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.