Compañeras: Working With Immigrant Women
Compañeras is a legal advocacy program of California Coalition for Women
Prisoners that focuses on issues faced by immigrants in women?s prisons. Members inside are primarily represented by mono-lingual Spanish speakers,
who support each other and the immigrant community in a variety of ways.
CCWP member and legal representative, Xiomara Campos Cisne, herself a
native of Nicaragua, bridges support work and educational efforts from the
outside and has been visiting Valley State Prison for Women since 2007.
Fire Inside: Who are the Compañeras?
Xiomara: They are women of various backgrounds, ranging in age from 20?s to
60?s. Most have been in prison over 10 years. Many are serving life sentences.
Every other month our legal workshop meets at Valley State Prison for Women.
Many of these women?s worlds would never have crossed and now they?re
fi ghting the same system. We joke with each other a lot. Humor is healing.
FI: What about family connections?
X: Some people maintain connections and sometimes, family ties become
stronger. But there are many barriers: dealing with the system, documentation,
shame and money. The kids may be angry or don?t understand the separation.
Ties often collapse after a few years. One woman?s son killed her abusive
partner and they both went to prison. I wish I had the key to set her free. If
they have family back where they came from, they might try to reconnect.
One woman was released and deported to San Salvador. Another hopes to see
her family in Mexico. When one Compañera went in, she gave custody of her
child to her family. Sadly, the family can?t always follow through. How do
people incarcerated for 20 years deal with being deported to a country that
was their home, but no longer is? How do you survive? They ask me, ?Do you
think I?m going to be released? I don?t know why my family doesn?t write
to me.? They come from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, Cuba.
How can they go back? They may speak Spanish, but it?s a different world.
FI: Does incarcerating women break the bonds that hold communities together?
X: Yes. You lose the bone, the voice. The bone is gone and the house collapses.
You incarcerate and screw the entire family. You call that rehabilitation?
A lot of people don?t know the dark side of the U.S. We hear it?s the land of
opportunity, but it?s also the land of institutional racism and suffering.
FI: How is language a barrier to accessing healthcare?
X: There are no translators for health care. Sometimes the Latino guards
won?t speak Spanish. The women are told, ?Mi casa, no es su casa,? or, ?We have a problem here. You don?t speak English, I don?t speak Spanish. I can?t help you.? They just give Tylenol for everything. One Compañera has problems with her liver, but she doesn?t trust the doctors since they gave her a pill that paralyzed her lower face. Another friend was sick and went to the
doctor. She never came back.
FI: Are there other ways that language is a barrier?
X: There are many obstacles. Sometimes their Spanish is limited. One compañera said, ?I don?t want to go to school because I keep getting writeups.
I don?t learn fast enough.? The younger ones have often had some schooling and learn more quickly. It?s harder for the older ones. ?I feel like a dog because they always scream at me and laugh when I don?t know where to go. I
just go around with my tail between my legs, following the regimen.? The court setting is very intimidating. Someone who only went to second grade is lost but afraid to say so. They?re asked, ?Do you understand?? No one dares to
be the only one to say ?No, I don?t understand.? As we get older and talk to one another we realize that we could have fought these things. One Compañera is an organizer; strong and assertive. Another learned English and became
an advocate for others. These are new models for the Latina. We don?t have to live with the abuse have learned to accept. Even in prison you should not
be abused. This is hard for immigrant women. We?re not used to standing up. Even if I want to say it and know it?s right, I?m nervous. I always encourage the Compañeras: ?You have to speak up!? We did a newsletter in 2010 and plan to do another one. My sisters inside inspire me. I admire their hope. La esperanza