Wanted – Justice in the Desert

The Struggle Continues for Humane Treatment inside the Skilled Nursing Facility at Chowchilla
“I have witnessed several things that are so inhuman that I just couldn’t continue to stand by and not speak out.”
— Central California Women’s Facility prisoner
The Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) claims to play an integral role in the California Department of Corrections (CDC) by providing “specialized mental health and appropriate medical services commensurate with community standards.” Unfortunately, the actual experiences of some prisoners within CCWF differ greatly from the prison mandate. Tucked away in the California desert, the Chowchilla facility houses the state’s only Skilled Nursing Facility (SNF), where many women incarcerated there are terminally ill and sometimes critically mistreated.
Prisoners, prisoners’ rights activists, health care workers, the legal community, and scholars have long lamented the conditions in CCWF’s Skilled Nursing Facility. Over the years, many changes have been recommended to improve the quality of care. Last April nearly 100 protestors brought the fight to the prison gates. Among those in attendance were LSPC, Critical Resistance, California Coalition for Women Prisoners, California Prison Focus, Prison Moratorium Project, Amnesty International, and Justice Now.
However, despite national attention from the media and tireless work by prisoners and their advocates, the conditions within the SNF have not markedly changed. Accordingly, LSPC has been working with our incarcerated clients and other Bay Area prison groups to compel the state’s Department of Health Services (DHS) to investigate the SNF. The concerns raised include:

  • Physical and sexual assault by SNF staff
  • Delays in administering vital medications
  • Emergency call buttons are consistently ignored
  • Frequent lock-downs of up to twenty hours a day
  • Sheets are not regularly changed-one patient’s sheets were not changed for six weeks
  • Diaper changing does not happen on a regular schedule
  • Certified Nursing Assistants do not regularly brush patients’ teeth
  • Food is taken away before patients have finished eating
  • Retalition directed at patients who speak out

It is of paramount importance that independent investigations are launched because the 602 appeals process?originally enacted to afford prisoners the opportunity to air their grievances?is acutely flawed. Prisoners have reported their 602s missing, tampered with, or ignored. Perhaps most egregious, an appeal may take up to a year to reach its final destination of the CDC Director’s office in Sacramento. For patients in the SNF?some of whom are terminally ill?time is of the essence. Sadly, some may never see the culmination of their courageous efforts.
Furthermore, patients in the SNF who lodge individual complaints often face serious retaliation. Recently, a diabetic who lives in the SNF where she is supposed to receive regular monitoring of her blood sugar levels spoke to a DHS representative about the facility’s quality of care. The following day she was placed in the general population and, shortly thereafter, suffered a hypoglycenic attack because her blood sugar levels were not properly managed. She has also reported to LSPC that on one occasion she approached the infirmary doctor to receive her insulin shot, only to be told that she needed a pap smear. After reminding the physician that she had been given one the previous month, he responded, “no pap smear, no insulin.” In March, Justice Now lodged a complaint on behalf of a SNF patient who was physically assaulted by a male nurse while having a seizure. After informing the nurse that she would report him, she was remanded to Administrative Segregation.
Patients in the SNF who have been the victims of retaliation often feel bullied into silence. But some prisoners, like Dee Garcia who suffers from multiple illnesses, have been courageously outspoken. After filing several complaints concerning her treatment in the SNF, prison officials transferred Ms. Garcia to Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW) located across the street from CCWF. This prison does not house a SNF and, therefore, is ill-equipped to render long-term patient care. En route, Ms. Garcia’s oxygen supply ran out, prompting her to experience severe chest pain. Once inside VSPW, prison staff prevented her from meeting with attorneys from Justice Now who, upon arriving there, were informed that Ms. Garcia had refused their visit. On another visit, LSPC staff discovered that Garcia had no personal property; missing were her eye glasses, writing materials, and legal paper work. Only after a letter writing campaign mounted on her behalf was she transferred back to CCWF. (NOTE: At the time of this writing, Ms. Garcia has once again been moved back to VSPW.)
In a letter to LSPC, Ms. Garcia writes: “If we were [on the outside] we’d be protected by the law. But we’re in here where no law exists to keep us alive.”
Early this year LSPC received a letter from a prisoner at CCWF indicating the extent of the inhumane treatment within the SNF. She wrote: “As a human being I could not stand by and watch my fellow inmates suffer and be placed in situations that deny them medical attention to the point of death.” According to the porter, a terminally ill patient was denied a breathing machine. Some have been misdiagnosed. Others have been denied medication: an outside specialist prescribed a specific medication, only to have the order changed by the internal prison staff.
Unfortunately, abuses within the SNF are not new. Complaints about the quality of care date back to CCWF’s inception in 1990, culminating in the 1995 class action lawsuit Shumate v. Wilson (see tribute to Charisse Shumate). Shumate charged that the medical staff at CCWF and the California Institute for Women in Frontera (CIW) displayed a “deliberate indifference” to the health concerns of prisoners tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment. The suit was settled in 1997 and the state was exculpated from any wrongdoing in exchange for agreeing to upgrade the prison health care system.
The post Shumate progress, however, was barely discernible. In 1998, CCWF and CIW were cited for various violations, and ultimately failed an inquiry by state-appointed evaluators. Despite opposition from plaintiff’s counsel, the case was dismissed in August 2000. Later that year, after a rash of nine deaths occurred in just eight weeks, CCWF received national attention from, among others, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and Mother Jones magazine. One death involved a thirty-three year old woman with chronic asthma. Doctors at the University of California-Davis said this death could have been prevented if the woman’s inhaler had been accessible to her or if CPR been administered more quickly.
However, there has been some progress made in wrongful death suits. Represented by Justice Now, the family of CCWF prisoner Rosemary Willeby received a $225,000 settlement this year. Willeby, who died on October 22, 1999 suffered from Hepatitis C and liver disease. Although she presented no symptoms, Willeby was placed in a tuberculosis program by the CCWF staff and was prescribed anti-TB medications that have proved toxic to some patients afflicted by various liver diseases. Cynthia Chandler and Cassandra Shaylor, co-directors of Justice Now, have said that the CCWF staff ignored Willeby’s repeated requests to see a specialist until ten days before she died.
Additionally, there has been some progress in mounting class action suits. The settlement of Plata v. Davis?the largest class action lawsuit on prison conditions to date?was filed on January 29, 2002, claiming that state officials operating the largest prison population in the nation displayed a “deliberate indifference” to prisoners’ health care needs. The settlement stipulates a total reevaluation of the state’s procedures, including a significant allocation of funds over the next several years in order to meet the standards set by an independent medical panel that has been empowered to oversee the state’s progress. This suit was brought by several named plaintiffs representing all prisoners who are currently, and will be in the future, the custody of the CDC (with the exception of Pelican Bay State Prison).
However, while the Plata settlement appears to have far-reaching implications, none of the named plaintiffs was a woman so medical care issues specific to female prisoners such as gynecological/ pregnancy concerns (particularly for those also living with HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C) were silent in the settlement. In response, LSPC filed an objection and remains committed to addressing systematic deficiencies within the CDC health care system in general, and redressing the medical-related abuses suffered by incarcerated women in particular.
Incarcerated at CCWF, Dee Garcia has asked: “I was wheeled in here in an ambulance. Will I be wheeled out in a hearse?” LSPC will focus on these issues until the women of CCWF and those housed at all California prisons will not have to ask this question. We hope that one day, women confined to the Chowchilla desert?far away from both their families and the world that exists outside the prison walls? will no longer want for justice in the SNF.

Giving Birth to Justice in the Desert

A report from a CCWP-sponsored demonstration in Chowchilla protesting the health care crisis and deaths of women prisoners in the SNF.
by Leroy Moore Jr.
“The warden is not here. No one is in charge today!”, the security guard barked at the protesters at the gate of the Skilled Nursing Facility of the Central California Women’s Facility, a state prison in Chowchilla. The group had come armed with a list of demands:

  • An end to the lockdown of women in the Skilled Nursing Facility.
  • Compassionate release for dying prisoners.
  • An independent investigation of the Skilled Nursing Facility.

On April 27, 2002, over 75 former prisoners, family members and advocates from around the state gathered at the gates of CCWF to protest the health care crisis and deaths of women prisoners. Chowchilla is in central California, north of Fresno.
Speakers who represented a coalition of organizations including Critical Resistance, Out of Control, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, California Coalition for Women Prisoners, California Prison Focus, Queers United to Fight Israeli Terrorism, Prison Moratorium Project, Death Penalty Focus, Amnesty International, and Disability Advocates of Minorities Organization, and other community activists took the mike to talk about what was going on inside.
Karen Shain of California Coalition for Women Prisoners and Legal Services for Prisoners with Children put the spotlight on the physical and sexual assaults against women plus the denial of medical care that has lead to 17 deaths at CCWF in the last year. Two years ago the high death rate at Chowchilla got the attention of the Los Angeles Times. According to a Dec. 20, 2000 article, there were 15 deaths in the year 2000, nine in 1999 and 10 in 1998.
Ida McCray-Robinson, a formerly incarcerated poet, mother, organizer, and founder of Families with a Future, pumped up the rally as she told how she used to feel, hearing protesters outside when she was incarcerated. “Make them hear you!” she coached. “We love you, we love you!” we shouted under Ida’s command. As I marched with the other protesters, some very young and some my elders, my blood was boiling from the stories about the way my disabled and terminally ill sisters are treated inside CCWF.
After an hour or so marching and listening to speakers, a handful of activists decided to take our list of demands to the warden. As we approached the gate, three security guards, one of them a woman, communicated to us through their body language, which clearly read “total confusion.” After we asked for the second in command because the warden wasn’t in, the guards looked at each other and replied that nobody was in charge today!
At that moment a common thought breezed into our heads and flew out of our mouths in a chorus, “Well, if nobody is in charge, the women prisoners should come home with us.” We realized that we were talking to a wall with human-like features, so we decided to continue our rally outside the gate.
Beloved activist Yuri Kochiyama rolled her walker up to the mike and told her story about the racist, sexist and classist prison industrial complex that is becoming home to so many in our diverse society.
As the car turned onto the highway to the Bay area, I saw three more prisons all for women. Our mothers, sisters and grandmothers are joining forces with spirits of our ancestors, goddess, Mother Earth and Mother Nature to give birth to JUSTICE in the desert. I wonder would our Native American ancestors agree on how the land and women are being treated? I don’t think so!
Leroy F. Moore Jr. is executive director of Disability Advocates of Minorities Organization, DAMO.

The Scott Sisters are Free! Sign their Welcome Home Card!

December 2010
“Gladys and Jamie Scott are returning home for the first time in 16 years.
This evening, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour suspended their sentences — handed down in the extreme and biased ruling of Judge Marcus Gordon that condemned each of the women to double life sentences for an $11 robbery.
The moment I landed in Jackson, Mississippi, Governor Barbour called to tell me about the suspension. And as I prepare to meet with him tomorrow, along with Derrick Johnson, President of the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP, I want to be clear about one thing: This vindication is because of you.
The Scott sisters have read your notes and letters of support. Now please join me in welcoming them home. Sign the NAACP’s welcome home card to Gladys and Jamie:
Welcome Home card
Jamie and Gladys always described the moment the police arrested them as a nightmare. Not just for themselves, but for their family — for their children.
So we united together. We fought the injustice — just as the NAACP has done for more than 100 years.
When we couldn’t visit the Scott sisters, we wrote letters and notes to let them know we remembered them. When we wouldn’t be heard by the political and judicial powers that be, we spoke louder. And because of that perseverance — because of your perseverance — the nightmare is finally over.
Celebrate this victory for Gladys and Jamie, and also for the NAACP community, by sending them a welcome home message. They would love to hear from you.
Last time I was in Mississippi was to file the petition for clemency with the Scott sisters’ lawyer, Chokwe Lumumba, and Charles Hampton, Vice President of the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP.
Today, thanks to you, I get to return to show the world that the NAACP will not stand idly by as our sisters and brothers are wrongfully accused.
I am humbled by how far your support has taken the Scott sisters on the road to justice and freedom. And with every step forward, we will secure a brighter future for their children, our children and our children’s children.
In thanks,
Benjamin Todd Jealous
President and CEO

Statement of Solidarity with Georgia Prisoner Strike, December 2010

CCWP and many other organizations have signed the Statement of Solidarity with the Georgia Prisoner Strike, which was the largest prisoner strike in the history of the United States. Please click the above link to read the statement in its entirety. Also, visit this site: petitionsonline.com to view the current signers of the Solidarity Statement and to add your signature.

Continue reading “Statement of Solidarity with Georgia Prisoner Strike, December 2010”

Help Tell Our Story!

Help us spread the word. . .
1) Help with a guide
This is a shout out to formerly incarcerated members who would like to share their experiences of transitioning after serving time. This is a collaborative and totally grass-roots project. The motivation and vision to do this came from several conversations among different people during our Statewide Gathering in October of individuals and organizations across the state of California doing anti-prison and prisoner advocacy and support work.
It will be an un-institutional sort of “For us, by us Guide” that will surround people getting ready to walk through the gates or in the process of adjusting to life on ‘the outs’ with love from women and transgender people whose voices are left out of so many conversations with so much wisdom to share.
This project aims to collect the stories of formerly incarcerated women in a story-telling and conversational form to create a directory of tips, wisdoms and suggestions for women getting out of prison by women who have been there.
We are also looking for ideas for a catchy title that is a far away from ?resource guide? or ?manual? as possible. Something vibrant and powerful!
For more information, write to CCWP Attn: Dana Ullman, 1540 Market Street, Suite 490, San Francisco, CA, 94102, or call the office at 415-255-7036 x4, or email deirdre@womenprisoners.org
2) Fire Inside
BPH/Transition Hints: Our next issue of The Fire Inside quarterly newsletter will be on parole. We’ve had a lot of requests for a “helpful hints” article that can help people prepare for the parole process, including board hearings, building a parole campaign, what it’s like once you’re out, etc.
Some parts of what people may want to write for the ?Guide? could be used in this article too, so feel free to contribute something ASAP as we are trying to get first drafts done for the Newsletter on December 15th.
General Contributions on Parole System and Life as a Lifer before and after release: We’re also putting out a general call for any articles, stories or statements you all might like to write. They can be as short as a couple of sentences and as long as 500 words (a page or so). Your voices are really what keeps this newsletter vibrant and thriving and we want this issue to be HEARD by many people so we can bring people home and stop the parole madness!
This is an issue we have been building up to all year. It is an opportunity to put in print many of the ideas, struggles and inspiring accomplishments that were shared at the Statewide Gathering. We are prepared to publish a supplemental collection of people’s writings, as we want to follow through on our mission to “put a face on” people’s experiences of serving life sentences in California.