Our Voices Within: Out of the Shadows

I strive to be a ?peace warrior.? I?ve come to recognize this as a state of being rather than just a state of mind. It is a hard path to walk — but I trudge it with joy and gratitude because today I am able to be where many of my ?sisters in the struggle against domestic terrorism? cannot be — in the here and now.
–Debi Zuver, survivor incarcerated at CCWF from the Vision Statement for Our Voices Within: Out of the Shadows.
On Saturday, October 21st, Free Battered Women held its fourth Our Voices Within event celebrating the lives, struggles, victories, hopes, and dreams of incarcerated survivors of domestic violence. This year?s event honored the freedom of twelve survivors since the last Our Voices Within in 2004, a stupendous accomplishment which Free Battered Women helped to bring about! Happily, many of the released women and their families were able to come to the program along with their family members. They shared stories of joy and stories of continued struggle against discrimination, which they unfortunately have encountered from institutions and communities since their release.
Released survivors participated in the event?s inspiring program by speaking about their experiences, reading poetry, and dancing. There was also a silent auction of powerful visual art pieces created by incarcerated survivors. Each person who attended the event received a beautiful book of survivors? writings and drawings. Together these artistic expressions reminded everyone present of the resilience and creativity which is the motivating force behind Our Voices Within as well as the ongoing work of Free Battered Women to win justice and freedom for all incarcerated survivors of domestic violence. If you are in prison and would like a copy of the Our Voices Within event book, please write to Free Battered Women at 1540 Market Street, Suite 490, San Francisco, CA 94102 to request a copy. Books are free to people in prison; others can get copies for a suggested donation of $15 (including postage and handling).

A Medical Assistant Stands up for Human Rights

by Pam Fadem
In Fall 2006, CCWP was contacted by a person who had worked on contract at Valley State Prison for Women (not as an employee of the CDRC) as a medical assistant for a few weeks in the Spring of 2006. This person?whom we will call Barbara?contacted CCWP because she was concerned with the inhumane treatment of women who were housed in the infirmary under suicide watch, and with the bad treatment she herself had received from correctional officers (CO?s) until she was dismissed.
Barbara was employed as a medical assistant by KT Staffing (a company contracted to provide services to the CDRC). She was assigned to chart activities every 15 minutes of women being held under a suicide watch at the infirmary at VSPW.
Barbara immediately experienced hostility from CO?s in the unit. She learned that CO?s and other CDRC staff had previously done this work, earning substantial overtime pay. Staff was hostile because they were no longer able to earn this overtime pay. As well, Barbara soon saw a disturbing level of cruel and inhumane treatment towards women prisoners by CO?s. Barbara told CCWP members, ?I encountered a lot of hostility directed to inmates by staff, and then to myself. I can?t speak for what other medical assistants experienced.?
Some CO?s deliberately provoked women who were ill. Barbara told CCWP about how an older woman?who appeared to be suffering from a severe case of dementia?was continually taunted and harassed by staff members who then laughed at the inmate as she became more and more agitated. In another case, Barbara was observing one woman who requested to be escorted to the restroom (there were no toilet facilities in the suicide watch cells). Barbara relayed this request to a CO (the MTA in charge). The CO said she ?would be right back.? Thirty minutes passed, with the woman prisoner pacing her cell, ?her skin becoming clammy,? as she clearly suffered trying to hold her bowels. The prisoner finally could wait no longer and was forced to relieve her bowels in her cell, with no materials to clean herself up. When the CO finally returned, she was angry about the odor and the mess, and then taunted and laughed at the prisoner who became very angry. The CO then told the woman she ?would have to live with the mess until you calm down.?
Barbara said, ?I found this very degrading and very unnecessary. I was also told by more than one inmate that you could get privileges (such as extra towels) for trading sexual favors.?
Less than a month later Barbara was dismissed from her job. While she was told it was because she had not done her job well, Barbara firmly believes that she was let go because she talked kindly to women prisoners, and refused to treat women in a degrading manner. As one CO said to Barbara in a very threatening and aggressive way, ?You have nothing to say to the inmates, do you understand??
Barbara lost her job, but she maintained her dignity and respected the dignity of the prisoners she was hired to serve. CCWP has heard stories about taunting and other inhumane treatment like this from women before, and we know that unfortunately this isn’t an aberration. What is so important in this story is that someone working inside the prison had the courage and humanity to speak out about what was going on and took the time to contact us. We hope this encourages others to do the same.

In Memoriam

“Baby”, 25 years old, a lifer, committed suicide in CCWF on October 1, 2006. She was a diagnosed schizophrenic though friends said they “didn’t see it coming.” She was very smart, quiet, liked to help people and liked to draw. She was raised by her grandmother who had recently fallen sick. It saddened her as “her grandmother was her world.” A friend described her as “a person who changed my life” and that she made her “see things differently, appreciate life more.” She’s going to be missed.

Vigil for Outreach and Justice

by Jodie Lawston
In September 2006, a 26-year old woman died in the Vista Detention Center in Vista, California. The circumstances for her detainment are still unclear, as are the circumstances of her death. As much as we can now make clear, she died of an asthma attack, which is both preventable and treatable. This woman, like so many of our sisters inside, is a mother: she has a 5-year old daughter. This is not the first time that a woman has died in custody, nor will it be the last given the atrocious ?healthcare? system of California?s jails and prisons.
This death was brought to the attention of two activist professors (Jodie Lawston and Sharon Elise, both in the sociology department) at California State University, San Marcos (CSUSM). In response, these professors and many concerned and angry students at the university organized a vigil for her and the other women who have died due to medical neglect inside of California?s prisons and jails. The vigil was held on December 2, 2006. There was a good turnout, with a formerly incarcerated woman who courageously spoke to the crowd about her experiences with medical neglect and abuse. We focused on outreach to family members who were going to visit their loved ones. One woman was visiting her granddaughter, and she stopped to tell us about her granddaughter?s horrendous experiences inside, such as not being given simple necessities like toilet paper.
As a group at CSUSM, we are going to continue our fight and begin to make contacts with women at CIW and Vista. CSUSM has a large body of students who have family in prison, know people in prison, or have been in prison themselves. Following the wonderful and crucial work that CCWP has done in the Bay Area, both students and several members of the faculty feel that it is imperative, being near both CIW and Vista, to have activist presence in these areas. We are in the beginning stages of our work but we plan to have visiting committees going to both CIW and Vista, as well as an educational committee. The December 2 vigil for outreach and justice is just the beginning of our work.

Parole Beat

Precious Releases?
Sadly, we have no precious releases to report at this time. We hope that we will have some good parole news in our next issue!
Outrageous Denials?
On July 25th, 2006, Governor Schwarzenegger denied parole to Linda Lee Smith, despite the fact that this was the 7th time that the parole board had granted her parole! Linda has served over 26 years in prison. All of the victim’s next-of-kin, including the victim’s birth father and her sister (who witnessed the incident) support Linda’s release.
On November 13th, 2006, Governor Schwarzenegger reversed Maureen Carroll?s 2008 parole release date which the Parole Board granted her in 2006. Maureen Carroll has served 22 years of a 25-to-life sentence and is 53 years old.
Thanks in part to Free Battered Women for the information on releases and denials of incarcerated survivors and to the women prisoners for the information we received about their own cases.

Special Session Prison Expansion Defeated

4,500 women?s beds, out-of-state transfers go ahead anyway
Governor Schwarzenegger?s proposals for prison expansion got nowhere in the special session he called specifically to push through his disastrous solutions for a prison system in crisis. Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) (CCWP is a member organization of CURB) played an important role in making legislators aware of the fundamental problems with the Governor?s proposals. CURB?s arguments influenced the positions of editorials and op-eds in major newspapers around the state. The petition with 1,000 signatures from women prisoners from CCWF and VSPW, collected by Justice Now, was displayed during the special session, demonstrating women?s strong opposition to the 4,500 bed proposal which masquerades as reform but is really another version of prison expansion.
Yet lo and behold, the CDCR is proceeding to solicit proposals from private companies to construct and run the new 4,500 bed facilities as if the proposal had passed in the special session.
Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency and has begun to transfer prisoners to out-of-state private prisons in Indiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Arizona. (So far the CDCR has said that women will not be among those transferred at this point.) The transfers are another terrible ?solution? to the overcrowding. Transfers distance prisoners from their families and community and effectively prevent any public oversight of the conditions which they face.
Both the California Correctional Peace Officers Association and the Service Employees International Union have filed suit against the transfers because they oppose using private companies for jobs usually performed by state employees. However, a state judge decided to let California send 2,260 prisoners to other states although she said she recognized that the transfers may be illegal.
Prisoners have other ideas as to how to solve the overcrowding. In a suit filed by the Prison Law Office, they asked to limit new admissions of prisoners until there is a significant decline in the population. Their proposal centers on redirecting minor parole violators to home detention, electric monitoring programs or residential treatment centers instead of sending them back to prison.
Clearly what is needed is a drastic reduction in the prison population through fundamental changes in sentencing structure and the parole system for starters. To get CURB?s list of 50 Ways to Reduce the Number of People in Prison in California, go to www.curbprisonspending.org or write CURB, 1904 Franklin St., Ste. 504, Oakland, CA 94612.

First Annual Domestic Violence Awareness Day at VSPW

by Linda Field, former prisoner, survivor
September 1, 2006, dawned a beautiful morning full of hope and anticipation. I left the mountains driving to the Central Valley area and enjoyed all that my freedom offered. I was going back to prison this morning. Unlike the first time I went, I was excited and truly looking forward to the day.
Cheryl Orange Jones joined me as we headed to Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, CA. When we arrived, Andrea and Marisa from Free Battered Women were there, waiting to escort us in. I had no fear in my heart, only joy. I was going to visit my sisters.
We entered the visiting check-in area and I waited to see the reaction of the correctional officers. We were greeted cordially and proceeded to check in. As I am in a wheelchair, I had to be ?wanded? to make sure I was not bringing in any contraband. The sergeant apologized, as he did not have a female officer to do this. I silently thought of the many times a male officer had patted me down, intimately, thinking me much taller than my 5’1″. I remember going on tip-toes to avoid his thumb.
We were greeted by excited women, who swarmed us. Nikki Diamond and Pat Caetano were waiting for our arrival. They too had returned to the prison to encourage their friends still inside. As the gym filled with inmates, we started. A beautiful version of ?Independence Day? was sung and many eyes teared as the meaning crept into hearts.
I wanted to sit with the audience because that was where my heart was. Our message was do not give up hope because we are out there fighting to get every battered women released from her prison. We do not want any woman to return to a battering situation. Battering doesn?t just affect them, but their children also. They will think it is normal, but we know it is not. No child should have to grow up in fear and no adult should have to cower down in fear.
When Nikki spoke, so many knew her personally that the energy could be felt in the gym. Teary eyes and heartfelt feelings caused the women to rise to their feet and clap for her. Nikki opened her heart to them and spoke about her own abuse as a child and many were able to relate.
As we were limited on time, there were many things left unspoken but the most important message was, we are family, God loves you and will not forsake you, and neither will your sisters outside. We will carry the torch of freedom and fight to get you released. We will not be quieted, we will not give up hope that someday all of us will be free on the outside and on the inside.
We were able to come here today because of the efforts of Free Battered Women and the Habeas Project. I was in prison for 19 years on a 25 to life sentence for killing my husband who abused my children and me. On January 3, 2006, I was taken back to court and re-sentenced to voluntary manslaughter, 13 years, time served, no parole. I am free now and will continue to fight to help free my sisters.
We love each and everyone of you. Remember Charisse Shumate who said, ?Battered No More.?

It’s Your Health: Work in Prison

by Pam Fadem
Prison is bad for your health?physically, mentally and emotionally?and we have plenty of proof! But work in prison?often a mandated part of programming to meet parole and release criteria?is more and more becoming a serious threat to the health and safety of all prisoners.
A recently released report, ?Toxic Sweatshops: How UNICOR Prison Recycling Harms Workers, Communities, the Environment and the Recycling Industry,? documents how the US Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) exposes prisoners and staff at 7 federal prisons (including Atwater here in California) to cancer-causing toxic chemicals while working for slave wages in UNICOR?s electronic waste recycling business. The report goes on to condemn the BOP for trying to cover up these health and safety violations, and recommends an immediate halt to the BOP program.
Just as with workers in the electronics industry outside prison walls, work for Allwire Corp. at CCWF?s Joint Venture program raises many health concerns about the toxic materials that workers come in contact with during the assembly of circuit boards and other electronic components including inhaling and skin contact with toxic chemicals.
Other jobs have health risks, too:
Doing farm work (cultivating almond trees and growing alfalfa) women are exposed to toxic chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Garment industry work presents many health hazards including injuries from broken sewing machine needles, asthma and other respiratory illnesses from the lint, and allergic reactions (hives and other skin problems) from the chemical coatings on the fabric.
In warehouse work for prison supplies women are exposed to physical injuries from lifting, stacking and carrying.
Making dentures, partials, and night-guards in a dental lab for State prisons and veterans? homes women are exposed to chemicals and dust during manufacturing, though this is a desired job because the training makes a woman employable on the outside.
The bottom tier of available jobs includes, central kitchen where women are sometimes burned by the heavy, hot pans, porters, yard crew, and other maintenance such as of electrical appliances.
Just as workers outside prisons have fought for legal rights to decent wages and work conditions, there is a history of struggle inside prisons across the U.S. over health and safety, as well as respect and fair wages. But as the editorial says, the U.S. Constitution outlawed slavery everywhere except in prisons.

The heath care system in prison has failed us

by Shelbi Harris, VSPW
The health care system in CDCR has failed us as human beings. Continuous neglect has caused premature deaths. Did the U.S. Constitution stop protecting us from cruel and unusual punishment because we went from citizen to inmate? If help does not come soon, death will be the new prison epidemic.
MTAs are allowed to pre- and misdiagnose us on medical emergencies through a window. How degrading and inhumane is that? We see an RN who can only give us the CDCR?s ?cure-alls? of Motrin or Tylenol and send us on our way. If we?re lucky we?ll get a referral to the yard doctor who hardly seems to exist anymore. Then the Daily Movement Sheets are full of appointments that never happened. Sacramento only sees the numbers on a page, never following up to see how many of us were actually seen, no less treated.
We have real serious issues here that need someone?s attention: premature deaths, preventable diseases, misdiagnoses and delayed treatment (or no treatment), and prolonged pain and suffering. We are exposed to infections and illnesses daily (such as staph infections, STI?s and scabies) with no protection other than the preventative measures we take on our own. The CDCR should meet us half way in preventative care by supplying gloves, disinfectant, hand soap, adequate access to laundry facilities, mandatory posting of preventative care signs (like the ADA and court ruling posters), and to follow their own rules and standards outlined in Title 15.
The inmate population is counting on Bob Sillen, the Federal Receiver. Hang tight. Help may finally be on its way. I, along with thousands of other inmates, look forward to the implementation of procedures, policies, and treatment in the CDCR health care system.

Coalition for Accountable Health Care Meets with Sillen

On October 30, 2006, the Coalition for Accountable Health Care met with Federal Receiver Robert Sillen. The coalition includes CCWP, Justice Now, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, The Transgender, Gender Variant & Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP), Women?s AfterCare Program & Services (WAYPASS), the Transgender in Prison Committee (TIP), All of Us or None and the Family Advocacy Network.
The Coalition presented the Receiver with its perspective that the best way to deal with the horrendous medical conditions in California prisons is to reduce the extreme overcrowding of the prison system. As long as 174,000 people are being squeezed into facilities meant for half that many, it is impossible to fundamentally improve medical care. The solution is not to build more prison beds even if they are hospital beds because this is just another form of prison expansion (not to mention the horrifying examples of prison hospitals that already exist). History shows that any time prisons are expanded California finds more prisoners to fill the additional space. The state of crisis in California?s prisons is made worse by this overcrowding and it is impossible to provide real health care in this prison system. Sillen?s plans focus on recruiting new medical personnel, replacing the MTA position with licensed vocational nurses and expanding prison health care facilities by building up to seven new prison hospitals. Although agreement was not reached on whether overcrowding was the fundamental issue, the discussion opened up many important areas of debate.
The Coalition presented many specific examples of the health care crisis in California?s women?s prisons, of most of which Sillen was not aware. When the coalition presented the lack of medical translation services and its impact on the health care of Latina and other immigrant women, Sillen agreed that this was a critical area which had received little attention up until now. He recognized that he needed more regular information about the conditions in women?s prisons, and the Coalition will be developing a means of getting this to him on an ongoing basis.
The meeting was an important step in developing an ongoing relationship with the Receiver. It also fosters a growing positive collaboration among groups who are organizing around health care for women and transgender and gender variant people in prison.