Sherrie Chapman has been in prison at California Institution for Women since 1981. Sherrie found lumps in both of her breasts in 1985 and tried to get a medical diagnosis for nine years. Since 1995, she has had two radical mastectomies and had a hysterectomy. During that time he has had to beg for pain medication. She is currently receiving only Tylenol for pain.
Amnesty International is focusing on Sherrie’s case because she has received such exteremely poor medical care. We know that women prisoners are constantly being mistreated, misdiagnosed and ignored. Sherrie’s situation is not unique. Another woman prisoner, Tina Balagno, died in Febrary 1999, one week after receiving compassionate release, as a result of bone cancer which was left untreated until it had metastacized to her breasts, spine and brain.
Sherrie, for your courage, determination and refusal to accept second-class medical care, we dedcate this issue of Fire Inside to you.

A Visit to a Doctor

by a Prisoner, VSPW
Walk into the “doctor’s” office (this doctor does not have a license to practice medicine) and you see disposable gynecological instruments on a cart spilling out of an open, by now un-sterile, pack. You don’t want to touch anything, much less sit on the exam table, where the paper still sits from the last pelvic exam.
So you stand there and wait until you hear some deep uttering from a man in a white lab coat, who looks like mama from “Throw Mama from the Train” with less hair. If you say “Excuse me?” he looks up over his glasses and from deep down in his enormous gut he yells, “what do you want?” quickly and sharply as if it were one word.
Frightened, you begin to explain your health problem, whether gastrointestinal bleeding, severe abdominal or chest pain, a broken ankle, or anything else that would warrant a visit to an emergency room. The “doctor” interrupts with “you’re faking!”
Then, while looking through your medical file, he insists that you haven’t had a pap smear in a while, so if you’re appealing enough he will advise that you ought to have one. Unless you sign a refusal, you succumb to what others consider sexual molestation, physical torture and the feeling of being raped. One woman, too afraid to appeal because of repercussions, talked with tears in her eyes of his fingers trifling with her clitoris and simulating sexual intercourse. “I felt like I was raped by that disgusting man.”
In addition to your existing medical problem, you have the trauma and cutting psychological torment inflicted by this inhumane, un-compassionate and hateful “medical” staff. This is the reality here.
[Unfortunately, the above story is not unique. The October 28, 1998 issue of Journal of American Medical Association documents many cases of doctors whose medical licenses were revoked in several states for malpractice and sexual misconduct. Yet those doctors were recruited by penal institutions to practice medicine there. Sidney M. Wolfe, MD, director of Public Cituzen’s Health Research Group in Washington, D.C. is quoted: “It is unethical and inhumane to say that a physician isn’t trustworthy or good enough to treat people in the community, but that he or she is good enough to care for inmates of correctional facilities or mental hospitals.” He calls this practice “reckless and dangerous.” E. Fuller Torrey, MD, executive director of the Stanley Foundation Research Program in Bethesda, Md. is also quoted: “…there is a strongly disproportionate percentage of incompetent physicians for whom correctional facilities are the place of last resort to practice. The use of special licensing arrangements that allow physicians who cannot be licensed to treat the public to treat sick and mentally ill inmates in prisons or jails is a scandal. It is a scandal that is being tolerated because we don’t care what happens to these people. And we don’t seem to care that much what happens after they’re released.” –Editors]

The Privilege of Being Sick in the California Department of Corrections

by Cynthia Russaw, VSPW-SHU
It is a privilege to be sick in the California Department of Corrections. We as prisoners have no legal, no constitutional right to be sick at any time. We are classified as working machines. We are sick only when they allow us to be sick, and that’s when we drop to our knees, half dead, when our hearts stop, our blood pressure is high. We are the walking dead. We are not allowed to be sick, we have to run the prison system.
Without inmate slave labor the prison would not function. “Sick,” suffering from illness, physically, mentally, emotionally. We are not allowed the privilege. A medical emergency is defined as a sudden unexpected medical occurrence demanding immediate action. CDC defines a medical emergency as no less than death.
Allow me to enlighten you on how the medical system works. They give you a CDC 7362 form “Health Care Service Request” which says “you may be charged $5.00 for each health care visit.” Before you can even think about being seen you must fill out, sign and submit the form. Immediately they remove the $5 from your trust account. If you are lucky, in a day or in a month, you sit for hours in any kind of weather waiting to be seen. At the last minute they might turn you away. You tell the MTA (“medically trained” assistant) you have a common cold. She/he tells you to wait. That’s another hour or two. Then the nurse comes to the door and tells you they don’t treat common colds, drink lots of water. No vital signs are measured. So one day to one month later, six to eight hours and $5 later all you get is tired, sicker from the weather and told to drink water.
One or two days later you pass out with temperature of 101 or 102 and they have the nerve to ask why you didn’t come in before. They get busy doing nothing, charge you another $5, give you a Motrin and tell you to buy medicine on the canteen. “Motrin” is the cure-all for everything. Treatments for communicable diseases, chronic diseases, extended care, nursing or emergency services are a joke. Follow-up health care, dental or mental health services are pathetic.
To California Department of Corrections we are not human.
They make rules as they go and change them even faster. Why was I given surgery I did not consent to, nor had any knowledge of? A little over a year ago I was to have a cyst removed from my ovary. I woke up with a complete hysterectomy. When I asked why, I was told they “thought” I had severe abdominal pain, digestive trouble, pain in my pelvis. They “thought!”
I have to laugh to keep from crying. They did other damage that was not there before they went in, which will cause me problems for the rest of my life. I was told: look, you received a $3,700 surgery for free, you are too old to have children, you don’t have to worry about a period and you don’t have cancer. That justified the unnecessary complete hysterectomy! I have never been with child. Did I plan to? Yes, absolutely.
I wanted to find out more of what happened. Later I was told they never really performed a hysterectomy, that I don’t need supplemental female hormones, there have not been any changes in my body. What really took place? Why so much deception?
Yes, it is truly a privilege to be sick in the CDC. A privilege I am more than willing to do without.

Health care for California’s Women Prisoners

Health care inside California women’s prisons is in a state of crisis. Women are needlessly dying from chronic and treatable diseases. There is not one full-time, licensed OB/GYN on staff at the largest women’s prison in the world, Central California Women’s Facility ty (CCWF). There is no regular OB/GYN care at Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW). Each facility houses nearly 3,600 women who need annual OB/GYN exams, standard pre- and postnatal care, and regular check-ups. Women with HIV and cancer are being denied medications and basic care.
For women prisoners with HIV, inadequate and inhumane health care put their lives at risk every day. There are dangerous and unnecessary delays in the refill of HIV medications and other prescriptions. It routinely takes 45 days to see a doctor. These women rarely receive their prescribed medications on time and have difficulty seeing doctors regularly.
At VSPW, women who live in the Security Housing Units (SHUs) endure constant verbal and physical harassment in their isolated cells, as do many women in the general population. CCWP’s health care campaign calls for an end to the SHUs and overcrowded prisons because they endanger and damage the mental health of women inside. We do not, however, support the construction of new prisons. Incarceration is not a solution to complex social ills.
In spite of the 1997 settlement of Shumate v. Wilson, a class action lawsuit mandating the California Department of Corrections (CDC) to correct systemic health care violations in two of Calfornia’s women’s prisons, health care continues to be a community crisis. People should not lose their right to health care because they are in prison. Women are suffering and needlessly dying because they are treated as less than human.
We ask you to join with CCWP, concerned health care providers, activists, teachers, students, mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers in the fight for women’s lives.
Demand Human Rights for Women Prisoners!
Standard OB/GYN care:

  • Licensed staff and regular check-ups
  • Appropriate and specific care for women with HIV, cancer and other
    immunosuppressive diseases

Humane conditions:

  • Shut down Security Housing Units and stop overcrowding
  • Expand community mother/infant care programs
  • Stop sexual assaults and guard brutality
  • Rebuild educational and treatment programs and re-open law libraries
  • Clean water, no rotten food

Basic HIV care:

  • Consistent access to HIV medications
  • Peer education and support
  • Access to special diet and nutrition requirements

Compassionate health care:

  • Consistent access to all medications
  • Compassionate release for prisoners with serious illnesses
  • Effective pain management and competent providers.

Resistant Spirit – a tribute to political prisoner Marilyn Buck

On Sunday afternoon January 24 a crowd of over 150 people gathered for a moving tribute to political prisoner Marilyn Buck. Marilyn who is currently at the federal prison in Dublin, California is serving an 80 year sentence for conspiracy and for aiding in the escape of another political prisoner, Assata Shakur. (Assata is still free, living in exile in Cuba). The idea of the tribute developed when friends of Marilyn’s began to raise funds for her educational and legal expenses through the raffle of a ceramic sculpture called “Jericho 98” which Marilyn had created. The raffle expanded into an afternoon to recognize her many contributions as a social justice activist dating back to the sixties. Heartfelt statements from other political prisoners and from Assata Shakur were read. There was poetry by Mitsuye Yamada, Straight Out Scribes, Poetry for the People and Nellie Wong and music by the Troublemakers Union. The event was an opportunity for many people to come together, celebrate and support not just Marilyn Buck, but the resistant spirit of those who struggle, on both sides of the walls, to challenge injustice in this country.


by Judy Greenspan, HIV in Prison Committee, California Prison Focus
HIV+ women prisoners at the Central California Women’s Facility desperately need your help. Women with HIV have always faced discrimination, medical neglect and a lack of confidentiality concerning their medical status. However, the rising epidemic of Hepatitis C (especially among the HIV+ women) and recent changes in the delivery of HIV medications at CCWF have sparked a new crisis.
At the end of December, CCWF changed the way the prison distributes HIV medications. Up until that time, women received a monthly supply of their pills and dosed privately in their cells. All of a sudden, CCWF made HIV medications “hot meds.” HIV+ women now have to stand on pill call line three times a day to be watched while they receive and take their medications. Some of the HIV+ women are supposed to dose between 4 and 6 times a day but now have to conform to this set schedule. The change in med delivery is a serious invasion of the privacy rights of the HIV+ women. Now everyone will know who is postive.
We have recently received many reports from HIV+ women about the difficulty of standing outside in the rain and cold for more than an hour, 3 times a day. Many women have already decided to stop taking their medications rather than risk missing doses or jeopardizing their health. More than 20 HIV+ women signed a group grievance demanding that the antivirals (HIV medications) be given back to them in 30-day intervals by the pharmacy. Beverly Henry
(“Chopper”), an HIV+ prisoner activist, has collected statements from many women protesting the new policy.
Judy Ricci writes from inside, “Not only does this policy affect those of us who do take medication (you know – every 8 hours, with different needs around food intake in correlation to med taking) – but now we’re being denied one of our doses on Sundays and holidays because there is no mid-day med line on those days. It’s like they’re going out of their way to make sure that there’s no possible way any of us could follow these complicated drug schedules that are difficult to adhere to in the best of situations.”
The new HIV treatment cocktails, as they are called, must be taken consistently or else the patient will become resistant to the drugs, creating a new multi-drug resistant strain of HIV that is very harmful. Once patients start on HIV medications, the general understanding is that they will have to take these drugs for the rest of their lives. The new CCWF hot med policy seriously jeopardizes the lives of women with HIV.
The fastest growing epidemic among people with the history of injection drug use is Hepatitis C. The California Department of Corrections estimates that over 60% of all women prisoners have this chronic illness. While there is no cure for Hep C which can be very painful, debilitating and eventually lead to death, there are drugs like interferon that can help control serious bouts of the illness. The California Department of Corrections recently started offering interferon to women prisoners. However, CDC policies state that HIV+ women are excluded from this Hepatitis C treatment. This policy is not only discriminatory but extremely detrimental to the health and well-being of HIV+ women. There should not be an across-the- board exclusion from interferon treatment. Women with HIV should be among the first considered for interferon treatment rather than the last.
Natalie Baret, a woman living with HIV and Hepatitis C writes, “I am at my wits’ end on what to do. What I don’t understand is if someone is in pain, anyone, and there is nothing they can do but give them something to make them comfortable, especially someone with a terminal illness, why not help them? Can someone please help?” [After we wrote a letter protesting Ms. Baret’s exclusion from Hep C treatment, she was placed on interferon for about two weeks and then abruptly taken off without explanation!]
Letters protesting the new “hot med” policy and the denial of Hepatitis C treatment to HIV+ women should be sent to Director C.A. Terhune, California Department of Corrections, P.O. Box 942883, Sacramento, CA 94283-0001; fax no. (916) 322-2877.
We invite you to join us as we speak out loudly in support of HIV+ women. For more information contact the HIV in Prison Committee of California Prison Focus, 2940 16th Street, #100, San Francisco, CA 94103; (510) 533-2590.


by Cynthia Russaw, VSPW-SHU
It takes unspeakable courage
to be thrown into prison, to cry, and
to be young and inexperienced…
It takes enormous courage
to grow up, to dream, to work, and
to risk making mistakes…
It takes steadfast courage
to be disciplined, to take responsibility
and keep trying after disappointments…
It takes gallant courage
to accept abuse, to be harassed, and
to always give unstintingly of self…
It takes dauntless courage
to balance different attitudes
with defeats, and to still relish
life’s sweetness…
It takes invincible courage
to grow in a corrupt system,
run by corrupt staff and government,
and to peruse mortality with a calm eye…
It takes noble courage
to speak out, and tell the world
the system they thought was working
is really cold, cruel and inhuman.

Amnesty International Condemns Treatment of Women Prisoners in the USA

Sexual misconduct and various forms of abuse and neglect of women inmates so pervade the U.S. correctional system that human rights violations are virtually a daily part of prison life, according to a comprehensive new report released by Amnesty International on March 4, 1999. “Not Part of My Sentence: Violations of the Human Rights of Women in Custody” details the abuses suffered by women prisoners in the United States. Part of Amnesty’s “Rights for All” campaign to expose and end human rights violations in the US, the report condemns the US for the grotesque and inhuman treatment many women prisoners are forced to endure and makes detailed recommendations on how to end the violations.
“Sexual abuse of women inmates is torture, plain and simple. Shackling and medical neglect of women inmates constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said. “These human rights violations must not stand.”
Despite the proliferation of women in U.S. penal institutions, the corrections system has failed to adjust to the gender-specific needs of the population. The report maintains that the climate of sexual abuse by prison guards is fueled by a lack of oversight and disciplinary action against sexual misconduct.
Some of the following issues are addressed in the report:

  • Custodial oversight of women is largely assumed by male guards, contrary to international standards that call for female prisoners to be supervised only by female guards.
  • Denial of medical care is widespread. Life-threatening illnesses go unchecked or without adequate treatment.
  • Physical restraints including shackles are used on women inmates, including pregnant women during labor, presenting health risks to women inmates and their newborns.
  • Racial minorities have been disproportionately affected. African American women are eight times more likely to be incarcerated than white women; and Hispanic women are four times more likely
  • Women asylum seekers are often subjected to harsh treatment. While awaiting action on INS claims, they often languish facing the same human rights violations all women prisoners face.

Even in states that criminalize custodial sexual contact, law enforcement is lax.

Caravan for Prisoners’ Human Rights

by Urszula Wislanka
Corcoran, Ca. – “The human rights problem of the world today is right here in the USA!” On October 18, 1997 hundreds of people from all over California participated in car caravans for prisoners’ human rights, converging at the infamous center of guards shooting prisoners in set-up human cock fights, Corcoran prison.
Participants included former prisoners and prisoner rights activists, Art and Revolution, a cultural youth group, and especially families of prisoners, many organized by F.A.C.T.S., Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes.
Coming from the North, we also stopped to demonstrate at the two women’s prisons in Chowchilla, the largest women’s prisons in the world, notorious for abusing women held there.
The caravan coincided with the launching of a year-long campaign by Amnesty International to focus on human rights abuses in the U.S. Speakers at demonstrations at both places told stories of not just the abuse suffered and witnessed inside, but critiqued the whole de-humanizing criminal justice system. The injustice of the Three Strikes is that it criminalizes the poor. Then as prison inmates they are demonized and deprived of any consideration as human beings.
Many different reforms were called for by different speakers, from making wardens accountable to the population to firing of sadistic, fascist guards and public oversight of all prisons’ activities. One young Black man, a former prisoner, expressed the hope of every one there that this demonstration be a beginning of a mass movement.
Yet he was concerned that the primary obstacle to a development of mass movement is the feeling instilled in many prisoners that they deserve their punishment. We had a vigorous discussion about “the battle of the mind – the struggle over our own conflicts.” Starting point for building solidarity between prisoners is overcoming the hatred prisoners feel for themselves. We talked about a vision of an “I” that is not an isolated individual but consciously includes the human relations developed with others, an “I” that is a “we.” In calling for a mass movement Abdul Olugbala Shakur said “working isn’t hard, it’s unity and understanding and having respect for each other which is hard.”
This building of firmest solidarity is a beginning of a real revolution.
Reprinted from News & Letters

Justice Overruled – Theresa Cruz’s Conviction Upheld

by Diana Block
On January 15, 1999 a three judge panel of the ninth district circuit court upheld Theresa Cruz’s original conviction, reversing the April 1998 ruling of federal appeals court judge Napoleon Jones. For those of you who have been following Theresa’s case, this is a serious setback, particularly given our hopes last year when her conviction was finally, righteously overturned. Her lawyer has put in an appeal to have her case heard by a full panel of the ninth district court but it’s not clear whether they will agree to that. Needless to say, Theresa and her family are very depressed about this and in need of support. You can write Theresa at #W-40058, CIW, Frontera, CA 91720. Donations for her defense fund can be sent directly to Defense Fund for Theresa Cruz, Accnt.#6832-217806 (write accnt# on check), Wells Fargo Bank, Bonita Office, 4180 Bonita Rd., Bonita, CA 91902.
We are also planning to circulate a letter supporting Theresa’s release for endorsement by organizations and prominent community members which can then be used in a variety of ways. If you have any ideas for groups or individuals who would be interested in endorsing, please let us know. Any other ideas and suggestions for supporting Theresa’s case are always welcome.