Legislative Hearings: Speaking Truth to Power, October 2000

by Diana Block, CCWP/San Francisco, Donna Willmott, LSPC
Senator Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), chair of the Joint Legislative Committee on Prison Construction and Operations, opened unprecedented hearings on October 11 and 12 at Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW) and California Institution for Women (CIW) by thanking the women who had agreed to come forward to testify and emphatically warning prison staff, including Director of the California Department of Corrections (CDC) Cal Terhune, that retaliation by prison staff against those who were courageous enough to come forward would be met with severe consequences.
Delays in Treatment and Falsified Tests
Wednesday’s session at VSPW in Chowchilla was attended by over 100 prison activists, lawyers, family members and media representatives in addition to several state legislators and their aides. Former prisoner Pat Shelton described how she was serving an eight month sentence for a parole violation when she discovered a lump in her breast. She was not seen by a doctor until five months later by which time the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. She is now struggling with terminal bone cancer and came to testify in order to try and make a difference around how other women were treated in the future.

Several women prepare to testify at the hearings. Behind them sit CDC officials including Director Cal Terhune (since retired).
Several women prepare to testify at the hearings.
Behind them sit CDC officials including Director
Cal Terhune (since retired).

Charisse Shumate, the lead plaintiff in a class action law suit against the CDC filed in 1995, told how she lost sight in one eye because of delays in treatment of a sickle cell anemia related condition and implored the audience not to forget that “we are human beings.”
Ellen Richardson detailed how the CDC ignores the particular problems of a population where one third of the women are over 40 and need help with osteoporosis, menopause and many other critical issues related to aging. “We are our own best doctors” she asserted.
Epidemic Hepatitis C
In a panel devoted to the life threatening problems of women living with HIV and Hepatitis C , Beverly Henry, a self-disclosed HIV+ woman, told how she accidentally discovered that she had Hepatitis C since the prison never notified her of crucial test results. She and Judy Ricci, also HIV+, painfully described watching friends die of Hepatitis C (which is epidemic with approximately 54% of the women infected) while prison staff disregarded obvious symptoms of distended abdomens and eyes “the color of pumpkins” and refused to provide necessary liver biopsies.
The medical section of the hearing concluded with a devastating description by Gloria Braxton of the way in which prolonged misdiagnosis and mistreatment of her uterine cancer led to her current terminal cancer which has been made even more excruciating because of the denial of medication for her chronic pain. Gloria insisted that she should be granted compassionate release, which by law she is qualified for, in order to be able to spend the last six months of her life at home.
Health Care away from CDC
At many points throughout the medical testimony the legislative panel appeared horrified by the stories they were hearing. Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley) said that the stories “curdled her stomach” and angrily concluded that “these women have been given two sentences – one by the court and one by the institution.” “From what I’ve heard, cats and dogs are treated better than some of these people” Carl Washington (D-Compton) exclaimed. Dr. Corey Weinstein and other prisoner advocates called for a non-profit public health care institution to take over the provision of medical care for state prisoners and the legislative panel promised to consider these recommendations.
Tearing Mothers and Children Apart
The legislators also promised to look into recently issued CDC regulations which further undermine the fragile connection between women prisoners and their children. These “underground regulations” apparently are in violation of state laws, as they only allow 48 hours after delivery for women who give birth in prison to find a relative who can care for the baby before placing the child in a foster home. If no suitable relative is found, children are given away to foster/adopt homes in the county where the mother is incarcerated and the mother is not allowed to know the identity of the family who has her child. If she is unable to reunify with her child within six months (by being released) the child automatically becomes eligible for adoption.