This issue of The Fire Inside is dedicated to every woman inside who links her arms with other sisters inside and through the walls to uphold the dignity and humanity of each of us. To the 27 women who signed on to the 1995 class action medical lawsuit against the Cal. Dept. of Corrections demanding decent health care for all women inside and to the 150 women in CCWF who recently signed a protest over conditions in one unit. It is the simple yet incredibly brave actions such as these that defeat the divide-and-conquer mentality of the prisons. We send each of you a warm embrace and our commitment to keep our arms linked with yours through the walls.
by Woman Prisoner, Central California Women’s Facility
I am very proud of the women at the prison here. I feel there is a new spirit of solidarity and cooperation among prisoners that can only help us. Here is what happened.
The prison decided to have their power system tested on a weekend. Something went wrong with the test and the telephones we can use were out of service. Of course, since it was the weekend, no one would come out to fix them until the following Monday. Many women, who were planning to call their families on the weekend, were now worried and frustrated.
Then on Monday, one particular guard decided to take offense at the rooming assignments. He accused two women of being lovers and ordered one of them to move to another room. We all recognize that guards have the power to change rooming assignments. What it means is that the whole unit is on lock-down while the woman is gathering her things and being moved. So no calls could be placed Monday night either and the level of worry and frustration grew.
The following day the lieutenant decided that there was no reason for the order to move, the two women were not breaking any rules and he ordered the woman to move back. So all this worry and frustration kept being built up over nothing!
I thought we needed to do something. I wrote up a complaint against the guard, detailing the situation and how the guard’s action was adding to the stress in our unit, creating morale problems and resentment, obviously for no reason. How the guards’ in-fighting takes a toll on us.
The wonderful news is that 150 women signed this complaint! And while the prison has not yet responded officially, at least one other guard told me privately that the conduct of the guard ordering the move was not professional. It is so rare that guards will break rank with each other and take our side, that I feel just an acknowledgement that we are right and the guard’s behavior was wrong feels like a victory. And we could only accomplish it together.
by Cassie Pierson, Staff Attorney, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children
Prisons are designed to punish and isolate. We hear stories about guards who set up fights between prisoners of different ethnic backgrounds and then open fire on them to quell the “riot.” We read about the horrendous medical care afforded prisoners. We are told that prisoners in the SHU are the “worst of the worst.” However, we rarely, if ever, hear about how prisoners overcome the isolation and “division” and work together.
Prisons allow and often encourage the “divide-and-conquer” mentality. For example, section 3170.1 of Title 15 provides that a visitor may visit with only one inmate at a time unless the visitor and prisoner(s) can show they are immediate family members. So if my mother and sister are in the same prison and both are allowed to have contact visits, I could receive permission to visit with them at one visit instead of seeing them separately. However, if I had other relatives in the same prison such as aunts or cousins, I would have to schedule separate visits for each of them because they are not considered “immediate family.” Strange, isn’t it, that prison officials get to decide who the important family members are in your family?
Prison officials also get to decide whether you should associate with prisoners of a different ethnicity even though race discrimination is supposed to be unconstitutional. It is not unusual for entire groups of one ethnicity to be locked down for weeks at a time while other prisoners continue to program, have visits, etc. Generally this is a tactic used in men’s institutions and it often causes hostility where none may have existed before.
At least one man has chosen to fight the race-based discrimination in prisons in California. Viet Mike Ngo filed a civil rights lawsuit complaining that San Quentin was violating his and other prisoners’ 14th Amendment right of equal protection because the prison uses race as a factor in determining where and with whom a prisoner will be housed. Mr. Ngo’s attorney, Charles Carbone states that because, “ninety-five percent of all prisoners are housed with someone of the same race,” this proves that race is the main factor in these decisions.
Prisoners find ways to share what little they have with others–Sherrie Chapman was awarded a monetary settlement as a result of the lawsuit she brought and then used some of the award to arrange for the purchase of quarterly packages for women at CIW (California Institution for Women) who had no one on the outside to help them. She would also arrange for money to be sent to the families of women so they could travel to CIW to visit their loved one.
There are prisoners who assist others as jailhouse lawyers, those who act as translators for monolingual prisoners, those who serve on advisory councils at the prison, prisoners who teach others to read, prisoners who are peer educators, and the list goes on. Every time a prisoner steps outside of herself or himself to address an issue for someone else, she/he is demonstrating solidarity.
Divide and conquer. It is an age-old tactic often used by those in power to keep the oppressed from exerting or even realizing their own power. It affects most women on the inside. The most prominent are divisions based on race. But any differences are exploited to divide the women: type of crime, length of sentence, disabilities, faith, national origin, sexuality, etc.
Guards intentionally seed such division by, for example, blaming their own arbitrary behavior on the woman they would like to have other women turn against. We have heard of instances when a woman was placed in a cell where the guards knew she would be beaten up. Charisse Shumate stated on numerous occasions that the guards told women “thank Shumate” when they refused to address health care complaints. (Charisse Shumate was a lead plaintiff in a suit against CDC for lack of medical care.) Such strategies are designed to create animosity among women.
Other forms of this strategy divide women inside from outside support. Mail delays, phone access limitations, not to mention ruinous costs, visiting regulations and changes in quarterly packages, create enormous and frustrating obstacles for families and friends of prisoners. When women lose custody of their children, often to the foster care system, it is a major way of dividing them from their loved ones and devastating the families and communities as well as the women.
Dividing women prisoners from each other and from society is a much bigger problem than simply making life more difficult for them in prison. Once women prisoners return to life on the outside they are marginalized from participating in their own communities. This includes being discriminated against in getting jobs, education, housing, proper health care, as well as voting.
The way in which prison issues are addressed in the media also prevents any natural alliances between women on the inside and those on the outside. Laws such as “Three Strikes and You’re Out” and cutbacks in vital programs that assist women prisoners with education and child care, won support among California voters and legislators precisely because the local and national news hype up fear of crime that makes these policies seem necessary even though they are clearly ineffective.
Women prisoners have had to overcome the many divide-and-conquer tactics on the part of prison authorities in order to get their concerns addressed. This issue of The Fire Inside deals with the problems women inside face in gaining strength in unity. It also deals with the ways in which they try overcome that divisive strategy and succeed. Their work, along with their sisters on the outside, is a true testament to the power of solidarity in the face of overwhelming odds.
Gang fights happen because guards instigate Black or Mexican or white as a separate “culture.” Young women get here scared and intimidated. They are lonely, some separated from their families for the first time. The prison does not provide any social outlet, any constructive way to relate to others. The only ways they see are gangs or prison “families.” So that’s what they get into. Whatever their identity was before they came to prison, the prison makes them race conscious. But we are all God’s children. Color does not matter. This here is not rehabilitation, it is not healthy.
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Prison forces people to associate with gangs based on race. It is very ugly. Usually they set up Black against Mexican gangs. Recently a gang of Mexican women beat up someone. There are a lot of silent fights, sometimes over nothing. The guards may not even know. But even when there is a complaint, they mostly let it go. I am trying to be a voice without anger.
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The prison separates people by race. Not just inmates, but even employees. My boss is a Black man, the only Black man in the shop and many days it seems that he is the only one working. Black people have it the worst in here.
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The way guards create discord is that they may come in to do a room search and blame it on one person. That will get others mad at her. Sometimes they will confiscate things of the other seven women in the room and leave things of the one on whom they blamed it. That creates even more tension. This can particularly hurt lifers who may have accumulated more things.