Outraged Community Responds to CCWF Deaths

by Diana Block, with information from Donna Willmott, LSPC

Activists at legislative hearings on the deaths at CCWF
Activists at legislative hearings on the deaths at CCWF

“Nine deaths we will fight/Health care is a human right” chanted over 100 family, friends and advocates of women prisoners in front of the gates of the California Correctional Women’s Facility (CCWF) on Saturday January 27th. The memorial/protest was the climax to several weeks of intense organizing efforts in response to the deaths of nine women prisoners, several under suspicious circumstances, at CCWF. The deaths became a focus of community outrage particularly after legislative hearings held in the women’s prisons last October exposed many serious problems with medical care which have not yet been remedied.
In the months following the hearings prisoners and advocates expected changes to be initiated. Instead the number of women dying increased. In the cases of several women who were young and without any diagnosed life threatening illnesses the pressing question was whether incorrect medical responses contributed to their deaths. However, prison officials immediately tried to lay the blame on the women themselves, claiming that it was their use of “bad drugs” which caused the rash of deaths. Despite their aggressive search of prisoner cells, no physical or medical evidence ever supported this dangerous rumor. On the contrary, the facts point out crucial gaps in medical care.

A buddhist priest in a robe demonstrates at CCWF gates, carrying a sign saying 'California Prison Dharma Walk, Oakland-Lompoc'
Demonstration at CCWF gates

One of the most disturbing incidents was the death of Pamela Coffey, 46, on December 2 after collapsing on the bathroom floor of her cell about three hours after her cellmates called for medical help. On the evening of her death, she complained of terrible abdominal pain, numbness in her legs and a swollen tongue which made it difficult to speak. According to eyewitness testimony a Medical Technical Assistant (MTA) – a guard with low-level medical training – came out of her cell laughing. “I can’t understand a word she’s saying. You can do more for her than I can” he said. Within the next few hours Pamela’s condition grew worse. The MTA was called again and arrived 30 minutes later but by then she was dead. Outside investigators reviewing the circumstances surrounding her death concluded that “there were significant problems with Ms. Coffey’s medical care that might have contributed to her death.” Eva Vallario, 33, died in a holding cell in the back of the prison visiting room on December 15. She had a history of asthma that seems to have been poorly managed by prison medical staff. The report by outside investigators concluded that Ms. Vallario apparently died after choking on her vomit, and that “there is a substantial likelihood that she could have been resuscitated if she had been ventilated earlier”. There are also serious questions about the adequacy of health care which Jodie Fitzgerald, Stephanie Hardie, Leila Peyton, Carolina Paredes, Michelle Wilson and Kathy Kelly (who all died during this time) received.
A packed Bay Area event which was scheduled to report on the legislative hearings became a forum for family members to speak out about the kind of care that their loved ones had suffered inside prison. A video of the legislative hearings, “Truth to Power: Women Prisoners Speak Out” (copies available) featured the articulate testimony of women prisoners on abuses ranging from lack of medical care to sexual abuse. Following the video, family members Pamela Coffey Jr., Deborah Teczon, Ossie Chapman and Mary Thomas condemned the pain, humiliation and neglect which their loved ones have experienced. The program brought tears to the eyes of many members of the audience and people promised to protest the abominable conditions.

Family of Gina Muniz speaks at the demonstration in front of CCWF Family of Gina Muniz speaks at the demonstration in front of CCWF

As a result of the flood of media attention as well as faxes and telephone calls, Senator Richard Polanco held an afternoon of legislative hearings about the deaths on January 17th in Sacramento. Unfortunately, the hearing focused on the testimony of Dr. Susann Steinberg, Deputy Director of Health Services for the California Department of Corrections (CDC). She, predictably, tried to cover up the issues of malpractice with irrelevant facts and figures, contradicting reports of the outside investigators and concluding with a request for more money for computer technology as her solution to existing problems. Immediately following her testimony, Dr. Steinberg left the hearings despite requests for her to stay. She was unable to respond to the sharp questions of family members and the evidence they presented which conflicted with Steinberg’s version of the facts.
The memorial/protest in front of the prison gates gave the women prisoners who had died the remembrance and honor they deserved. A makeshift altar with pictures of the women, flowers and objects which they treasured was set up while supporters wearing black held up replica tombstones with the nine women’s names. Prison staff looked on without interfering as family members spoke emotionally about each of the women. Pamela Coffey, Jr. summed up the feelings of the crowd when she exclaimed “My mother was sentenced to a prison term, she wasn’t sentenced to death.” The gathering gave all of us a chance to register our sorrow, our anger and our commitment to fight for demands which could improve health care conditions such as an end to the MTA position and the transfer of responsibility for medical services to a public health institution such as a state university system. Many of those present expressed the feeling that real change would only come with the abolition of the prison system as a whole.

State senator Sheila Kuehl (D-L.A.) has introduced a bill, SB 396 which would respond to some of the community demands for changes in the provision of health care. The bill would eliminate the position of Medical Technical Assistant (MTA) which combines custodial and medical functions; it would also eliminate the current mandatory copayment for medical treatment; and it would require certification of all California prison health care facilities by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care. If you know of an organization who could write a letter to support this bill please contact 415-255-7036 ext. 4.

To protest the deaths and ongoing problems with medical care write Dr. Susann Steinberg, CDC, PO Box 942883, Sacramento, CA 94283-0001, fax 916-324-0876 and Steve Cambra, Acting Director, CDC, 1515 S St., PO Box 942883, Sacramento, CA 94283.