Prison walls may be between us
Prison walls may keep us apart
But each letter I receive, sweetheart
Brings you closer to my heart.
Love, there is no need to worry
There is no reason to fear
When I offered you my heart
I placed it in your care
It won’t be long now, sweetheart
Our time is near
I’ll show you I love you
And prove I’m sincere.
Right after 4:30 p.m. count on Halloween, there was the sound of a scuffle in D Hall. An alarm brought guards running from all parts of the yard. An ambulance pulled up to the back door of the hall in which we live. The attendant pulled open the back door, got back into the ambulance and backed the rear of the vehicle up to the door. Next thing we knew, a phalanx of guards came hot-footing down our hall toward the ambulance, three of them surrounding a tall, slim woman with her wrists cuffed behind her back, hair flying everywhere and a wild, terrified look in her eyes. She’d threatened to cut her wrists.
Later, we were locked down at 7:00 p.m. for the rest of the night. Even though several industrious inmates had worked hard to put on a Halloween party for the housing unit, with homemade decorations and cleverly-designed games and snacks, the guards squelched the fun and locked us down. They had to do “paperwork” on the cutter. Both are becoming more and more common, lock-downs and suicides. If it’s the weekend–lock-down. If it’s a holiday–lock-down. People are locked down and they become even more depressed, over and above the general pall produced by simply doing prison time. Bam! Another suicide attempt . . . or worse, a success!
It’s suicide city at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF). One prisoner said to me, “I’ve never seen so many people trying to kill themselves as I have in the last year. Sure, people die of natural causes . . . well, ‘natural’ prison causes like years of poor diet, no medical care, ever-present tension, but this suicide stuff!” As one of my roommates said, “It’s a madhouse.”
The warden was compelled by the rising rate of suicide attempts to issue a memorandum in August. In it, she assured the overcrowded, crammed-in-for-life masses that she is, “committed to insuring that you all have access to any level of mental health services you might need to address any mental health issues you may be experiencing.” Huh? More like, each attempt is a crazed reaction to emotional isolation in the midst of teeming predation. It is in prison that a human being comes to know that she really is, no matter what spiritual myths she may embrace to get her through each day, all alone in the universe.
* * *
This is an excerpt from a longer article published by the Fresno Alliance
Over the past 18 months, there have been six attempted suicides at CCWF, four of which were successful. In a recent memo to CCWF prisoners, Warden Patrick assures prisoners that there are mental health professionals available for anyone who needs help. The reality is that at least one of the young women who recently committed suicide approached staff with an urgent request to see a mental health professional but was turned away.
Many factors contribute to the increasing suicide rate:
* Drastic overcrowding which makes it almost impossible for anybody to find inner or outer peace.
* Longer sentences for young prisoners, depriving them of all hope
* Change in the HMO providing prisoners with services resulting in denial of necessary psychiatric medications
* Lack of access to timely, adequate, responsive mental health services
When prisoners want to take their own lives, when they have lost the will to live, it is not just a personal problem. It is a sign of dysfunction within the institution and the entire prison system.
Worsening conditions at CCWF and within California?s criminal legal system as a whole are the fundamental cause for the increase in suicides.
?Break the windows! Break the walls! ?Til all the prisons fall! ?Til all the prisons fall!? was one of many chants shouted at the demonstration in Chowchilla, CA at the site of the two women?s prisons currently caging 8,200 people. Over 250 people traveled from Oakland, Los Angeles, and Fresno, gathering at Chowchilla to show their support for people inside. We demanded that communities get what they really need to be safe and healthy?jobs, education, healthcare, and social services, not prisons and policing. The Coalition for Accountable Healthcare?a coalition of groups that work with prisoners, former prisoners, and the loved ones of prisoners?organized the demonstration in part to hold accountable leaders like Governor Schwartzenegger, Federal Receiver of California prison healthcare Robert Sillen, and Wendy Still, Associate Director of Women and Children Programs and Services at Adult Institutions, all responsible for their actions and inaction on inhumane conditions inside.
Holding signs stating ?Prisons Are Concentration Camps for the Poor? and ?Enough Is Enough?Parole Lifers Now!? we gathered at the entrance to Central California Women?s Facility(CCWF) and marched the mile to the entrance of Valley State Prison for Women(VSPW). We were led by Loco Bloco, a performing arts and drumming group for youth based in the Mission District of San Francisco. We wanted to drum hard enough and chant loudly enough for people in the prisons to hear us and know we were there.
As we marched along the orchards that surround the perimeter of CCWF, we passed a gap in the trees between the road and the CCWF prison yard. Through the gap we could see that folks were on the yard?and not only could they hear us, but they could see us! We stood there for several moments, shouting to the people on the yard, waving and sharing the connection between inside and outside for as long as we could. People on the other side of the fence were walking towards us, waving and smiling. We felt for that instant that we were breaking through the isolation that the prison system creates. For many folks outside, it was the most powerful and memorable part of the day.
The march ended at the entrance to Valley State Prison for Women. Members of Free Battered Women arranged a vigil for people who died inside over the previous year. We heard the testimonies of people?s experiences with the prison system and the targeting of communities of color, poor communities, women, youth, and queer people by law enforcement and the criminal legal system. Speakers included CCWP?s shawnna d. as the M.C., Debbie Reyes of California Prison Moratorium Project, Hamdiya Cooks of All of Us or None and CCWP, Dee Mariano from Justice Now and the Family Advocacy Network, Kelani Key and Lala Yantes from Transforming Justice, Crystal from the Los Angeles based Youth Justice Coalition, and Marlene Sanchez from the Center for Young Women?s Development. After the organized speak-out, we went into an open mic, kicked off by Fresno poets and radio hosts Lady Bombay and Lady J.
Between speakers we held a mock awards ceremony, giving awards to those in power for things we wish they?d actually do. Governor Schwartzenegger was presented with an award for repealing AB 900, the bill that puts an additional $15 billion into the prison system. Federal Receiver Robert Sillen was recognized for stopping the construction of 10,000 more prison hospital beds and standing against any plans to build geriatric prisons. Wendy Still, Associate Director of Women and Children Programs and Services at Adult Institutions, was celebrated for releasing people from women?s prisons back into their communities and families. And the wardens of the two Chowchilla prisons, Tina Hornbeak(VSPW) and Deborah Patrick(CCWF), were awarded for banning the use of ?orange crush,? a particularly horrific pepper spray that remains on human skin for days and is re-activated when attempts are made to wash it off.
To make sure the ?honorees? knew they were receiving the mock awards, we passed around hundreds of thank-you cards for members of the community to sign and mail to their offices. Even though things may not change anytime soon, it was important for us to let California?s prison leaders know we are paying attention. We are holding them accountable for real health and safety in prisons and in our communities.
There was a lot of participation from people inside to mark the day. One prisoner told us that in her unit out of over 200 people only 8 people went to dinner the night of the demonstration, shocking the correctional officers. Other people wore a certain color or made bracelets to show solidarity, in spite of the risk of retaliation or punishment from the prison administration.
Overall, the day was a big success?bringing people together from different parts of California, with different experiences with prisons and policing, from different parts of the anti-prison and prisoner rights movements to get grounded in collectively challenging human rights abuses of prisoners, fight for letting people out instead of building more prisons, and demanding that resources be put into our communities instead of locking up more and more of our loved ones and comrades. We felt bonded and united, empowered and hopeful?feelings we hope will carry into years of struggle to come.
On October 13 and 14, a team of formerly imprisoned transgender people and anti-prison advocates held a conference at City College of San Francisco called Transforming Justice: Ending the Criminalization and Imprisonment of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People. The conference had special significance, since it was the first planned by those most impacted by transgender oppression, prisons, policing and surveillance. It also served as an opportunity to bring together members of the anti-prison movement and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender(LGBT) movement, connecting two significant communities. Throughout the weekend, the connections between LGBT organizing and anti-prison organizing were made clear: LGBT organizing and anti-prison and prisoner advocacy organizing both need to be informed by and conscious of the targeting of queer, especially trans and gender non-conforming, people by the state.
The conference began with digital storytelling, screening a film in which formerly imprisoned transgender people recounted their experiences and shared how their lives had been impacted by transphobia and discrimination. Later sessions included discussions on understanding the cycles of imprisonment and the criminalization of transgender and gender-nonconforming communities. Another session allowed participants to share successes, challenges, and strategies related to their work and organizing.
At the end of the second day, which was spent in smaller groups organized by topic and region, we gathered to discuss what we had learned and what we all wanted to do together to move forward. From this discussion, four main decisions emerged:
1) Create a national coalition to support local organizing work led by former prisoners and trans people.
2) Work to support transgender and gender-nonconforming people coming out of prisons and jails to break the cycle of criminalization and poverty.
3) Create a platform of action specifically for trans people who are immigrants and in the criminal justice system.
4) Focus on creating and establishing responses to violence and harm that don?t create further violence and harm (i.e., create alternatives to locking people up)
The Transforming Justice conference was truly unique. It felt very special to be a part of an event that was planned by and for formerly imprisoned trans people who have been silenced and shut down at every turn. CCWP was well represented at Transforming Justice and is committed to supporting the plan of action which emerged from the conference. We will keep everyone up to date on what develops from this amazing event.