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.

Editorial – Caged Mental Health

People use different words when talking about mental health and mental illness, and many of the terms carry a lot of stigma. While we don’t want to be the “word police,” we are choosing to use the term “mental illness.” We think some of the other terms are too “medical?ized” (like psychiatric or psychological disabilities, illnesses or disorders), and others are just not respectful of people (like nuts, crazy or schizo). CCWP wants to be part of helping people define for themselves what is healthy in relation to the people and situations each of us lives in.
There is a growing mental health crisis in prisons and on the streets. Every person, inside and out, experiences a lot of mental stress because of the conditions of our society: racism, poverty, gender discrimination. All of these things create a dehumanizing system. In the last issue of The Fire Inside, we wrote about the increase in suicides in CCWF and how it is a reflection of a system that isn’t working. Many women talk about the suffering and violations of basic human rights due to overcrowding, lack of mental health services, inappropriate denials or changes of psychiatric medications, increase in lock-downs, and as Sarah Olson wrote, “the general pall produced by simply doing prison time.”
People also talk about what they are doing to survive, stay strong and be as mentally and emotionally healthy as possible, and to build support for each other and fight back against the worsening conditions (see Mental health in prisoners’ experience in this issue).
Documenting what is happening is very important. “A” writes, “The first week our meds were cut [Sept. 2007] there were over 600 602s filed.” You might have to file again and again, but people are winning, so don?t give up! And the fact of that many people filing 602s against the medication change sent a loud and strong message of resistance to the CDCR. “J” writes about the “Grief Share” program that Sister Maryanne helped set up, creating a safe and supportive place for people to share their fears and losses and know they are NOT alone.
Constant threats to prisoners’ mental health, as well as stories of strength and survival, push us to ask the big picture questions: What does mental health — and mental illness for that matter — mean in a prison system, a society and culture that is so abusive, so focused on a “me first” mentality that creates so much dis-ease? How can we begin to talk about mental health when the values in this country are so badly distorted that money for war and prisons is always put above resources for health care, education and jobs? How does one envision mental health inside a cage?
Mental health has a lot to do with our ability to recognize personal and societal strengths and shortcomings in ways that help each of us to live and work within the families and communities we are part of. CCWP supports people defining for themselves what their own health is. There is a lot of room for different definitions and behaviors, as long as those behaviors don’t include harming or abusing others or ourselves.
We want to stretch our minds about these questions at the same time as we build responses to the problems inside the prisons. There is a lot of money going to so-called mental health services inside. Where is it? What is it paying for? What should it be paying for? The CDCR must be held accountable, but what is the best way to do this? Some people say that people with mental illness should not be in general population, that it is harmful to their health and to the health of people around them. Others fight for prisoners with mental illness to have the same rights to programming that everyone else has.
Help us figure out how to focus our campaigns to support the self-determination of prisoners and to advocate for a range of choices in how we care for each other and ourselves. Some possibilities are:

  • Encourage more peer counseling and self-help opportunities.
  • Oppose using the SHU as a dumping ground and punishment for people with mental illness or people who are labeled as having a mental illness.
  • Support appropriate medications for people who want or need psychiatric medicines.
  • Stop over-medicating people who do not want or need psychiatric medicines.

Let us know what you think and keep documenting mental health abuses so that we can track what is going on and hold authorities accountable.

Editorial – Salud Mental Enjaulada

Las personas usan diferentes palabras cuando hablan sobre salud mental y enfermedades mentales, y muchos de esos términos están cargados de muchos estigmas, No queremos ser la “policía de las pobras,” estamos eligiendo usar los términos “salud mental”. Pensamos que los demás términos son demasiados “medicalizados” (tales como los términos psiquiátrico o desabilidad psicológica, o enfermedad o desordenes), y otros que son irrespetuosos para las personas (tales como locos, psicóticos, “nuts” etc) CCWP quiere ser parte del apoyo para las personas que quieran definir por ellas mismas que es lo saludable en las relaciones con las personas y situaciones donde cada uno de nosotros vivimos.
Hay una creciente crisis de la salud mental tanto dentro de las prisiones como en las calles. Cada persona, dentro de la cárcel y afuera experimenta muchísimo stress mental por las condiciones del sistema en que vivimos: racismo, pobreza, discriminación de género. Todas esas cosas crean un sistema deshumanizado. En el último numero de The Fire Inside, escribimos acerca del aumento de suicidios en CCWF y como es una reflexión de un sistema que no está funcionando. Muchas mujeres hablan sobre el sufrimiento y la violación de los derechos humanos básicos, la falta de servicios de salud mental, cambios inapropiados de la medicación psiquiátrica, aumento de los encierros, y como Sarah Olson escribió, “el cansancio general solo por estar sirviendo tiempo en la prisión”.
La gente solo habla de lo que está haciendo para sobrevivir, estar fuerte así como saludable mental y emocionalmente como sea posible, construir apoyo entre unos y otros y luchar contra las perores condiciones (ver Mental health in prisoners’ experience) Documentar lo que está pasando es muy importante. “A” escribe, “La primera semana nuestros derechos médicos fueron cortados [Sept. 2007] Hubieron formularios 600 602s llenados.” Tú debes de llenar una y otra vez, la gente gana, entonces no te rindas! Y el hecho de que mucha gente que llena los formularios 602s en contra de los cambios de medicación manda un mensaje fuerte de resistencia contra él. “J” escribe sobre el “compartir el dolor” un programa que la hermana Maryanne ayudo a que se lograra, creando un lugar de apoyo para la gente compartir sus miedos y perdidas y saber que ellos no están solos.
Constantes amenazas a la salud mental de los y las presas, asi como historias de fortaleza y sobrevivencia, nos empuja a hacer la gran pregunta: Que significan la salud mental y la enfermedad mental para el sistema de prisiones, en una cultura y sociedad que son abusivas que enfoca en una mentalidad de “yo primero” que crea tanta enfermedad? Como podemos empezar a conversas sobre salud mental cuando los valores en este país son tan distorsionados que el dinero para la guerra y las prisiones es siempre puesto encima de los recursos para cuidado de la salud, educación y empleos?
Como uno puedo visionar la salud mental metida en una jaula?
La salud mental tiene mucho que ver con nuestra habilidad para reconocer fortalezas personales y sociales, así como las vías que nos ayudan a cada uno de nosotros a vivir y trabajar con la familia y la comunidad de las cuales somos parte. CCWP apoya a las personas que definen por ellas mismas que es para ellas su salud. Hay muchísimo espacio para diferentes definiciones y conductas, mientras estas conductas no incluyan daños o abuso a nosotros mismos.
Queremos flexibilizar nuestras mentes sobre estos asuntos al mismo tiempo que vamos construyendo respuestas al problema dentro de la prisión. Hay un monto de dinero dirigiéndose al mal llamado al servicio de salud mental que hay dentro de las prisiones, Donde esta? Que es lo que se está pagando? Que es lo que se debe pagar con ese dinero? El CDCR debe de rendir cuentas, pero cuál es la mejor manera de hacerlo? Alguna gente dice que las personas con alguna enfermedad mental no deben ser incluidas en la población general, que es dañino para su salud y para la de los que lo rodean. Otros luchan para que los presos con enfermedades mentales tengan los mismos derechos que todos los demás tienen.
Hoy desde aquí hacemos un llamado para ayudarnos a darnos cuenta cómo enfocar nuestra campaña de apoyo a la autodeterminacion de los prisioneros/as y defensores a tener un agama de posibilidades de cómo cuidarse a sí mismos y entre sí. Algunas de estas posibilidades son:

  • Alentar más pares consejeros y oportunidades de auto-ayuda.
  • Oponernos al uso del SHU como un castigo para la gente que tiene alguna enfermedad de salud mental.
  • Apoyo con medicación apropiada para las personas que quieren o necesitan medicina psiquiatrica.
  • Parar de sobre medicar a las personas que no quieren o no necesitan medicinas psiquiatricas..

Dejanos saber que piensan al respecto y continua documentando los abusos de salud mental y nosotros haremos el respectivo seguimiento de que esta pasando y de pedir una rendición de cuentas a las autoridades.

CCWP hosts Without Walls radio show

On Friday July 25 CCWP will be hosting the Without Walls radio show, which airs on the last Friday of every month from 4-5 PM. This show we will be discussing Marsy’s Law and the Runner Initiative which will both be on California’s November 7 ballot (see Statewide Demonstrations Against the Runner Initiative and Marsy’s Law — threat to parole in this issue for more information). You can listen to the show on KFCF 88.1 FM in the Central Valley, KPFA 94.1 in the Bay Area, or listen online to the Hard Knock Radio archives for that day at

Family Visiting Day, 2008

March 15 marked CCWP’s forth annual Family Visiting Day event connecting with family members and loved ones of prisoners at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) and Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW) and providing transportation from Oakland and Los Angeles to see their loved ones inside.
As in past years, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles offered their building as the southern California meeting place and Friends Outside, a statewide organization which provides services and programs to loved ones of people caught in the criminal legal system, welcomed our volunteers at the CCWF visitor trailer during the visiting hours.
Thank you to all the loved ones who made the long trip with us, and to Eric de Bode at Chowchilla Family Express and the folks at CCWF Friends Outside for helping make this beautiful event happen.
Thanks also to Noah’s Bagels, Rainbow Grocery Cooperative, Trader Joe’s, and Veritable Vegetable for their generous food donations and to Hometown Buffet in Merced for working with our group.
Chowchilla Family Express
5411 Camellia Ave
North Hollywood, CA 91601
(866) 91-VISIT (918-4748)
Friends Outside National Organization
P.O. Box 4085
Stockton, CA 95204
(209) 955-0701

CURB sues to stop AB900

On Tuesday, May 6th Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB)* filed a lawsuit to stop the $15 billion dollars of prison debt. At a time of desperate financial crisis, AB900 authorizes the state of California to borrow $7.5 billion to build 53,000 new prison and jail beds and pay double digit interest rates on the lease revenue bonds which it is using to finance the prison building binge. Each bed will cost $220,000 for construction alone and more billions will be needed to cover the cost of operating these new prisons.
The lawsuit argues that the $7.4 billion in lease revenue bonds violates the requirement in the California Constitution that all significant long term debts be approved by the voters. The suit also charges that the use of lease revenue bonds is irrational and wasteful since they cost much more than other types of bonds.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit held a press conference on the steps of the Capitol building in Sacramento. They include Dorsey Nunn, a member of All of Us Or None; Laura Magnani, from CURB, Dawn Williams, a public school teacher; Camilla Chavez from the Dolores Huerta Foundation; and Vanessa Huang from Justice NOW. The plaintiffs and their attorney Thomas Nolan pointed out that California has opened 23 prisons in the past 23 years and the prisons are more crowded than ever. Building more prisons will not fix California’s prison crisis. Members of CURB, wearing Schwarzenegger face masks, distributed invoices to the public reading “You owe $12 billion for more prisons!”
The press conference and activities were a big success and the Sacramento Bee, Univision, KQED, KPFA and the Capitol Community paper all covered the issue. We only hope that the interest that was generated by the filing of the lawsuit will lead to greater public awareness and support for the goal of stopping AB900!
*CCWP is a member of CURB and has been participating in the planning of the lawsuit.