Governor Newsom granted 21 commutations and five pardons on Friday, March 27, 2020. CCWP welcomes Governor Newsom’s exercise of executive clemency for all of these people and we commend him for examining the public health impact of each commutation grant. At the same time we urge him to accelerate clemency at a time when large sectors of the public, including public health officials, are urging immediate action to protect vulnerable people in prisons, especially older and sick people, through commutations and other forms of expedited release.
We particularly celebrate the commutations of three women who had LWOP (Life Without Parole) sentences – Rosemary Dyer, Shyrl Lamar, and Joann Parks- as well as Suzanne Johnson who had a life sentence. All of these women were elders, some were survivors of domestic violence, all of them had already served many years in prison. We also welcome the commutations of the six men with LWOP sentences and the eleven men with life sentences.
The momentum for clemency has been fueled by a growing movement across the country to end life without parole and all forms of extreme sentencing. The same day that Governor Newsom granted these 21 commutations, thousands of people across the country participated in a #ClemencyCoast2Coast twitterstorm to urge Governor Newsom and New York Governor Cuomo to #LetThemGo!
The DROP LWOP Spring Rally on March 9, 2020 brought together an amazing group of people to demand an end to Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentencing. People who had been formerly incarcerated with LWOP sentences, loved ones of those still suffering death by incarceration, and many other advocates and friends gathered on the steps of the Capitol to speak their truths about the reality of living the death penalty in slow motion. Collectively we demonstrated that we will never stand down on our demand to commute all 5,200+ people with LWOP sentences and eliminate this cruel, arbitrary and racist sentence.
One of the most incredible aspects of the day were the many people present who had been commuted from LWOP sentences and were now free and advocating passionately for those they left behind inside prison. They, together with loved ones and advocates, made visits to legislators throughout the day. They presented their lived experience with LWOP to educate lawmakers about why it is another form of death by incarceration. The ask was for lawmakers to support more commutations by the Governor and legislative changes to the California penal code.
Thanks to Silicon Valley De-Bug for putting together this video .
Vickie Lee Hammonds, a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, sister, and
beloved by many others, died from medical neglect at the California Institution
for Women (CIW) on June 5, 2019. She was only 55 years old. Her
death—devastating and preventable —speaks to a pattern of injuries and deaths
as well as a larger culture of disregard at CIW specifically and throughout the
CDCr more broadly, despite widespread and persistent public scrutiny. Vickie’s
family and CCWP demand that California and its institutions of human caging be
held responsible for preventable deaths in their custody, like Vickie’s, and
for practices of ongoing abuse and neglect.
Vickie was diagnosed with diabetes and chronic obstructive
pulmonary disease and had suffered through years of poor medical treatment at
CIW. She also had trouble walking even short distances, but Vickie was
continually denied access to a wheelchair despite repeated requests. Vickie’s
health worsened in the weeks leading up to her death, but she and her friends’
advocacy on her behalf was ignored. On June 4th, the day before she passed
away, Vickie’s breathing became especially strained. Despite informing the
nurse of her difficulty breathing and
that her oxygen machine was malfunctioning, Vickie was sent back to her cell
with no additional care, support or resources.
On the morning of June 5th, Vickie’s condition worsened.
Once again, Vickie was refused admission to the prison’s emergency medical unit
or transfer to the hospital. Later that night Vickie stopped breathing. Guards
performed CPR while they waited for emergency responders, but their access was
prevented because of new procedures around a newly-installed fence at the
prison. It took a full 45 minutes before
the emergency medical team was granted access and reached Vickie. By then it
was too late and Vickie was pronounced dead in the hallway outside her cell.
The horrific circumstances of Vickie’s death were compounded
by the lack of communication with her family. It was not the prison who
contacted Vickie’s sister, Alma Hammonds, but one of Vickie’s friends. And, as
if losing a family member is not devastating enough, there was also confusion and
chaos around the whereabouts of her body. “We the family of Vickie Lee Hammonds
feel that her early demise was due to a lack of proper medical treatment and a
complete lack of response to her,” Vickie’s family said in a statement.
“Vickie’s family suffered a great loss and we all are lost for words. We all
want to know why she was so neglected and allowed to die.”
For Vickie, by Taylor Lytle
Help i can’t breathe
Was her only plea
But it was not met with urgency
and now beautiful soul gone too soon
But CDCR is never accountable for their mess
So we stand here and protest
We shout the names of our lost loved one
Vickie we love you
Vickie we will
fight for you.
Vickie you won’t die in vain
Vickie we are sorry
Sorry because we couldn’t save you from a system that
The same system that claimed they wanted to help you
We, your sisters and brothers, are sorry that we are
still powerless in 2019
from preventing these systems from destroying our
CIW u r guilty
Of inmate cruelty
I have no reason
I once was a
victim you see.
No more hiding behind these gates
The truth has been told
We’re shutting you down
I promise you that even if it cost me my soul
Screaming no more deaths is becoming a little too old
On Wednesday October 30th, over sixty people rallied in front of the CDCr office building in Sacramento to demand an end to the sexual and gender-based violence that has targeted trans and gender non-conforming (TGNC) people in California’s prisons. The spirited gathering marched, chanted and listened as many formerly incarcerated people denounced the sexual and physical abuse they endured while inside prison. Stacy Rojas, lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed against the CDCr about the assaults, described their efforts to document incidents of guard abuse which led to a brutal attack against them and several other people in 2015. Another speaker explained that “we are only asking for them to be held accountable. The (prison) system is designed to hurt people who don’t conform. When you speak out about that, you become endangered.”
The rally was a powerful expression of outrage at repeated
experiences of harassment and violence.
It also demonstrated a fierce determination to work to ensure changes
for those who remain behind bars. Demands included an end to the assaults and
targeting of TGNC people in prison; a strict process to hold guards and staff
accountable for abusive actions; and an end to retaliation against
whistleblowers who report abuses. Plans
are underway to hold a statewide Peoples Hearing in 2020 that can clearly
expose what’s going on in prisons in California and all over the country and
mobilize broad grassroots support for demands for change.
“It is a great honor to be the first Charisse Shumate fellow. I promise to do her name justice!“
CCWP is thrilled to announce that Laverne Dejohnette will be the inaugural fellow. We are starting this fellowship program to honor the life and legacy of Charisse Shumate, one of our incarcerated founding members. Charisse was a lead plaintiff in the 1995 lawsuit Shumate v. Wilson, which challenged the abusive, inhumane health care in California’s women’s prisons, amounting to cruel and unusual punishment. In the very first issue of The Fire Inside newsletter, which she helped start, she wrote, “If walls could talk, we would not have to beg for help.” She was a survivor who was punished with a life sentence for defending herself against domestic violence. Charisse pushed forward the conversation about the criminalization of women who resisted and embodied the phrase that she used repeatedly, “It’s not a me thing, it’s a we thing.” Charisse died in August 2001 of complications of sickle cell anemia that was never treated adequately inside prison. The Charisse Shumate Fellowship carries on her powerful spirit.
Dejohnette was released from prison in June 2019 after serving 26 years of a Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentence. When Dejohnette first came to prison, Charisse was one of the elders who helped to educate her about the need to stand up for the rights of everyone inside. After years of being resigned to her LWOP sentence, Dej began to actively advocate for commutations for herself and others inside. Right before Dejohnette was due to be released from prison, she worked with Brandi Taliano to create the quilt with CCWP’s logo that she is holding in the picture above. Dejohnette wants to use the fellowship to speak and advocate for people in women’s prisons and inspire others to be Fearless, Together and Unified. Dejohnette says, “It is a great honor to be the first Charisse Shumate fellow. I promise to do her name justice!“