This issue of The Fire Inside is dedicated to all the women and transgender people inside who have been punished, abused or disrespected for trying to deal with your own or someone else?s mental health problems, and who have not gotten the support and care you have wanted and needed.
Know that you have a community of people who are caring, respecting and sending love out to you. You are not alone!

“Caged” Mental Health

by Sandi Nieves, Central California Women?s Facility, Death Row
Caged mental health is cruel and unusual punishment, and it is insane. You may be asking, “What do you mean by ‘caged’ mental health?” Well, I am one of 15 women in California who live in a cage about half the size of an average dog run. Yes, I feel as a hamster would in his cage.
As one of California’s 15 women condemned to die, I live in a cage inside of a building. I am not joking! Imagine being locked in your home and if you go somewhere, someone holds your arms, cuffs you, and tells you when to walk, stop or turn. The bricks are brown, drab and unpainted. We see no color except for the officers’ green uniforms. You may say, “At least you are still alive.” No, I feel that I am “existing” and literally losing my mind!
Much of a woman’s incarceration is about degrading her through denial of colorful clothes, make-up, hair dye, nail polish, etc. These are all things that define a woman. Then I’m also constantly reminded of my “diminishing mental health.” People are saying to me, “Don’t you remember?” or “You forgot already?” It used to feel like absentmindedness every once in a while. But now on a daily basis, someone is reminding me of something I have already said or done and I have no recollection of it whatsoever! I am only 44 years old.
I speak to a so-called mental health worker every 90 to 120 days for about one or two minutes. Most of the time the pysch is writing in the previous inmate’s medical chart, not mine. They only care about meeting their quotas, not about me.
I now know that depression is a disease that necessitates medication. I repeatedly asked for assistance last year and nobody listened until I told them I had already tried to take my life. The sergeant at the time even noted my bizarre behavior but refused to place me under evaluation or suicide watch. She just didn’t care. It was 2 weeks after my failed suicide attempt that I got to talk to anyone, then another week to see the psychiatrist to put me on an anti-depressant that might help.
I felt like such a burden on my friends and family and just figured everyone would be better off without me. I can’t ever be off my medication now. I need to help others understand that they are not alone. And if we do something stupid, we only hurt the ones we love the most.
I feel that there should never be a system to “cage” human beings! Being housed in a cage, being isolated, oppressed and repressed has added to my “insanity” not health. We shouldn’t have to exist like this. Yes, I am condemned to die, but I’m still a human being inside these walls, just as all the other inmates are, and we should not be treated like a sardine or a hamster. We all deserve mental health, not insanity. Do the right thing, treat me as a human being!

Legal Corner – Coleman v. Wilson on mental health

by Cassie Pierson, Staff Attorney, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children
In 1995, the U.S. District Court, Eastern District, in Coleman v. Wilson, held that the entire mental health system of the California Department of Corrections (CDC) was unconstitutional and that prison officials acted with deliberate indifference to the needs of mentally ill prisoners. All 33 prisons were placed under monitoring by a court-appointed special master (Coleman v. Wilson, 912 F.Supp. 1282 (E.D.Cal. 1995).
Judge Moulds found the following:
(1) no adequate mechanism for screening prisoners either at reception or during their incarceration since at least 1987;
(2) serious and chronic understaffing;
(3) no system that insured the competence of the mental health staff, which meant prisoners could not access competent care;
(4) significant delays and complete denials of medical attention along with inappropriate use of involuntary medication;
(5) punitive measures used inappropriately which further impacted the mental health of prisoners;
(6) an ?extreme? deficiency in the medical records system;
(7) failure to implement a suicide prevention program; and,
(8) substantial evidence of prison officials deliberate indifference to the deficiencies in their system.
One of the punitive measures the court was referring to was the placement of mentally ill prisoners in administrative segregation (ad seg) and security housing units (SHU). The court noted that this caused even less access to mental health services. Another was the use of tasers and 37mm guns on mentally ill prisoners despite the fact that those prisoners? behavior may have been the result of a psychiatric condition.
The court found that the policies in place at that time regarding housing mentally ill prisoners in ad seg and the SHU violated the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution that protects prisoners from cruel and unusual punishment.
Regarding the use of tasers and 37mm guns on mentally ill prisoners, the court again found a violation of the Eighth Amendment due to the fact that that there was “nothing of record suggesting a penological justification for distinction between inflicting physical as contrasted with mental injury.” (Coleman, at 1323). The court concluded that defendants had used the weapons on prisoners with mental disorders without regard to what effect that might have on the person?s psychiatric condition.
In conclusion, the court adopted Judge Moulds’ recommendations and recognized that attending to the serious constitutional deficiencies was an urgent matter. Certain protocols were to be in place within 30, 60, or 90 days and the court upheld those time limits. One such protocol was that a standardized screening process would be developed within 30 days despite defendants? objections that 30 days was not enough time. The court noted that defendant Gomez had testified more than one year previously (in 1994) that a standardized screening practice was necessary and the court expected that during that time defendants had been working on the problem. The court also noted that the special master?s responsibility was two-fold: “to provide expert advice to the defendants to aid in ensuring that their decisions regarding the provision of mental health care to class members conform to the requirements of the federal constitution, and to advise the court concerning issues relevant to assessing defendants’ compliance with their Constitutional obligations.” (Coleman, at 1324).
There was also another lawsuit in 1995 that raised the issue of mental health care in California prisons. That case, Madrid v. Gomez (889 F.Supp. 1146, (N.D. Cal. 1995)), was brought on behalf of prisoners incarcerated at Pelican Bay. Among other issues, the court addressed the issue of confining prisoners with mental health problems to the SHU or ad seg and concluded that the isolation the men suffered exacerbated their mental health problems. Unlike the Coleman case, the findings and recommendations in Madrid applied only to Pelican Bay and none of the other prisons in the state.
However, despite the courts’ findings and recommendations in both Coleman and Madrid, prisoners with mental illness in California prisons continue to suffer from a lack of services and qualified prison staff to address their mental illness. Deaths through suicide continue to occur and one can only assume that the CDCR just doesn?t care about the people it incarcerates.

Without hope I can’t cope

by Chi Chi Locci , CCWF
I can’t cope without hope!!!!
I am an African American woman, age 52, with a 15-year-to-life sentence.
As I continue to prioritize my value system, following the guidelines set, I find around me the world, this world, my world, continues to change not always for the best.
With natural disasters facing us on the inside, I wake up to a new reality.
The suicide rate is increasing.
I wake up in a maze through which most of us are searching for the answer to the whys????
Some of us are giving up, dying at the age of 18. I can remember society congratulating the masses for graduating, first job, and first college class.
Now it’s the new lifer. Abnormal, in a world that no longer cares to get to the core.
To why a corner of California houses women whose crimes stem from using dope, to selling dope, to women who kill their mates, mothers and grandmothers who kill their children and grandchildren. Or are accused of such! Gang affiliations or associations.
We try to continue to believe in a justice system that offers self help so we can find the root of the oppression, depression or aggression. Vehicles to create a balance, so that our inside can meet our outside, physically, spiritually, and most of all emotionally.
Then there are those of us who give up because there is no hope so they can?t cope.
When did we as a society start throwing our children away? When did we start caging our children and mothers without a care? When do we allow human beings to become commodities? When did we allow action and reaction to come before the “solution”, AVP, conflict resolution, parenting, calm class, and breaking barriers?
These things should be mandatory for young ladies entering the “cage” knowing nothing but dysfunction.
How do we teach them foundation?????

Lack of Mental Health Care at VSPW Puts Everyone at Risk

by Rahima Walker
I was incarcerated at VSPW. The day before Christmas we received a new roommate. She arrived with a pungent stench. One of my roommates remembered her from a previous yard and told us, “She had mental health issues.” I immediately alerted my housing staff and was told to “give it a try.”
One day when one of my roommates went to use the restroom, there was body waste on the toilet. We knew who had just used the restroom, so we asked our new roommate to clean up her mess. She denied that it was hers. When another roommate went to shower (showers are in the room) she found clots of blood and tissue on the shower floor. Once again we asked the new roommate to clean up her mess, but she replied that God was punishing her by pouring blood on her, and that she was a man, not a woman. I went to our housing staff again. The Sergeant made a psych referral, but refused to move her pending a report from the psych staff. When she went to the psych appointment she told pysch that “it was a one time thing.”
We continued to clean up blood and feces monthly, constantly complained about it, and then wrote a 602. The Lieutenant spoke to one of my roommates and told her she was in prison and was not able to pick her roommates, but promised we would get PPE (personal protective equipment). We never received the promised PPE and the housing staff made sarcastic comments about the situation. It did not even matter that she was on psychotropic drugs that were making her more unstable.
Not only did we constantly clean up her bodily wastes, she also talked to herself all night long while standing over the bed of another. Staff was well aware of it, but never did another psych referral. When our 602 was denied we took it to another level, and then finally took it to the Warden. The Warden finally resolved the situation. The mental health care is awful in CDCR. There is one RN on each yard and one RNP for 2,000 women. This must be addressed.