Mental health in prisoners’ experience

A lot of people with mental health issues are housed in general population. They don’t get the help they need. They have behaviors they can’t help, and they are mistreated, have their things taken, get into fights, etc.
One prisoner threw a hot cool-aid on someone. She could not help it. But we, on the yard, are not trained how to deal with it. The guards have no compassion and don’t handle such problems.
In a small room housing 8 women, if one has mental health issues problems arise often. Guards don’t respond to reports of problem behavior. Despite the memos urging us to report problem behaviors after the rash of recent suicides, it takes something happening to guards directly before they take any action, like moving the prisoner out of a room that is causing her problems.
There is an Enhanced Out-Patient unit (EOP) where mentally disturbed prisoners are supposed to be housed, but it is always too full.
I know of at least one woman who talked to herself. Perhaps she thought she was talking to God? One time I saw her sitting on a bench next to spilled coffee, dipping a piece of bread in it and eating it. I tried to tell her not to eat this, but she just looked around, not taking a notice of me, said something into the air and continued dipping and eating her bread.
She walked around the yard for about 2 months like that, getting no help. Since as part of her condition she did not wash herself or her hair, you can see how it would be hard to live in the same room with her, why people might turn mean.
When she received a notification that a settlement of something that happened before she came caused some money to be put in her account, others got her to sign orders, go and pick up the ordered items, which they would then take from her. It went on like that until all her money was gone. She was just a victim, she could not defend herself.

They expect the general population to take care of mental health patients. I earned the name “Mama Sherrie” in prison because they are always putting mental patients in my room to take care of them. I have one now. She is a cutter. She rocks back and forth all day long. In other rooms people would beat her up or misuse her. It is hard to deal with her on top of everything else going on in here, but I do treat her with respect, like a human being. When she felt like cutting herself, she would do it outside the room out of respect for me. She has not cut herself in about a month now.
But it is not fair that there is no other help for her. There should be screening on A-yard (where the incoming prisoners are housed during their assessment.) The fear of coming over the wall can drive anyone crazy. We don?t know what?s going on, word-of-mouth is how we hear anything. With all the recent suicides, people are scared. Some are asking to be housed in the gym because people in regular yards are driven to suicide, get beaten up, raped… There is no mental health here.

Women with mental health issues should be in a more supervised environment, where they could get some help. But they brought women from EOP into the general population.
General population has no experience in dealing with them and no patience. It is an injustice to both. The mentally ill get abused by the system, and then abused by the inmates.
You see it all the time: people who are not sane walking among those who don?t care. The prison’s only answer is to medicate people, to give them pills to keep them from coping with being in here.
People who were on drugs are still on drugs in here–legal or illegal. That is not a solution. The medical system has failed the society when its remedy only perpetuates the problem. People come here for abusing drugs, they are already mentally challenged. They come out of here no better and frequently much worse.
I’ve seen ladies here lose their minds under the deplorable conditions. It’s like war–the experience can make you snap. It’s scary when no one cares.
When people get sick in here, they are scared to go to the doctor, not only does it cost the $5 co-pay (which many cannot afford) but you don’t get neither the care you need nor the medicine you might need if you do get a diagnosis.

Medical is slow for everybody, but especially ineffective for people with mental health problems. There should be more help, more consistent care. The guards need to have more patience with them. Even the doctors don?t treat them right.
This is prison, but it does not mean people should be treated like animals. The staff is very disrespectful. It would help if people who work here would just do their job and not act like we are poison. We are not.

EOP, where mentally ill patients are housed, is not a program. They are just regular cells. The guards make lifers responsible for the prisoners with mental problems. The guards don’t care what happens. When they come through inspecting every room, checking that everything is clean and in order, they don’t even bother looking in the rooms where EOP women are housed. They don’t expect them to meet any standards.
People with mental health problems here are over-medicated. They seem more depressed on drugs than without them. The medications frequently have severe side-effects: I have seen people repeatedly throwing up, for example. Others have gained a lot of weight.
Some of the women are violent, they beat older/weaker prisoners at the slightest provocation, sometimes for no reason at all. The officers don?t try to help at all, even though they know some of those long-termers.
The long-termers are doing everything they can to help themselves be eligible to get parole. They can’t afford 115’s for fighting. So they take a lot of abuse. The guards torment everyone, and some of the women torment other women. How is that supposed to help anyone?

VSPW has an increasing number of mental health patients mixed in with the general population. Some are playing the game and utilize psychotropic meds to get high and not deal with their issues. For instant, on D Yard the SAP program ?approximately one half of the combination of both programs use meds to substitute for street addiction. Also as a scapegoat for if they have potential 115’s. The common reply is “so what if I hit her I?m CCCMS.”
This makes treatment hard to come by for the overworked mental health staff and truly mental health patients, who frequently fall through the cracks. These patients get taunted by women and staff alike. Staff is quick to medicate, not encourage walking through the valley of life?s mental issues. It’s sad to see women who have lost hope in suicide watch being treated like an animal. A great deal of the time they just want someone to listen.
For us battered survivors, who aren’t CCCMS, yet have BWS and PTSD we have no outlet, but one another to deal with our problems due to law requiring per the Coleman. Yet put to the wayside due to those who have manipulated the mental health system.
Bottom line VSPW shouldn’t be a dumping ground for the truly mentally ill. They should have special facilities for them not being warehoused in an overcrowded system which doesn’t care. Medicating everyone into submission isn’t a solution to problems. It’s deferring the problem, when you get off meds the problems will remain intact until they are dealt with. That can be a lifetime of unresolved issues if you choose not to heal and cope from the problems of the past. The past can only be as powerful as you let it.
You can choose anytime to not let issues be a crutch no matter how painful they are. Working through life’s valleys and peaks can only empower you to play a role in a brighter future.

There are people in here who talk to themselves, laugh by themselves. Others laugh at them. Nobody helps them.
Some are like that from drug abuse. The psych department just gives them pills. It’s not clear whether they get better or worse from them.
There are more attempted suicides and more people who do kill themselves. Each individual has an assigned councilor, but we never get to talk with them about our personal problems. They meet with you only to get your classification or when they need a statement about you for the court.

The union we yearn for

by Deirdre Wilson
a private prison
the nature of
every human soul.
A struggle to be
without limitation
of the senses,
without sense
Of separation
To know…
Ocean’s tide courses through my pulsing veins
Moon glows in my bone’s marrow
Sun shines from my heart
Earth roots my entire being
To feel…
Ethereal hues of the rainbow
The dance of shining stars
Bright yellow daffodils
Majesty of pines stretching for the sky.
To walk…
With the ancient ones
My grandmothers on either side
Brother Malcolm
-my anchor, my guide
-my proof of unalloyed good.
Crazy Horse, you are my dreams.
St. Claire and Teresa
Young souls, brave and true
Hearts like raging coals
for union
We yearn for
All is one
And yet
Bars are everywhere
Swirling psyches
Wrapped in flesh
A solitary walk
Under the firmament
Of heaven
Piercing the veil
In glimpses

Statewide Demonstrations Against the Runner Initiative

On Wednesday May 7, protesters rallied in Los Angeles and Sacramento against the Runner Initiative. Called the “Safe Neighborhoods Initiative” by its sponsor, State Senator George Runner, Republican from Lancaster, the Initiative is a far-reaching measure that stiffens criminal penalties and introduces laws that instead of increasing public safety, would substantially increase California’s prison population.
The initiative would allow the prosecution of youth as adults, increase penalties for drug related offenses, increase penalties for offenses alleged to be “gang related,” create mandatory criminal background checks for housing subsidy recipients, and prohibit bail for undocumented immigrants charged with “gang related” felonies.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the Berkeley City Council have both passed resolutions against the proposed Runner Initiative. United States Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, and Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates all have taken positions against the Runner Initiative, joining the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, California NAACP, the California Church IMPACT, and the California Federation of Teachers among many others.

CCWP’s volunteer appreciation

Robin Moore
Cassie Pierson
On May 9, CCWP held a Volunteer Appreciation event to honor three core volunteers, Cassie Pierson, Robin Moore, and Cebastien Rose, who will be moving to other parts of the country this summer. They will be sorely missed and we are forever grateful for their years of dedication to the struggle.

FAMM’s Commutations Project

Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) has initiated a Commutations Project, bringing attention to cases where the punishment–the lenght of the sentence–is all out of proportion with the crime. If you believe yours is such a case, you can file a commutation petition. FAMM has put together a guideline for filing such a petition.
You do not necessarily need an attorney to file a commutation petition. You can write your own petition and have family members and friends help you raise support for your early release.
However, commutations are extraordinary and rarely granted. There is no guarantee that you will receive clemency, even if you follow these suggestions and raise support for your case.
If you would like to see FAMM?s guidelines, please contact
1612 K St., NW, Suite 700
Washington, DC 20006
(202) 822-6700
Fax: (202) 822-6704

“Grief Share” program at CCWF

Within the last year or two we witnessed many more suicides, or attempted suicides. As a response, Sister Maryanne helped put together a “Grief share” program. It gives an outlet to help us cope with loss. We experience many losses: loss of freedom, of self-esteem, loss of life experience one would/should have had, loss of jobs, loss of ability to sustain yourself, not to mention loss of loved ones either through death or separation.
If you keep your feelings inside they become enormous, making you feel hopeless and helpless. Just being able to speak makes it more manageable, you know you are not alone.
It is amazing that here we are able to provide a safe space to be able to share, even though rumors spread fast here. Confidentiality is very important in our group. We honor and respect it. We support all others organizing their support groups, too, like a young lifer organizing a support group for young women in here.

Parole Beat

Precious Releases?
Elnora Francis, 69 years old, was approved for release by Governor Schwarzenegger on February 15, 2008 released from prison after serving nearly 24 years of a 15-years-to-life for sentence for the death of her abusive husband in 1984. This was the 4th time the parole board had found her suitable for release. Ms. Francis? release was the result of a collective effort of hundreds of concerned community members who supported her freedom over the course of many, many years.
Sheila Northrup has been approved for release by the Governor after serving over 28 years in prison.
Outrageous Denials?
Debbie Sims Africa, Janet Hollaway Africa and Janine Phillips Africa of the MOVE 9 were all rejected for parole on April 22, 2008. They have served 30 years of a 30-100 year sentence, in a highly charged political case. According to the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, they were denied because they minimized the nature and circumstances of their offense, they refused to accept responsibility and they lacked remorse. The MOVE organization condemned the Board for demanding admissions of guilt as a condition for parole when the MOVE 9 have maintained their innocence from the time they were arrested in 1978. Four men from the MOVE 9 are still pending a decision on their parole.
Joy Cordes was once again rejected for parole in March 2008.
Sara Olson was released from prison on March 17, 2008 based on the CDCR?s calculation that she had completed her sentence. Four days later, she was rearrested and returned to CCWF. In a highly unusual, politically driven move, the Los Angeles Police Department delved into Sara Olson?s case file and decided that she had been released a year too early. According to her attorney, Sara?s re-arrest did not follow any form of legal due process since she was returned to prison without even a hearing to determine the correct calculation of her sentence. The entire dysfunctional process trampled on Sara?s legal rights and was extremely traumatic for Sara and her family.
Ironically, records obtained by The L.A. Times in February 2008 showed that miscalculations of prisoner sentences were very common throughout the California prison system. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the miscalculations resulted in the prisoners remaining in prison longer than they should have.
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.

Marsy?s Law — threat to parole

Marsy’s Law, also known as the “Crime Victims Bill of Rights” was recently submitted as a ballot initiative with 1.2 million signatures. Supported by victims’ rights organizations and funded by GOP millionaire Henry Nicholas to the tune of $4.8 million, Marsy’s law greatly expands rights accorded to victims and particularly targets term-to-life prisoners. It allows anyone who ever knew a particular crime victim to attend and speak out at the parole hearing of the offender convicted of the crime, including representatives of victims’ rights organizations.
The most dangerous provision is that it changes the standard parole denial period for life term prisoners to 15 years! It requires that the Board set forth clear and convincing evidence as to why a prisoner should have another parole hearing sooner than 15 years in order for a shorter period to be set! This drastic provision would be retroactive for current life-term prisoners and essentially eliminates the possibility of parole for life term prisoners. It is crucial that prisoner advocates, family members and prisoners themselves join together to organize against this terrible initiative!

STOPMAX Campaign conference

Pam Fadem
From May 30 to June 1, 2008 the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) sponsored a conference in Philadelphia, PA to launch a new national campaign to shut down maximum-security prison units.
The mission of the STOPMAX campaign is to build a national movement to end the use of solitary confinement and other forms of torture in US prisons. The conference was an opportunity for about 400 former prisoners, families of prisoners, activists and concerned people to share their experiences and begin to plan future work to accomplish these goals. Over the 3 days, people participated in over 40 workshops addressing issues such as the History of Supermax Litigation, Strategies from the Chicano Mexicano Prison Project, and Family & Friends Emergency Response Network.
CCWP sponsored one of the only workshops on conditions for women in prison, showing the video, Charisse Shumate:Fighting for Our Lives. After the video, we had a discussion with 25 people about the specific conditions for women locked down in segregation, SHU and on death row in California. We talked about “caged mental health” as Sandi Nieves calls it (see her article “Caged” Mental Health), the impact on the mental health of all people locked down under inhumane conditions. Our workshop said out loud that prisons and the SHUs are about humiliation for everyone, but for women and transgender people it is especially about sexual abuse and degradation, using our genders against us.
Perhaps the most moving part of the conference was hearing the testimonies of Survivors of Isolation. This panel included people who endured and built resistance to solitary confinement and torture, such as sister Munirah El-Bomani, founder of My Sisters Keepers in Newark, NJ, and former political prisoner Ray Luc Levasseur who spent almost 20 years in federal prisons, many of them in control units.
Robert King Wilkerson of the Angola 3 was in prison for 31 years, 29 of them in solitary. At a rally in front of the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia King said, “Prisons are not moral. ‘StopMax’ should not be our final goal. We need to raise the bar and think about doing the moral thing. We need to abolish all prisons. We need to tear them down. Because prisons are an extension of slavery.”
Laura Whitehorn, a former political prisoner who was locked up for 14 and 1/2 years, some of them in the Marianna, FL control unit said, “When I go to visit men in prisons, all of the visiting rooms are full. When I was in prison, the visiting rooms were not full. Women stand by their men inside. Men need to stand by their women, and support all women in prison. Guess I am lucky I was a lesbian. I had my girlfriend and a lot of women supporting me.”
AFSC’s Oakland office has just issued a new report, Buried Alive: Long-term Isolation in California’s Youth and Adult Prisons. Contact the AFSC for a free copy:
write: 1730 Franklin St., Ste. 212, Oakland, CA 94612
call: 510-238-8080

It’s Your Health – Medications schedule change

The new policies implemented in September 2007 are euphemistically called “medications schedule change.” They really are a whole-sale denial of meds. It happened right in the middle of a rash of suicides and suicide attempts. They clearly did not care about the impact it would create. The first week our meds were cut there were over 600 602s filed. I was not able to participate then, because when they cut my meds I felt awful. I could not think.
I have submitted a 602 since, though. I won twice previously to be on the meds I was on. This time, they claimed the 602 was submitted on the wrong form, and then they claimed it was submitted on the wrong grounds, that my chronic depression is not covered under ADA, when many previous claims under ADA were accepted.
In the 2 months since they cut our meds I have been on 5 different anti-depressants, which are supposed to replace the one that worked for me for 3 and 1/2 years. All had horrific side effects. I had to be have emergency care just last week, because of the side effects of the latest one they tried.
The wholesale change of medications, which means also a lack of proper treatment for those who used to have it, is having a huge impact on our already overcrowded conditions. There are more nervous breakdowns, more fights between prisoners, more suicide attempts. There is also a more active black market to buy and sell the medications. People are desperate to get something that might work for them.
Robert Sillen’s intention for the expansion of mental health care is being skewed and abused by CDC, at least in this facility. Instead of expanding mental health, they are cutting it back. Those practices that were judged ineffective by Sillen’s research are being eliminated, but no effective ones are being implemented. It seems that the money that is supposed to be spent on mental health is being funneled elsewhere.
Meanwhile we have even more women who clearly do not belong here. They should be hospitalized, should be given help. They cannot be accommodated here. They need medical help, not to be incarcerated. Their presence here does not do them any good and is disruptive to all others here.
Something needs to be done. We need more mental health professionals to treat the women here, we need up-to-date meds available, and we need better screening of who should be here in the first place.