International Women’s Day Celebration, 1997

by Karen Shain and Urszula Wislanka, CCWP
Bay Area, CA. – On Saturday, March 8th, about 250 women and men gathered at San Francisco’s Women’s Building to honor California’s women prisoners at the California Coalition for Women Prisoners’ 2nd annual Women’s Day Celebration in an evening of music, Native American poetry, and Philippine creation story permance.
A highpoint of the evening was the presence of Norma Jean Croy, a Native American political prisoner who did over 18 years in state prison for a murder she did not commit. There have not been too many victories lately, so when Norma Jean appeared on the stage, the audience went wild!
The focus of the event was support for women prisoners’ struggle for decent medical care in the state prison system. Cynthia Martin, a plaintiff in the lawsuit Shumate v. Wilson, spoke about the difficulties faced by disabled prisoners who have to live in units which have doors too small for wheelchairs. Cynthia, who had been severely burned prior to her incarceration, had been unable to get the most basic care for her burns – not even a skin moisturizer so that her scars could stretch with her skin! Upon her release from prison, Cynthia had to go through several painful surgeries, many of which could have been avoided if she had been given the most basic medical care while she was inside.
Dana spoke about the destruction of selfhood that the prison attempts by trying to convince women that they are nothing, that they deserve the inhuman treatment they are getting. She thanked the audience for helping her and many others know that there are people on the outside who think the guards and the system are wrong.
We heard a report about the progress of the law suit Charisse Shumate and 5100 other women prisoners filed against governor Wilson, California Department of Corrections, many wardens, commending officers, down to the individual doctors, nurses, medical assistants and guards who all murder women by denial of medical care.
The prison system’s defense is that the medical treatment inside the prison is not substantially different than that available “outside.” This is totally untrue. The worst public hospitals in the country give qualitatively better care than the medical systems in California’s women’s prisons. But when the women prisoners who are part of the suit talk about abuses in prison, they are not coming it to outside. They point to the basic inhumanity of their experiences and are appealing to the absolute human right to medical care.
Several members of the Coalition have been visiting the women inside. They told how inspiring the visits can be. The women inside fight not bound by what is possible, but for what is right, thus helping make what is right possible. As much as they are asking us to help them, they are helping us sustain the passion to root out the entire system and create a wholly new, human society.