Long Night at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF)

This night, like so many others during my incarceration in cell #19, I am startled awake by the sound of sobbing. As my eyes adjust to the dim light, I see a crumpled figure leaning against the heavy steel door of our cell steadily knocking, knocking, knocking – vainly trying to summon one of the graveyard-shift guards. The knocking goes on and on, with no response from outside the locked door. Soon, all eight women in our cell are awake and banging, yelling, screaming for help. Bitter experience has taught us that our roommate, Charisse Shumate, is in sickle-cell anemia crisis and needs immediate medical attention or she could die.
By now, Charisse’s face is awash in tears from the awful pain. We all begin to panic, because the guards are not responding – help is not coming! I have never felt so helpless. Charisse struggles to stay calm, knowing that the stress of panic will only worsen her condition, causing the sickling action in her blood to increase, creating life-threatening changes in her body.
She finds it increasingly difficult to stand. All she wants to do is crawl to her bunk and give in to the unbearable pain. But she knows if she does not stay on her feet, she may never leave her bunk alive. So, by shear force of will, she stands and continues to knock and knock.
Finally, after what seems like an eternity, a face appears at the door. Charisse struggles to regain composure, wiping away the tears that blur her vision. She knows her life depends on convincing the guard that she needs immediate medical attention. As her vision clears, she realizes she does not know the face peering in the cell window. The guard is new, and no, he has “not heard that inmate Shumate has a medical condition.” “Is this just another convict scam?” he is probably wondering to himself.
Charisse tries to explain her disease to him. Summoning up what is left of her strength, she tells him she has medical protocol papers she can show him, which will prove what she says. He says he is “not interested in reading them.” But tonight, she is lucky and he finally agrees to call the medical department to check out her story. Later, much later, the cell door opens and help arrives. As Charisse is led from the cell, the rest of us all breathe a collective sigh of relief.
However, the danger for Charisse has not ended. She is taken to the infirmary where standard procedure is to lock inmates in a holding cell until transportation to the hospital can be arranged – a process that can take hours. Charisse knows if she is locked away without water, for hydration, or medication, she may die. So, once again, despite the pain, which has now grown to mind-numbing proportions, she holds herself together and tries to explain to the infirmary personnel, why she must have immediate medical help, even prior to hospitalization.
At the hospital, it starts all over again. She has been taken to a new hospital this time – a hospital not experienced in treating sickle-cell patients. (Once before she was taken to a hospital that did not even have the special needles needed for the life-saving blood transfusion she must have.) Again, she finds herself having to explain about sickle-cell anemia. All she can do now is pray she receives proper care.
By choosing to treat Charisse’s disease only when it reaches a crisis stage, the prison system is playing a dangerous game with her life. What happens next time, if the guard on duty does not believe her, and refuses to call for medical help? What happens if the staff at the infirmary that night decide to treat her according to routine and put her in that locked room for hours? What happens when her strength gives out and she can no longer speak for herself? She may then pay for their ignorance with her life.
This story would be sad enough were it only about Charisse. Unfortunately, it is a story very similar to the stories of many, many women with chronic diseases and illnesses now serving their sentences at CCWF. I pray for them all.