Christy seeks declarations from law professors, civil rights educators, attorneys, battered women advocates and women who believe they have been excused from jury service based on their gender. Write! Cards and letters of support are welcome. Christy would like to start attending a correspondence law school. Tuition is $2,450/year and $350-$625 for books and materials. If you know of scholarship programs or grants, please let us know.
Write to Christy Marie Camp, W-32687, Valley State Prison for Women, P.O. Box 92, B4-29-04L, Chowchilla, CA 93610-0092.

Poetic Justice

Once I killed a man
oh please, do not be shocked
he used to choke me till I was blue,
then he would stop.
Oh yes, we were happily married,
or so the story went.
I told the cops what happened,
and to prison I was sent.
No, the judge didn’t want to hear it,
and as the jury knew
he was a man just like them;
I guess they too were through.
Oh, I testified to make new laws
to protect women in this state,
but tho those rules are now in books
for me it was too late.
They said to ask the Governor
for mercy on my case.
I did indeed, and six years later
no answer to my fate.
I filed papers properly,
as the court requests,
to gain a second look
at whether my conviction should rest.
I argued with the best of them,
oh how amused they seemed to be
but always found a reason
not to set me free.
I’ve been locked up ten years now;
I guess I should have learned
not to bother with a system
where the wheels of justice seldom turn.
Christy Marie Camp, Valley State Prison