Dedication

This issue of The Fire Inside is dedicated to all the mothers who are enduring separation from their children because of their time in prison. For this mother’s day 2000 we want to recognize the strength it takes for you to just keep on keeping on every day without them. We hope this note we received from one child can speak to all of you of the love and hope which so many of your children possess despite everything.
When I visit my mother and I look into her eyes, even though she’s smiling I see the sadness in her eyes, and every time we say goodbye I feel like I want to die. I miss my mother day and night and I dream of the day she will be home and we won’t have to say goodbye.
Love you mommy,
Adriana

(Adriana’s mother, Theresa Cruz, is a battered woman at CIW serving a life sentence for her response to her abuse.)

To sisters, mothers, daughters, grandmothers

by Coffee Williams, WCCW
My name is Coffee Williams, I reside in Washington Correction Center for Women. Today I received a letter from my daughter, a letter I’d been dreaming of receiving for a while, even if it meant pain. I would know where she was and that she was alive.
My daughter is on her way to prison, Chowchilla I believe. The law says no communication between prisons, but I state I’m her mother. Proof needs to be shown. I have no money for a birth certificate. They took my job because of my health, the whole $.42 an hour. But it worked. Nothing here is free. D. is 30 years of age. I haven’t seen her birth certificate since preschool. I truly wish for my daughter to know I love her now and forever. I cannot make up for the days lost, I can only hope that she realizes that I am her mother and it’s never too late for a mother and daughter to come together, as women, and share our grief. We’ve felt the loneliness we’ve had to bear, the thoughts of being alone and the hope that always seems near.
I love you D. See you soon, “one love.”

International Women’s Month Celebration by CCWP

by Urszula Wislanka
San Francisco, Ca. – On March 25 the California Coalition for Women Prisoners celebrated International Women’s Month by featuring women fighting criminal injustice. The audience of about 100 heard Picola from the Third Eye Movement, which organized against the California anti-youth Prop. 21 initiative. She said that we have not seen a movement like this, led primarily by young women under 17, since the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s. Picola said, “this movement is my home until I see a revolution come.” Despite the fact that Prop. 21 passed, she said youth are ready to start fighting, organizing, for example, a demonstration to oppose guards getting paid $50k while teachers get $30k.
We heard from other friends and family of incarcerated women and former prisoners themselves. The most moving was the appearance of Paula, the mother of Marcia Bunney, who told how her daughter kept expressing her love after going to prison through her handicrafts, displaying the stunning sweater she wore, which was knitted by Marcia. Cynthia Martin spoke about the hell-hole a prison can be for anyone needing medical attention. They all spoke about the importance of recognition that under prison conditions every act of kindness is a struggle. Charisse Shumate, who has been leading the fight against medical abuse in prison, sent a statement:
I Charisse Shumate must say first and foremost I give my deepest thanks to you for not closing your ears or eyes for our pleas for help with the CCWF medical department. Our fears grow as fast as weeds in a garden. We are forced to watch others suffer in pain begging for help. A lay-in is a mission impossible. Lifers are being denied by the Medical Review Board tests that a specialist has reccomended. Oh I could go on and on. As a soldier I’m wounded badly inside and out. My fellow peers wipe my tears and ask me not to give up. Just as I look with one eye at these gray bricks I know behind these walls I will die, but not ashamed. Just wounded and proud of the battle we fought.
Aya deLeon gave a stirring spoken words performance. Luis Talamantez spoke of the investigations into the recent Pelican Bay shootings and Judy Greenspan honored Bunny Knuckles, who died this past year, for her courageous fight on behalf of women prisoners with HIV/AIDS. Many in the audience said they were inspired by what they heard. Prisoners face directly the increasing brutality of the state. People were interested in prisoners’ ideas and perspectives on changing this whole society.

Legal News

by Cassie Pierson, Staff Attorney, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children
California Courts recognize two types of child custody, legal and physical.
Legal custody generally refers to having some rights to decision-making about your child’s well being, on things like health, education, and welfare. Physical custody refers to who the child lives with.
California law also says that it is generally in the best interest of children to stay in the same living situation they have been in, because courts believe that stability is important for children. A custody order in California can be changed if there is a “change in circumstances” and it would be in the best interest of the child to have the custody order changed. Generally, courts will not change custody of a child unless it can be proven that the living situation is harmful to them. This can be a very difficult thing to prove and often requires written reports from Child Protective Services, child psychologists and other child welfare experts.
Generally, it is easier to change a legal custody order so that the parents share joint legal custody, meaning that both parents have the right to share in decision-making about their child’s well being. This is because most judges believe that it is good for parents to be involved with their child in this way. However, when you are released from prison it may take some time and effort on your part to establish that you are a responsible parent.
Before you try to change a custody order, you will need to establish a good record of having regular, consistent visits with your child(ren). Even if you choose not to pursue any legal action about your child(ren) at this time, you should try to maintain regular contact with your child(ren) through letters, notes, cards and visits, if possible. You should keep a written record of all the contact you have with your children, so that you can prove that you have tried to maintain a relationship with them. If you will be released from prison soon, you should try to establish a regular visitation schedule once you are released.

Editorial: Mothers in Prison; Children in Crisis

Mothers Day 2000. This should be a time to celebrate bonds that develop between mother and child. In a society that professes to foster family values we would expect that the state of California would do all in its power to protect families and nurture the mother/child relationship. But California has more women in prison than any other state, and children are being torn from their mothers and some communities (particularly communities of color) are being completely ripped apart.
The only program that the California Department of Corrections has which has consistently reduced recidivism rates is the community Prisoner Mother Infant Program.
This program, which has been around for more than 15 years, allowed selected women to live with their young children in a group home setting. While the mothers were still prisoners, the children definitely were not. Mothers received parenting training; children received quality care. These programs were contracted to agencies outside CDC. One of the most successful of these programs was in Salinas, as can be seen from the letters from women in the program on pages 4-5. But success doesn’t seem to matter to the CDC, and the Salinas program is being shut down, along with most of the other Community Mother-Infant Programs in the state. The model has been changed to a larger, more “cost-effective” institutional setting.
Approximately 80% of women prisoners are mothers of dependent children. Most of them were sole caregivers before their incarceration. While their mom is in prison, many of the children stay with grandparents, aunts and older sisters. Many are being cared for by friends and many more are in foster care.
All of us who visit women in prison have witnessed small children being searched and x-rayed as they have gone to visit their moms. We have seen children being sent away because they are wearing the wrong clothing or have inquate identification. We have seen the tears as children must leave at the end of a visit without their moms. And we wonder, where are those family values now?
In California, the cutback in family visiting has had a disastrous effect on families of women who are doing life terms. While it used to be that women could spend a 48-hour period with their children and members of their immediate families, the CDC has determined that this is “coddling” life-term prisoners. And where does that leave family values?
The number of women in prison is increasing dramatically. Most women are doing time for non-violent crimes. As long as this society depends on punishment and incarceration to solve deep and complicated problems, women and their children will be separated. This Mother’s Day, as we’re barraged by Hallmark phrases about the importance of motherhood, remember that women in prison are mothers as well, and they have not lost their human right to preserve strong bonds with their children.