Testimony at Joint Committee on Prison Construction, Sacramento, CA

[On April 29, 1999 the State Joint Legislative Committee held a hearing on the effectivness Board of Prison Terms. This is Karen Shain’s testimony at the hearing]
My name is Karen Shain. I am administrative director of Legal Servies for Prisoners with Children. I also work with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners and the California Coalition for Battered Women in Prison. We have been working with prisoners in California and their families since 1978.
Every time we visit women at CIW, VSPW or CCWF we meet lifers, most of them doing time as a direct result of being battered. They all express their fear of being forgotten, of losing hope. They talk of their fear of dying like Claudia Reddy who died of cancer shackled to her bed at Madera Community Hospital having been denied compassionate release by the Bureau of Prison Terms (BPT) over and over again. We know that we will be witnessing more deaths like Claudia’s – women and men who are clearly no danger to society dying isolated and alone in California’s human warehouses.
We have read in the newspaper of Gov. Davis’ statement that he will release no one convicted of murder, no matter what the circumstances. We have spoken to lifers, women and men, who see that statement as a slap in the face, as the end of all hope of being released. People have asked me why they are working so hard to rehabilitate themselves if there is absolutely no chance of their being released, and I have no reply.
Many women sentenced to life were convicted before recognition of domestic abuse as a mitigating factor. Many received much longer sentences than their male co-defendants because they refused to cooperate with authorities or had no knowledge to trade for lower sentences. The case of Theresa Cruz exemplifies the problems that battered women face. Although Theresa did not actually shoot her abuser, and although her abuser was not permanently injured, Theresa was sentenced to 25 years-to-life. The sentence was even
reduced to 7 years-to-life. Theresa testified in support of AB 231 (Kuehl) which requires that the BPT take domestic abuse and battered women’s syndrome into account when looking at length of sentence. But the BPT failed to do this in Theresa’s case.
Last night I spoke with my friend Kalima who is doing a life sentence at California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo. He has been incarcerated for over 30 years, is 63 years old and in failing health. This man has had no disciplinary infractions in over 10 years and I would not hesitate for a second leaving my nine-year-old daughter in his care. He has fulfilled all conditions of parole numerous times and now sits and waits. Yet he has no hope of being released under the present regime. What do I tell him when he asks why he should keep on trying?
The stories of Claudia Reddy at CCWF, of Theresa Cruz at CIW and of Kalima at CMC are repeated over and over again. All over this state there are women and men awaiting release who could be making a postive contribution to society.
This is no longer a question of rehabilitation or punishment. It is a question of humanity. Someone has to take a stand and stop the growth of this dangerous prison industry. Someone has to insist that these prisoners be treated as the human beings that they are and give them some hope for the future. Let’s release those prisoners who are no danger to our society and develop a plan to assure the release of more of them over time.