California prisons consider gender-identity housing requests – Los Angeles Times

latimes.com
Leila Miller
April 5, 2021

Jasmine Jones, a legal assistant at the Transgender Gender-Variant & Intersex Justice Project in San Francisco, has been in touch with people held in women’s prisons who have concerns about a new law that allows inmates to be housed based on their gender identity.
Paul Kuroda / For The Times

Kelly Blackwell longs to escape her life as a transgender woman in a California men’s prison, where she struggles every day to avoid being seen in her bra and panties and says she once faced discipline after fighting back when an inmate in her cell asked for oral sex.

After more than 30 years, and two decades since Blackwell began hormone therapy, her chance to leave arrived last fall when groundbreaking legislation gave transgender, intersex and nonbinary inmates the right, regardless of anatomy, to choose whether to be housed in a male or female prison.

The demand has been high, with 261 requests for transfers since SB 132 took effect Jan. 1, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. It’s the start of a hugely sensitive operation playing out in one of the largest prison systems in the country.

“I won’t be around predatory men and I won’t be around staff that frown upon trans women,” Blackwell, 53, said in a phone call from Mule Creek State Prison, east of Sacramento.

But more than two hours away, at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, there’s fear. Inmates say guards have warned them that “men are coming” and to expect sexual violence.

“That if we think it’s bad now, be prepared for the worst. That it’s going to be off the hook, it’s going to be jumping,” Tomiekia Johnson, 41, said staffers have told her. “They say we’re going to need a facility that’s going to be like a maternity ward. They say we’re going to have an inmate program where inmates become nannies.”

Just over 1% of California’s prison population — or 1,129 inmates — have identified as nonbinary, intersex or transgender, according to the corrections department, populations that experience excessive violence in prison. A 2007 UC Irvine study that included interviews with 39 transgender inmates found that the rate of sexual assault is 13 times higher for transgender people, with 59% reporting experiencing such encounters.

So far, the prison system has transferred four inmates to the Chowchilla women’s prison, approved 21 gender-based housing requests and denied none. Of the 261 requests, all but six asked to be housed at a women’s facility.

Prisons spokeswoman Terry Thornton said in a statement that COVID-19 precautions have slowed the transfers and that officials could not estimate how long a transfer might take under normal circumstances, citing bed availability as a factor.

The Times spoke to more than a dozen inmates in women’s and men’s prisons to understand how the new law is playing out. Although advocates and inmates say the transfers have been received well, several claim that misinformation spread by prison staffers is stirring up transphobia and that more must be done to educate inmates.

Some prisoners are also concerned that inmates are making false claims about their gender identity in order to transfer to women’s prisons and say staffers have told them that this has slowed the process.

Thornton told The Times that the prison system had facilitated a town hall discussion with the Inmate Advisory Council at Chowchilla and with trans women at San Quentin State Prison. The meeting and ongoing discussions “have helped to dispel any fears,” she said, adding that allegations of staff misconduct are taken seriously and investigated.

When asked whether inmates in the men’s prisons trying to manipulate the transfer system has been a significant issue, Thornton said that “a person’s gender identity is self-reported and CDCR will evaluate any request submitted by an incarcerated person for gender-based housing.” She said that the prison system has requested several million dollars from the state to help implement the law.

In recent years, Connecticut and Massachusetts have passed similar legislation as the California law, which also gives inmates the right to be searched and addressed based on their gender identity. The laws help put states in line with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA, which prohibits housing decisions based solely on an inmate’s genitalia and requires agencies to consider on a case-by-case basis whether a placement would ensure an inmate’s health and safety. Despite PREA, advocates say that it’s rare for transgender inmates to be relocated.

The new California law follows other changes in the state’s treatment of transgender prisoners. In 2018, a law took effect removing obstacles for prisoners to change their gender and name. And in 2015, California became the first state to create policy for transgender inmates to apply for state-funded gender-affirming surgery. According to the prisons agency, from January 2015 through February 2021, 65 out of 205 requests for surgery were approved and nine were completed.

Under prison policy, transgender and intersex people — the latter being a term used to describe conditions in which a person is born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of “female” or “male” — are placed, to the extent possible, in certain prisons to ensure they can receive certain medical and mental health treatment. With the new law, all inmates will be asked upon admission about their gender identity, their pronouns, whether they prefer the female or male search policy, and if they want to be housed in an institution that aligns with their gender identity, according to the corrections department.

Inmates can request transfers to their correctional counselor, which are then considered by a committee that includes the warden, custody, medical and mental health staffers, and a PREA compliance manager. Staffers review the inmate’s criminal record, health needs, custody level, sentence and safety concerns.

Michelle Calvin said inmates welcomed her with care packages when she transferred in February from Mule Creek to the Chowchilla prison. But there was also tension. Inmates in two rooms refused to have her as a roommate.

“There’s a lot of women here that accept me; there’s some that do not,” said Calvin, 50. “There’s going to be adversity everywhere and I understand that.”

Tyeasha Moore, housed a few doors down from Calvin, quickly warmed up to the newcomer. Calvin was “more than willing” to answer her many questions, including why she chose to come to the prison, and if other inmates would follow.

But Moore, 43, said that she has also heard staffers question inmates housed with Calvin, asking whether she has exposed herself, explained her sexual behavior to them or said things that made them uncomfortable. She said the questioning has fomented anxiety and false rumors that Calvin is in a relationship.

The prison system said that it has provided training to staffers statewide on working with transgender, intersex and nonbinary inmates, including information on safe housing, search procedures and pronoun usage. But advocates say it hasn’t been effective enough.

Mychal Concepcion, a transgender man in the Chowchilla women’s prison, said widespread panic about the transfers stems largely from staffers who ask inmates, “What are you going to do when the men get here?”

“The complaints from the cis [gender] women here are that these are men coming here and they’ve been traumatized by men and so they shouldn’t have to live with them,” said Concepcion, 51. “I have repeatedly said that they’re women, but their anger gets directed towards me.”

Johnson, the inmate who said staffers had told her to expect violence with the transfers, said that she has survived domestic violence from a man and that it would be triggering to live with transgender people who haven’t had gender-affirming surgery.

“I do think they should be safe, but it infringes on my right to be safe as well,” she said.

Tiffany Tooks, a transgender woman in the Chowchilla prison, has also been trying to address concerns. She transferred from Mule Creek in 2019 after having gender-affirming surgery.

“For me, it was everything,” she said, explaining how the inmates received her well after she opened up about her experiences from more than 20 years in prison — which included being raped and hearing inmates make sexually degrading comments when seeing her in the shower. “I feel it’s my duty to help the women that are coming here so they are not misunderstood.”

Tooks said that in early March, she participated in a meeting with the warden, prison staffers and other transgender inmates to address inmates in the men’s prison trying to transfer under false pretenses.

“The idea was how do we determine who really are transgender inmates coming into the prison system here and the fear of the women here who were afraid and still they are afraid that male inmates will infiltrate this prison system and cause problems,” she said.

Several transgender inmates at men’s prisons hold that the issue is prevalent.

A transgender woman at a men’s prison, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, said that she knows at least five inmates who have applied to transfer under false pretenses and that staffers have asked her to help identify such inmates.

“They wanted me in a confidential setting to tell them who is transgender and who is not, so they can block some of these guys from going to the women’s prison,” she said. “I told him I don’t have a problem with it…. We feel they’re climbing our backs.”

Jasmine Jones, a legal assistant at the Transgender Gender-Variant & Intersex Justice Project, which provides supportive services to inmates, has been in touch with several dozen inmates in the women’s facilities with concerns about the transfers, explaining to them that she was raped several times in prison and attempted suicide four times.

She said that her story has resonated with many but that she’s still concerned about inmates posturing as nonbinary or transgender. Jones said the law should have first focused on those who have transitioned or are in the process of transitioning before allowing for others to transfer.

But Jen Orthwein, an attorney who represents transgender inmates and worked on the bill, said that not all inmates want or have access to hormone therapy or gender-affirming surgery, and that “any expression of femininity in a men’s prison places people in danger.”

At Mule Creek, Blackwell said that when she was approved to transfer she felt relief but also worry about entering a new environment.

She said it hurts to know that some are anxious about her coming over and asserted that transgender women have no plans to be predatory.

“They don’t want to do things like that because that’s been our life,” she said. “All we’re really hoping for is connection and compassion.”

Reparations for CA forced sterilization survivors: Support AB 1007

dailycal.org

By Aminah Elster
April 2, 2021

Between 1909 and 1979, California forcibly sterilized over 20,000 people of color, people with disabilities and imprisoned people. Based on white supremacist eugenics laws and ableist conceptions of who was “unfit to reproduce,” people with disabilities and women of color suffered forced sterilization. While the state’s eugenics laws were officially repealed in 1979, advocates working in California’s women’s prisons in the early 2000s uncovered continued coercive sterilizations occurring inside the prisons which targeted women and transgender and gender-nonconforming people of color.

For the third year in a row, the California Coalition for Women Prisoners is co-sponsoring legislation, AB 1007, introduced by Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, to provide compensation and reparations to survivors of forced sterilizations in the women’s prisons. The two other co-sponsors are California Latinas for Reproductive Justice and Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. This important legislation has failed to win budgetary approval in the past. This year, we are hopeful that with increased public awareness and pressure, California will finally be held accountable for this horrific form of racist and gendered state violence.

A state audit conducted in 2013 found that over 144 sterilizations were performed without consent and often without knowledge during labor and delivery or other abdominal surgeries. Independent journalistic investigations indicate that the actual number is much higher. Many incarcerated people were never even notified that sterilization was performed, even though the government audit contained that information. In 2014, the legislature passed SB 1135 prohibiting sterilization inside prisons for the purpose of birth control going forward. Yet the state has never been held accountable for the irreparable harm it has caused to the people who endured the sterilizations.

AB 1007 would establish the Forced Sterilization Compensation Program to provide reparations to survivors of forced sterilization under California’s eugenics laws from 1909 to 1979 and to survivors of involuntary sterilizations in women’s state prisons after 1979. Additionally, an outreach and sterilization notification program would be established, and markers or plaques would be placed at designated sites, raising awareness of the sterilization of thousands of people.

Events in the past six months have shed light on the racist and gendered violence of sterilization in carceral settings, exposing the critical need for reparations. A powerful new film, “Belly of the Beast,” has become an important part of the effort to build public awareness about the history of abuse inside women’s prisons. The film, directed by Erika Cohn, follows Kelli Dillon, a survivor of forced sterilization at Valley State Prison for Women and current Director of Back To The Basics, and radical movement lawyer Cynthia Chandler, a co-founder of the advocacy group Justice Now, as they uncover the pattern of forced sterilizations in the women’s prisons. The film premiered in fall 2020 and has been educating audiences around the country, including California legislators, about the racist and sexist realities of sterilization abuse inside prisons. The film and its team are an integral part of the advocacy for reparations for forced sterilization survivors.

In September 2020, Dawn Wooten, a nurse at the Irwin U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Detention Center in Georgia filed a whistleblower complaint, accusing doctors working for the detention center of performing unnecessary mass hysterectomies on immigrant women at the detention center while denying them necessary health care. Her report and the subsequent investigations into medical practices at Irwin, which is run by the LaSalle Corrections, once again exposed reproductive violence against people in carceral settings.

Black activist and scholar Loretta Ross uses the term reprocide to name reproductive violence as a form of genocide against Black and Brown peoples. In many ways, mass incarceration itself is a form of reprocide because it removes tens of thousands of Black and Brown women and other people of color from their communities during their reproductive years. During the pandemic, incarceration has become a death sentence for many of the people inside prisons and detention centers, since people in prison are dying at disproportionately high rates from COVID-19. Monetary compensation cannot adequately address the harms suffered by sterilization survivors, but it is a material acknowledgment of a horrific past that will also deter future eugenic abuses. Reparations are one way to demand accountability and send a message that reproductive violence and reprocide will not be tolerated!

The revelations at Irwin and the premiere of the film came after the California legislature failed to pass reparations and compensation for survivors of sterilization abuse. Since then nearly 14,000 people have signed a petition calling on California legislators and California Gov. Gavin Newsom to enact reparations for forced sterilization survivors. Assemblywoman Carrillo is championing AB 1007 and support letters for the bill are coming in from dozens of organizations around the state. On April 6, there will be a hearing of the Assembly Public Safety Committee regarding AB 1007. We are confident that this will be the year to pass this significant bill!

To support reparations for California forced sterilization survivors you can sign the petition. You can sign up for updates about AB 1007 by emailing info@womenprisoners.org. AB 1007 will be heard in the Assembly Public Safety Committee on Tuesday, April 6 at 1:30 pm PDT. If you’re interested in tuning in for the hearing, or calling in with your support, AB 1007 will be the 4th item on the agenda.

Aminah Elster is the Campaign and Policy Coordinator for California Coalition for Women Prisoners.

Entrapped by Abusers. Imprisoned for Life.

None of these women had a criminal history. They were all raised in abusive homes and victimized by abusive partners. And they all received life sentences.

domestic violence survivor life sentence prison jail tammy gamache nancy rish
A lot of people don’t realize how often women are blamed for their partners’ crimes. “They assume the system is legal, ethical and shows compassion,” said Kelly Savage-Rodriguez, an abuse survivor and coordinator with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. “The truth is that it’s not like that.”  (Art by Sarah Rosenberg, images from Creative Commons or courtesy)

This article is free to republish. Find additional guidelines at the end of this story.

3/30/2021 by NATALIE SCHREYER
This story was originally published by Ms.”


Tammy Gamache is in prison for life without parole because of her abusive husband’s crimes.

At the time her abuser murdered a man and shot his wife, 20-year-old Gamache sat in a car, watching in the rearview mirror, having been coerced with a gun to her back to accompany her violent husband in a robbery. Tammy Gamache never held a gun, never threatened the couple, and had been told that if she did as he said, nobody would get hurt.

It wasn’t the first time Richard Gamache had pointed a gun at her.

Just nine months before, after he took out a gun and forced her into a truck before he deliberately crashed it, the doctor who examined Tammy said her injuries didn’t look like a car accident. 

On the day he nearly pushed her down a mineshaft, she thought the police would never believe her without witnesses. 

When he raped her and she screamed through the gag forced into her mouth, no one intervened.

She tried repeatedly to get away, a report by domestic violence expert Nancy Lemon shows, once refusing to get in the car with Richard as he and his friend stalked her in a pickup truck. She told him to leave when he showed up at her job at a railroad station. When she said he and his friend Andre Ramnanan were not welcome at the home where she lived with another family, Richard called her a bitch. He never stopped harassing, threatening and intimidating her. And saying no was never enough.

From inside the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, Tammy Gamache, now 49 years old, told Ms. in an email she still feels angry over the times she couldn’t speak out back then. But then “there’s the times that I did speak up, did do something, and I’m amazed that I’m still alive.”

When she turned Richard down, he kept coming back. When she refused his demands to come with him, he threatened to kill her dog Rocky, who he tied to his car with a noose around his neck. 


“There’s the times that I did speak up, did do something, and I’m amazed that I’m still alive.”


When he showed up in the middle of the night at the hospital where she was recovering from the car accident he purposely caused, Richard put a knife to her throat and said the only way she’d stay alive was by marrying him.  On the way to the chapel, he said he’d shoot as many people as he could if she didn’t give in to the marriage. To save herself and others, she did. It was the only way to survive.

“It’s do or die,” said Gamache’s friend Kelly Savage-Rodriguez, an abuse survivor who was previously incarcerated for her husband’s crime and now works as a coordinator with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. “You participate or you’re present or you keep your mouth shut or you’re the one suffering the consequences.” A lot of people don’t realize how often women are blamed for their partners’ crimes, she told Ms. “They assume the system is legal, ethical and shows compassion … The truth is that it’s not like that.” 

As she waits in a prison cell, Tammy still suffers from the back injury Richard caused when he sped downhill, let go of the wheel and flipped the truck he had forced her into at gunpoint. “Physically, I’m always in pain,” Tammy wrote to Ms.

Evidence of Tammy Gamache’s abuse was never presented during her trial. It wasn’t until after she had been convicted that psychologist and domestic violence expert Geraldine Stahly told the court at sentencing about Tammy’s painful childhood, from witnessing a fight between her parents at one year old after which her father left and never came back, to a mother who abandoned her. 

But Stahly was never allowed to tell the jury about the abuse inflicted by Tammy’s husband Richard, according to a 2018 application to commute her sentence.  “They didn’t have any idea the extent to which she was terrorized and controlled by this man,” Stahly told Ms. 

On the night her abuser’s crime would change her life, Tammy began to bleed. Pregnant, she was losing her baby. Weeks later, she miscarried inside the county jail.  

Gamache isn’t the only survivor of domestic violence in prison for life for someone else’s crimes. 

None of these three women had a criminal history. They were all raised in abusive homes and victimized by abusive partners. And they all received life sentences.

Nancy Rish: A Life Ripped Apart 

Nancy Rish had no knowledge that her abusive boyfriend planned to kidnap a prominent Illinois businessman for ransom and bury him in a box. But she was convicted of murder and aggravated kidnapping anyway. No physical evidence tied her to the crime, and the perpetrator has said in multiple affidavits and a 2015 deposition that she knew nothing of his plot. 

“She would never go for anything like that,” said Danny Edwards, Nancy’s former boyfriend, in a videotaped deposition. 

A 1993 investigation by the Chicago Tribune and a book about the case uncovered her innocence.

But Nancy remains imprisoned after nearly 34 years.

Entrapped by abusers. Imprisoned for life.

domestic violence survivor life sentence prison jail tammy gamache nancy rish
Nancy Rish trains dogs in the Helping Paws Service Dog Training Program at Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Illinois in 2020. 

She was just 24 years old in 1986 when she met the man who would later cause her to spend her life in prison. That same year, her home state of Illinois would recognize that the legal system had failed to protect victims of domestic violence. Decades later, those failures remain.

About a year into their relationship, Rish was terrified. She shook and sobbed for hours with her childhood friend Lori Brault, telling her that Edwards had begun to push and shove her, Brault said in a 2017 affidavit. She knew she needed to get away, but she felt trapped by fear for her safety. What would Edwards do to her and her son if they tried to leave? He had a gun. She had nowhere else to go. And Edwards knew it, Rish wrote in an affidavit. 

Like Tammy Gamache, Rish had tried to escape. In the summer of 1987, she stayed with a friend. But Edwards followed her there, driving around the block and asking for her, she said in her affidavit. 

Even at a young age, abuse felt familiar to Nancy. Her father had repeatedly attacked her mother, chasing her while throwing knives, hitting her with a belt, and strangling her with a cord. He started drinking before Nancy was born. She and her three sisters “were all afraid to be alone with him,” her sister Lori Guimond said in a 2017 affidavit.

Decades later, when Edwards told her she and her son Ben would be killed by a mysterious stranger if she didn’t drive him and later pick him up in a remote area, all she knew was that their lives were in danger. When she tried to ask Edwards what he was doing and why he couldn’t drive himself, he threatened to kill her, her son and himself, Rish said in the affidavit. 


“I’ll blow your brains out. If anything goes wrong, we’re all gonna be dead anyway.”


“I’ll blow your brains out,” her affidavit said. “If anything goes wrong, we’re all gonna be dead anyway.”

According to both physical evidence and Edwards himself, Nancy had no idea what he was planning. All she wanted was to stay alive.

“I just want to say,” Rish told the court before she was sent away to spend her life in prison, “I am not guilty of these charges and never was.”

Justice Fails Nancy Rish

“Young lady, do you realize your next seat could be the electric chair?” a detective told her when she arrived at the police station after her arrest, according to Rish’s trial testimony and her clemency petition. (The Illinois attorney general’s office and a detective involved in the case deny this.)

From that point on, police and prosecution would use unreliable witnesses and spun narratives to implicate Rish in Edwards’s crime. On the day of the kidnapping, Rish attended a Mary Kay cosmetics event and seemed enthusiastic, eager to learn, and not nervous or distracted at all, according to Maxine Shores, who hosted the event at her home. But the prosecutor’s office didn’t want to hear it. When Shores called to report that Rish had acted normally that evening, she was told, “We don’t need your testimony,” Shores wrote in a 2015 affidavit. 

“I felt like they did not want to know the truth,” she wrote. 

Nancy Rish petitioned for relief under a 2016 Illinois law that allows domestic violence victims to be resentenced if they can prove that evidence of abuse was not presented at their sentencing and that their participation in the crime was directly related to it, but so far, she remains trapped in prison. 

As she prepares to apply for clemency, Rish has the support of former correctional officers and other current and formerly incarcerated women. These women describe how she helped them when they needed food, comfort or kindness, how she mentored them in the dog training and grooming program she has been part of for 18 years, how she helped them study for classes, how she listened when they told her their own stories of abuse.

“Domestic abuse is the scariest and most toxic thing that can happen to you. You feel stuck and you will do anything not to get hit again, to not be talked down to,” wrote Kaylee Kindhart, who was incarcerated with Nancy, in a letter this year to Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker. “Just as any parent Nancy did what she felt was right to protect her son and she didn’t know what Danny was doing … I would give anything to let her have freedom after over 33 years.” 


“Domestic abuse is the scariest and most toxic thing that can happen to you. You feel stuck and you will do anything not to get hit again, to not be talked down to.”


Rish’s sister Lori Guimond remembers waiting anxiously at home on Christmas Day in 1961 for baby Nancy to be born. She remembers reaching her arm through Nancy’s crib to soothe her to sleep. And she remembers the 4-year-old who always wanted to tag along with her big sister. That child, “the sweetheart of the neighborhood,” as Guimond describes her, would eventually be entrapped by two abusive partners, and criminalized by the court system. 

“Criminal law just to a great extent was developed based on a male point of view … no appreciation for such things as compulsion, being afraid and doing something because you’re afraid of what’s gonna happen if you don’t,” says Rish’s attorney Margaret Byrne. “There are a lot of women in prison who shouldn’t be there.”


Here at Ms., our team is continuing to report through this global health crisis—doing what we can to keep you informed and up-to-date on some of the most underreported issues of this pandemic. We ask that you consider supporting our work to bring you substantive, unique reporting—we can’t do it without you. Support our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.


Renee Matthews: Finding Home

Just a year ago, Renee Matthews was one of those women. April 6 will mark the one year anniversary of her freedom after almost 25 years in prison for someone else’s crime.  

Domestic Violence
Renee Matthews at Marian House in Baltimore in August 2020, four months after being released from prison after nearly 25 years. (Photo courtesy of Renee Matthews)

When Matthews first met her husband, he seemed like a gentle man with a nice smile, she told Ms. They would go out to the airport with her daughter Jocelyn and watch the planes fly over, or they would all spend time at the park. They married, moved in together, and after about a year, he began to hurt her.

He threw her down the stairs, kicked her off the bed, and punched her in the shoulder and the chest, Matthews told Ms.

It was the day he threatened her with a shotgun, vowing to kill her and her daughter, that Renee knew everything had changed, she said. 

She confided in her brother Kevin about her husband’s abuse, and without Renee’s knowledge, he decided to take matters into his own hands, according to state legislative testimony and Matthews’ attorney, Leigh Goodmark. 

Kevin shot Matthews’s husband, leaving him wounded but alive, and Renee was accused of being part of a plot to have him killed. Represented at the time by a lawyer she barely knew, according to Matthews, the abuse was only hinted at during her trial. 

One witness described a “fight relationship” between Renee and her husband, in which he threatened her with a gun. Others spoke of her fear of going home to him, where on the day of the shooting she would find a “ransacked” house in disarray after he pulled clothes from drawers and overturned a table, according to transcripts of Renee and Kevin Matthews’s trial. 

At her sentencing hearing, Renee’s pastor, Klemona Charlot, who had been like a mother to her for 14 years, told the court that Renee is a “kind and considerate person.”

“The fact is it is not a part of her nature for her to be called cold-blooded and calculating. That is not the Renee I know,” Charlot said. 

But on that day, July 9, 1996, the judge told Renee she’d be imprisoned for life.

Until last year, when Goodmark, a professor at the University of Maryland law school’s Gender Violence Clinic who had been working with Renee for several years, helped her get released. She knew Renee had been unjustly implicated in her brother’s crime. 

Survivors like Renee, Nancy and Tammy have “already suffered at the hands of these people,” Goodmark told Ms. None of the goals of punishment are met by keeping these women in prison, she said.  

Today, Matthews is living in a group home with other women working to overcome traumas of the past. She hopes to become an advocate for other abuse survivors, and create an online talk show to highlight women’s stories. A talented illustrator, she painted a Fred Flintstone drawing and a city nightscape that hung on the walls in the group home for women where she has lived in her first year free in decades. A better day is possible, she told Ms., and survivors shouldn’t give up hope. There was a time when Matthews saw no way out, but after being released last year, she has found a job at Johns Hopkins University and continues to build her new life every day.

“You can survive, you will survive,” she told Ms.

Renee Matthews’s drawing of Fred Flintstone hangs at Marian House in Baltimore. (Photo courtesy of Renee Matthews)

Legislation for Change

In some states, including California and Oregon, new legislation may mean hope for other survivors like Tammy and Nancy.

A California bill could reform sentencing guidelines in some felony murder cases like Tammy Gamache’s, that involve circumstances such as kidnapping, robbery or arson. The bill would give judges the option to provide an alternative to the death penalty or life without parole for those who weren’t directly involved in a murder and never intended for anyone to die, and it could also help people currently in prison request a new sentence.

In light of racial bias that results in people of color being disproportionately incarcerated, “the need for change is compelling,” California state senator and bill author Dave Cortese told Ms.

In Oregon, domestic violence survivors might find relief in a new bill, introduced in January, that would allow for either a reduced sentence or resentencing if evidence showed that domestic violence was a significant contributing factor in the crime. 

“We penalize the victim over and over again in this system. That’s unacceptable,” said Oregon state Representative Tawna Sanchez at a legislative hearing on the bill last Tuesday. 

New York, which has a nearly identical law that took effect in 2019, has released some domestic violence survivors from prison, including Patrice Smith, a human trafficking survivor, Mulumba Kazigo, who served 14 years for fighting back against his abusive father, and Tanisha Davis, a mom who was separated from her son for eight years after defending herself against her abusive boyfriend.

Other efforts, known as Second Look laws, could help survivors with long sentences get out after they’ve served 10 or 15 years in prison, giving them a chance to make their case before a judge.

Currently, 14 states are considering Second Look laws, according to Molly Gill, vice president of policy at FAMM, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advocates for a more fair justice system. 

Washington D.C.’s legislation, expected to take effect in May, is considered a model law. It will make people who were convicted of crimes before age 25 eligible for resentencing after 15 years if a judge determines they aren’t a danger to public safety. 

Last year, as the Maryland legislature debated its own Second Look legislation, a law student, Sydney Goetz, from the University of Maryland’s Gender Violence Clinic, shared Renee’ Matthews’s story at a legislative hearing. Goetz testified that she had asked Renee what she would like to say to the lawmakers. 

“Just ask them to remember the humanity in us,” she told Goetz.

domestic violence
Renee Matthews’s painting of a city nightscape hangs at Marian House in Baltimore. (Photo courtesy of Renee Matthews)

The bill died in Maryland’s House Judiciary Committee.

Waiting 28 Years for Freedom

During her time behind bars, Tammy Gamache has crocheted blankets for children’s hospitals and for the elderly. She has donated food and art supplies to local shelters and schools, and written letters to the children of incarcerated mothers. She is taking college communications courses, studying business and international studies. She has used her education to help other incarcerated women learn to read and write.  

With her friend Kelly Savage-Rodriguez, she made jewelry that Kelly would send home to her family. She watered the garden outside the prison visiting area so that family members could see it isn’t all darkness behind those walls.  

But how much is enough for her to be free? 

“All my learning, knowledge in self and insight into my past,” Gamache wrote to Ms., “is for a future not promised.” 


ABOUT NATALIE SCHREYER

Natalie Schreyer is a freelance journalist and executive producer of the documentary film “And So I Stayed.”

What It’s Like to be Trapped in a Women’s Prison During a Pandemic

Incarcerated for 30 years, I’ve never seen my community suffer like this.

elle.com

Michele Scott
March 15, 2021

THE WASHINGTON POST, GETTY IMAGES

Peering through the thick bars cutting a horizontal strata in the window, I watch the streams of fog soften the edges of the housing unit’s silhouettes lined up outside. Towering stadium lights illuminate the prison grounds when it is dark; this morning they beam a soft light through the mist. This is what mass incarceration looks like at 5:00 am.

Turning on the lamp that’s fastened to the metal frame of my prison bunk, I adjust the coarse, orange fabric of the prison-issued face mask I’ve tied over it. Transformed from Covid-19 mitigation, it’s now infusing my bunk area with a calming marmalade glow. I’ve found that it softens the reality of the cold cinder block wall that runs the length of my lumpy mattress. I live in a room that often holds eight women at a time, in a space the size of a one car garage.

That anything related to Covid-19 is calming is ironic; prisons are a nightmare scenario for an out-of-control virus. 1 in 5 incarcerated people in the United States has tested positive for the coronavirus, which is four times higher than the general population. In California, where I’m incarcerated, that rate is one in 4.

beauty salon behind bars
The women at Central California Women’s Facility run a beauty salon, but with COVID-19, gathering there isn’t what it used to be. Barcroft Media, Getty Images

I know that I engineered my current circumstances by breaking the law, but nobody saw this pandemic coming. Being sentenced to years in prison is different than the very the very real possibility of death at the hands of neglectful and uncaring correctional institutions.

I have to go to breakfast to get food. This requires walking between a gauntlet of staff who are clustered on both sides of a narrow sidewalk leading to the chow hall. I note that many of their masks are carelessly dangling off their chin. The institution says we should report any staff not in compliance with COVID mitigation practices but we know that will result in backlash— probably harassment or our room getting searched.

This morning, when I saw that there wouldn’t be six feet between us, I considered quoting public health messaging. Time in prison, however, has taught me to think through these urges and I reconsidered taking on five correctional officers who clearly weren’t concerned about the coronavirus. I held my breath as I walked by, grateful for the mask that hid equal parts frustration and fear.

To us, these Covid quarantine rooms are dungeons.

I’ve been incarcerated for 30 years and I’ve never seen my community suffer like this. Entire rooms of eight women are regularly plucked out of the housing unit and sent to quarantine after a potential exposure. For 14 days, they sit in two-person cells made up of three narrow cinder block walls that feel like they’re closing in on you. They’re so small that you can touch your bunk and the wall at the same time. You wouldn’t want to actually touch the wall though, they’re smeared with pencil led from previous women using them as a pencil sharpener, or they’re encrusted with dried globs of cheap toothpaste that were used as glue to pin up photos of loved ones or a funny comic sent in the mail. There’s no electricity for appliances, there’s no phone calls or laundry access, we can’t power the tablets we rely on for precious contact with family and the outside world. To us, these Covid quarantine rooms are dungeons.

A woman I’ve known for over 20 years recently returned from quarantine. Usually she is spiritual and encouraging and sedate, always ready with a Bible quote from the Christian books she’s constantly reading. When she returned from quarantine with her roommates, we could see the change in their face and in their spirit.

About a week after she returned, we were both in the medical clinic waiting to be seen. She sat across from me on the stainless steel benches, quietly looking at the ground. Over two decades, we’ve worked together and lived in the same housing unit and shared many conversations. When she started to talk this time, I heard something out of character reflected in her voice and on her face: she was outraged. I saw anger skim across her face in a way I’ve never seen before. Uneasily, I imagined what must have happened to her to mark her this way.

We live in four day chunks of dread— the length of time it takes to get our Covid-19 test results. Each time, we fear learning that someone in our room has tested positive; it’s like living a game of Russian Roulette. We’re haunted by the specter of a positive test, of whose room will be relocated to the quarantine unit next.

This virus is a microscopic presence unseen on every surface. Each time a woman tests positive we all think: did I sit on a couch near her? Did I stand next to her while signing up for phone time? Did I use the kiosk or washing machine after her?

We live in four day chunks of dread— the length of time it takes to get our Covid-19 test results. Each time, we fear learning that someone in our room has tested positive; it’s like living a game of Russian Roulette.

Three days ago, my friend who lives in a room across the hall just a few feet away tested positive. Our whole room knows her, she’s someone we regularly talk to and eat lunch with. One of my roommates even works with her. She and I had chatted a week earlier, standing next to each other in the Dayroom and discussing how we were both handling quarantine. It was 7:40 pm and we were sitting on our bunks when the sound of an officer’s footsteps on concrete echoed on the hallway floor. Then, we heard a scraping sound as the staff unlocked the heavy metal door to her room before the officer leaned into the doorway to call her last name and tell her it was time to go.

My roommates and I peered through our room window, watching our friend step out of her room carrying a large plastic garbage bag filled with her belongings. I could see faces at every window in our hall. Soon, voices began to echo through the cracks in the doorways. Multiple voices overlapped, saying we loved her, to stay strong, that we were praying for her and were planning a big meal to celebrate her return in 14 days.

Afterwards, we sat in our room sharing our own version of ‘contact tracing’ information, each of us suddenly realizing what it could mean. Our cell grew very quiet, each of us considering the encroaching inevitability.

That night, after the 9:30 pm security count, I laid on my bunk wondering how my friend was doing. I pictured her in a quarantine room with no electricity, no television, with strangers she didn’t know. I thought about how this could be my future. I struggled with the reality that this virus was at my front door and probably in my room. The stress was a tangible weight, an inescapable reality of the things and decisions outside of our control that were risking our lives.

Overwhelmed by it all, I distracted myself by watching Saturday Night Live— a chuckle finally emerged at a Rudy Guliani skit. Cracking open a box of cheese crackers and a bag of plain potato chips I thought about how there’s nothing like the old fashioned coping strategy of emotional eating. Self-care is not self-indulgent, I thought, it is self-preservative. As I crunched away at my snacks and allowed the comedy to distract my rapid thoughts, I realized I had reached a point of relenting to what I had no control over. I had surrendered to the uncertainty of my circumstances. Really, it was the only choice I had left.

The next day, each room received a list of what we were allowed to take with us if our test came back positive and we were sent to quarantine.

Even while I wondered if there could be virus in her hair, I tucked her head under my chin.

A few weeks ago, my friend came over to my bunk. She perched on its metal edge and asked if she could talk to me. She was fresh from work. At first, when prison workers were designated “essential workers,” many women were grateful because they were so eager to finally get out of their rooms and go somewhere else in the prison. Before Covid-19, it was common to attend self-help groups in the Chapel or the Visiting Room. We had weekly medical appointments, night time college classes and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Now that’s all gone. Having a job assignment to help fill 23 hours of lockdown every day feels like a gift— even if the work only pays 8 cents to 90 cents an hour.

My friend started to cry as she revealed the fear and stress of being forced to report to her job where she’s assigned along with numerous other women in the prison. They had all recently learned that their supervisor had tested positive for Covid-19. She had been worried about his habit of resting his face mask below his mouth for weeks.

Two days later, when the women returned to work after a brief hiatus it wasn’t clear the work site had been disinfected. All day, they talked about where the virus might still be, the fear and uncertainty wearing on them

My friend is generally a bright breath of happy and joyful energy, but the day and the oppressive mood of her coworkers had taken a toll. Once she stepped into the calm and safety of my room, she cracked. Her voice was shaky and strained as she told me she couldn’t take it, she had tried to be strong and support the other women all day but it was too much; her head dropped and the tears came. She was broken.

I looked at my friend, fresh from coming from her job with her dark eyes filled with the weight of working in a place most likely infected with Covid-19 and though I was acutely aware of how close she was in proximity to me. Could it be on her clothes, I wondered? And as I looked at her tears and the angst carved into her face, I pulled her to me and hugged her. Even while I wondered if there could be virus in her hair, I tucked her head under my chin. As my arms went around in an offer of comfort a small thought occurred to me, I wondered if I was now infected? I hugged her anyway.

Michele Scott Michele Scott is currently incarcerated in Central California Women’s Facility.

California Governor Commutes Sentence of Abuse Survivor, Grants Clemency to Several Others

The Appeal
Meg O’Connor, Joshua Vaughn
Mar 12, 2021

Advocates have been urging Governor Gavin Newsom to make greater use of his clemency power, especially for older prisoners who are more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Copies of the gubernatorial clemency certificates announced today can be found here.


Teresa Paulinkonis had her sentence commuted today after spending 31 years in prison for the 1989 murder of her stepfather in Alameda County. At the time, Paulinkonis was 24 years old. She was sentenced to 25 years to life. Paulinkonis’s attorney, Lilli Paratore, told The Appeal that Paulinkonis was sexually abused by her stepfather for a number of years. 

“Given her history of sexual violence and status as a survivor, which the [clemency] board hadn’t given the appropriate weight or consideration to, we were able to convince the governor that it was time for her to come home,” said Paratore. “I think it’s a great step in the right direction, but I think Governor Newsom has the power to commute many more people, especially those who have already served very long sentences, and he should.”

California Governor Gavin Newsom announced the commutation, which makes Paulinkonis immediately eligible for release on parole, on Friday. 

“While in prison, Ms. Paulinkonis has worked hard to better herself,” Newsom wrote in a letter commuting Paulinkonis’s sentence. “I have carefully considered and weighed the evidence of Ms. Paulinkonis’ positive conduct in prison, the fact that she was a youthful offender, and her good prospects for successful community reentry. I have concluded that Ms. Paulinkonis is ready to be released on parole.”

Newsom also granted 10 medical reprieves, which allow people with health issues to be temporarily released from prison, and pardoned 9 people who had finished serving their sentences.

One of the people Newsom pardoned was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon in 1996 because she cut her work supervisor with a piece of glass during a fight. The pardon prevents her from potentially being deported and separated from her family.

Advocates applauded the clemency moves but said they were too modest, particularly one year into a deadly pandemic that has spread rapidly behind bars. “At any point, given that mass incarceration is a crisis at all times—and on top of that we have the COVID-19 pandemic that has devastated people in prison—these numbers are not nearly enough,” said Colby Lenz, an organizer with Survived and Punished. “It’s significant that they’ve expanded the number of medical reprieves. They should be applauded for these ten medical reprieves today, but they need to do more, and soon.”

Rickie Blue-Sky, 75-year-old transgender Native American elder, was among those granted medical reprieve today. He was sentenced to 27 years to life for murder in 1984, and has been incarcerated for 37 years. Blue-Sky was also one of Paratore’s clients. She said the reprieve “addresses some of the unfairness in how he was convicted in the first place.” 

Blue-Sky has maintained he is innocent, and though he has been eligible for parole for years, he has long been denied. At one point, a deputy district attorney for the San Bernardino District Attorney’s Office said Blue-Sky posed a threat to public safety if released because he “for whatever reason, denies constantly that she is a woman or a female.”

“It appears that he is the first incarcerated trans person that certainly Newsom has granted clemency to, but possibly in California history,” said Lenz. “It has taken a long time to get here and we need this to be the first of many more.”

The state prison population has decreased by more than 24,000 since March 2020, in part because of releases to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. There are currently over 91,000 people incarcerated in California state prisons. While efforts have been made to reduce the state’s prison population in the past year, only about 10 percent of those released were 55 years old or older—a category of people the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say are at significant risk of death or serious complications from the virus.

As of Friday, 215 people in California prisons have died from COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic and more than 49,000 people have tested positive for the virus.

Newsom has granted 72 pardons, 79 commutations and 20 medical reprieves during his tenure, which began in 2019. His predecessor, Jerry Brown, issued 404 pardons and one commutation during his first tenure as governor from 1975 to 1983. Brown ultimately set a record in the state for the use of clemency between 2011 and 2018 during his second tenure as governor, issuing 1,189 pardons and 152 commutations.

Advocates have been urging Newsom to make greater use of his clemency power, especially for older prisoners who are more vulnerable to COVID-19. 

“I think the big misconception is that people feel you’re releasing the same people that were arrested right after their crime,” said Earlonne Woods, who helped create and host the podcast Ear Hustle while he was incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison. “People don’t put in consideration that most of the people are getting released 15, 20, 30 years later. People have worked on themselves.”

Woods received a commutation from his life sentence from Brown in 2018.

State Senator Nancy Skinner applauded the governor for granting medical reprieves. “This is particularly important during this deadly pandemic as there are so many in our prisons who are elderly and medically vulnerable,” she said. “I hope that more such clemency and medical reprieves are offered in appropriate circumstances.”

Newsom’s clemency announcement comes as he is facing a potential recall campaign, largely for his handling of COVID-19 lockdown measures. 

The clemency announcement comes at a time when opponents of criminal justice reform have taken up recall campaigns against San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin and Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón. Both Boudin, who took office in 2020, and Gascón, who was elected in November and took office in December, ran on reforming the criminal justice system and have instituted policies like eliminating cash bail to reduce the carceral footprint in their cities. Gascón, who has only been in office a few months, is facing recall efforts before many of his policies have even played out.