Announcing the 2021 Docs in Action Film Fund Recipients

The history of the prison industrial complex is rooted in slavery and colonization, with an inherent purpose of reinforcing oppressive social and economic injustices. It’s driven by market forces that use surveillance, policing, violence and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social, and political problems. It is exacted by police officers, guards, ICE officers, and others that enforce state violence. Brutality and racism has always been the norm. The system is working how it was designed, and reform measures will always fall short. 

To illuminate these realities and get to a world free of police and prisons – we need stories. Stories that share the history and harm of these institutions, stories that show people pushing back and taking action, and stories that bring forth irresistible visions of a future with humane and just alternatives to policing and incarceration. This was the intention of the Docs in Action request for proposals, which sought to fund short nonfiction films that can help define and amplify what prison industrial complex abolition means, and that inspire people to imagine and take action toward a world without police and prisons.

We are excited and honored to announce the recipients of the 2021 Docs in Action Film Fund. $125,000 was awarded to five filmmakers to complete short films that embody these narratives. They include: Adamu Chan for What These Walls Won’t Hold, Erika Cohn for Belly of the Beast (short version), Walidah Imarisha for Space to Breathe, Sylvia Ryerson for Restorative Radio, and Khary Septh for Pen Pals

The complexities of abolition are deeply layered. It is both historical and imaginative. This is why narrative is such a crucial component of the abolitionist movement. “Abolition contains multitudes,” Red Schulte, Organizer with Survived & Punished New York, reflects on the ongoing work and struggle. “A central aspect to me, an aspect that keeps me recommitted to these politics and relationship experiments, is the creativity and imagination that abolition demands. Making visual narratives, like films, making our own media is so crucial to shifting social and cultural norms, beliefs and commitments. Resourcing people to make their art, to document our movements, to imagine different worlds — that has to be part of our political agenda.”

Working Films launched the Docs In Action Film Fund in 2018 to support the production of short documentaries that address critical issues of social and environmental justice. This year, we evolved how Docs In Action funding decisions are made. Because we believe that grassroots leaders and directly impacted people should hold the power to determine what stories are told and what films are funded to serve their movements, we ceded our role on the grant panel. The funded films were selected by our partners, which include Center for Political EducationCritical ResistanceMPD150, and Survived & Punished

The intentionality to build power from the ground up is echoed in the words of Aminah Elster, Campaign & Policy Coordinator with the CA Coalition for Women Prisoners and organizer with Survived & Punished CA, “The overall process of the DIA panel allowed for proximate leaders working towards abolition at various intersections, to truly have a hand in selecting the narratives that most accurately reflect and amplify what our communities have long been experiencing.” 

The 2021 Docs In Action Film Fund recipients include:

What These Walls Won’t Hold by Adamu Chan

The COVID-19 crisis inside California prisons has claimed the lives of over 200 incarcerated people and infected tens of thousands more. This film tracks the origins of COVID-19 inside the California state prison system and a newly formed coalition, led by currently and formerly incarcerated people, that brought forward an abolitionist framework to a life or death situation. What These Walls Won’t Hold explores how relationships, built on trust, shared liberatory struggle, and connections across broader abolitionist organizing work, can unfold into sites of resistance and radical change.

Adamu Chan is a filmmaker, writer, and community organizer from the Bay Area who was incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison during one of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the country. He produced numerous short films while incarcerated, using his vantage point and experience as an incarcerated person as a lens to focus the viewer’s gaze on issues related to social justice. Adamu draws inspiration and energy from the voices of those directly impacted, and seeks to empower them to reshape the narratives that have been created about them through film.

What These Walls Won’t Hold is produced by Christian Collins and Adamu Chan.

Space to Breathe by Walidah Imarisha, Jordan Flaherty, and Kate Trumbull-LaValle, in collaboration with Calvin Williams of Wakanda Dream Lab

Space to Breathe is an Afrofuturist science fiction hybrid documentary. The film is set in a future where there are no prisons or police, looking back at how today’s movements built that future.

Walidah Imarisha is an educator at Portland State University’s Black Studies Department and a writer. Her work includes Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements and Angels with Dirty Faces: Three Stories of Crime, Prison and Redemption. Jordan Flaherty is an award-winning journalist, producer, and author. You can see more of his work at Kate Trumbull-LaValle is an award-winning independent documentary filmmaker. She directed Ovarian Psycos (2016), Artist and Mother (2018), City Rising: The Informal Economy (2018), and she co-produced two of five episodes for the groundbreaking PBS series, Asian Americans (2020). Over the past 20 years, Calvin Williams has been worldbuilding for liberation as a dynamic cultural strategist & policy futurist, and is Co-founder and Creative Director for Wakanda Dream Lab.

Restorative Radio by Sylvia Ryerson

Every Monday night, Michelle Griffin dials into WMMT-FM community radio’s Calls from Home, to send a message over the airwaves to her husband, imprisoned 400 miles away. For thousands incarcerated in Central Appalachia, the show provides a lifeline to the world outside. Restorative Radio tells the stories of family and friends who call in, and those who listen in from prison. Directed by a former DJ of the show, the film portrays the many forms of distance that rural prison building creates — and the ceaseless search to overcome this regime of family separation and racial apartheid.

Sylvia Ryerson is a multimedia artist, journalist and PhD candidate in American Studies at Yale University. Prior to graduate school she worked at the Appalshop media arts and education center in Whitesburg, KY, where she served as a reporter, producer and WMMT-FM Director of Public Affairs. She co-directed and hosted Appalshop’s Calls from Home radio show, broadcasting music and toll-free phone messages from family members to their loved ones incarcerated, and Making Connections News, a multimedia storytelling project documenting efforts for a Just Appalachian Transition. She currently co-produces Melting the ICE / Derritiendo el Hielo, a bilingual radio show broadcasting testimonios and information to people detained by ICE in New Jersey. Her academic and artistic work has appeared on Kentucky Educational Television (KET), the BBC, NPR’s The Takeaway and Here and Now, the Third Coast International Audio Festival, in American Quarterly, the Boston ReviewThe Marshall Project, and Critical Resistance’s The Abolitionist.

Restorative Radio is produced by Sylvia Ryerson, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Mimi Pickering, and Reuben Atlas. Impact production by Michelle Griffin. Cinematography by Randall Taylor Jr. and Ayesha Gilani Taylor.

Pen Pals by Khary Septh

Pen Pals shares the stories of the Black LGBTQ+ community caught in the web of America’s prison industrial complex. Exploring the story of Dominique Morgan who was formerly incarcerated and now is the Executive Director of Black and Pink where she works tirelessly to advance prison abolition and supports LGBTQ+ people and people living with HIV/AIDS who are affected by that system, we gain not only an analysis of the structural role of the PIC in maintaining white supremacy and capitalism, but also, a call-to-action for our community to engage in cooperative activities to end it. Dominique’s story as a Black transgender woman also adds the complexity of gender identity to the story, and how it relates to the extreme suffering of trans people trapped in the PIC, and also in society beyond the walls. Stories soften the heart so that the mind may rationally consider things like our moral obligation to support our incarcerated population, or the safety of trans identities in the prison industrial complex, and ultimately, our duty to topple the prison industrial complex. Pen Pals is a collection of these stories, all shared in service of ending the suffering of our people.

Khary Septh is a filmmaker and Executive Editor of The Tenth Magazine, a bi-annual publication that engages the world’s most dynamic LGBTQ+ artists and intellectuals of color in presenting content steeped the American tradition of politically engaged journalism that pays attention to long form, ambitious writing and critical queer thought. A graduate of Cornell University, before starting The Tenth, Khary spent many years as the head of Pink Rooster Studio—a Brooklyn-Based creative studio, and these days, spends his time living and working between New York’s Hudson River Valley and New Orleans, focusing on projects such as the Hudson Emergency Artist Response Team (HEART); non-conditional grants of $500 awarded monthly to BIPOC Hudson-based artists to weather the COVID-19 crisis, and The Tenth Academy, which strives to democratize access to quality mentorship and education, specifically for today’s Black and brown queer youth and adult communties through paprtnerships with institutions such as Spelman College and the Amistad Reseach Archives. 

Pen Pals is produced by James Powell and Andre Jones. Cinematography by Drew McCrary. 

Belly of the Beast (short version) by Erika Cohn

When an unlikely duo discovers a pattern of illegal sterilizations in women’s prisons, they wage a near impossible battle against the Department of Corrections. Filmed over seven years with extraordinary access and intimate accounts from currently and formerly incarcerated people, Belly of the Beast exposes modern-day eugenics and reproductive injustice in California prisons.

Erika Cohn is a Peabody, Emmy and DGA Award-winning filmmaker who Variety recognized as one of 2017’s top documentary filmmakers to watch and was featured in DOC NYC’s 2019 “40 Under 40.” Erika directed/produced Belly of the Beast, a NY Times Critic’s Pick, currently playing in virtual cinemas. Erika also directed/produced The Judge (TIFF 2017) and co-directed/produced In Football We Trust (Sundance 2015).

Belly of the Beast is produced by Angela Tucker, Christen Marquez, and Nicole Docta.

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.

Michele Scott
March 15, 2021


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.

Outraged by abuse at women’s prison, Democratic senators call for creation of public advocate

Colleen O’Dea, NJ Spotlight
February 17, 2021

This story originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.

New Jersey needs a new public advocate to help protect inmates and people in other state-run facilities, three lawmakers said, arguing more oversight is needed after last month’s assault on inmates at the women’s prison and the apparent failure of the state to reach a settlement with federal authorities over problems at the facility.

The state had a public advocate , but the office fell victim to politics and was last active more than a decade ago. The three top Democratic state senators, all critical of the leadership of New Jersey’s prisons, plan to create a new advocate. The position would be more limited in its scope of authority but also independent of the whims of governors who may not like the work the office undertakes.

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and Sens. Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer) and Nellie Pou (D-Passaic) said they plan to introduce legislation soon creating an independent public advocate with investigative and legal powers over incidents in state and county correctional facilities, veterans homes, psychiatric hospitals, developmental centers and community-based programs and under state guardianship. They are also calling for the establishment of community advisory boards to provide oversight of each institution and hold quarterly public meetings with administrators to discuss issues and complaints.

Spurred by lack of DOJ settlement

Last week’s announcement came a day after the senators learned the state Department of Corrections did not reach a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice over a scathing report issued last spring about conditions at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, the lawmakers said. Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks told a Senate committee last September that there was a tentative agreement. A DOJ spokeswoman declined to comment on the matter.

Had the sides reached a consent agreement, federal monitors most likely would have been inside Mahan and could potentially have averted the assaults in January  that left one female inmate with a fractured eye socket and another with a concussion, the senators said. Three corrections officers have been charged in connection with the assault that continues to be the subject of investigations by the state attorney general’s office and an outside lawyer brought in by Gov. Phil Murphy.

“The assaults on women inmates on January 11 came nine months after the Justice Department found that abuses by corrections officers violated the civil rights of inmates, and five months after Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks said the administration was reviewing a proposed agreement,” Weinberg said. “If federal monitors were assigned to Edna Mahan, the 32 corrections officers who are now suspended would have had to think hard before deciding to don riot gear, brutally assault women inmates or brazenly try to cover it up.”

She added that a “truly independent public advocate” is needed to provide oversight and advocacy for those in institutions because their administrators often try to prevent the public disclosure of abuse or other problems.

DOJ documents sex abuse, other problems

The DOJ report was the result of an investigation that began in April 2018. It found systemic problems at Mahan that allow sexual abuse to occur undetected and undeterred and that discourage prisoners from reporting abuse. At least eight correctional police officers at the Hunterdon County facility have been charged with sexual assault or misconduct since 2015.

During a September hearing before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, Hicks said he expected the settlement agreement with the DOJ to be finalized soon and that federal officials had acknowledged steps the DOC had taken to improve the climate at Mahan, which held about 400 inmates as of last month. Hicks said the department had taken a number of steps to make the facility safer and had changed the “toxic culture” there.

Weinberg called Hicks’ statements about changes at Mahan “fiction” several times during a news conference last week as she, Greenstein and a number of advocates called for reforms, including the replacement of Hicks and a federal takeover of the women’s prison.

The entire Senate Democratic delegation, as well as some Republicans, have called for Hicks to be replaced. One Republican Assemblywoman is preparing legislation calling for his impeachment.

“Commissioner Hicks led us to believe that the Justice Department’s proposed settlement with ‘very specific recommendations’ was being reviewed by counsel and that an agreement was imminent,” Greenstein said. “Six months later, the fact that there is still no agreement makes it clear that protecting vulnerable women locked in prison from physical and sexual abuse is not a priority for this administration.”

Call for DOJ’s details

Pou called on the DOC to immediately release the DOJ’s recommendations to the Legislature and the public, as well as all correspondence between the two agencies related to the proposed settlement.

“The Legislature and the people have a right to know what the Justice Department recommended and why women inmates at Edna Mahan have been allowed to continue to fear for their physical safety for months while this Corrections Department finds excuses not to implement reforms that could protect them,” Pou said. “The coverup has gone on long enough at all levels.”

If an advocate were already in place, it is unlikely that the tentative settlement would still be a secret, Pou said.

The senators are proposing that the independent advocate have broad investigatory powers, the ability to enter institutions at any time and meet with staff, inmates and residents and the ability to file lawsuits if corrective actions are not undertaken. They are working with the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services to determine the best option to provide a bipartisan reporting structure and independence for the new agency, similar to the state auditor or the State Commission of Investigation.

They do not want to create an advocate like the former Department of the Public Advocate, which was created as a cabinet-level agency reporting to the governor in 1974. Gov. Christie Whitman abolished the office in 1994. While he was governor, Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex) signed a law recreating the agency in 2005, only to have Gov. Chris Christie eliminate it again five years later. During its existence, the public advocate worked to improve conditions at the state’s psychiatric hospitals and enforce standards in nursing homes.

Independence deemed essential

“One thing we’ve learned from past experience is that the public advocate cannot report to the governor or another Cabinet official,” Weinberg said. “The new agency must be truly independent to be effective — and to survive.”

A new, independent advocate would watch out for the needs of all those in state institutions, not just in prisons. And having community boards in place, as well, might have helped mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in state facilities last spring.

“We need boards that include advocates, experts, family members, former inmates or residents, union or staff representatives and community leaders who know what is happening in these institutions and would hold regularly scheduled public meetings with administrators to discuss issues and complaints,” said Greenstein. “If we had such a board at the Paramus Veterans Home, we would have known about the pandemic sweeping through the facility much sooner.”

To date, 155 residents of the state’s three veterans homes have died of COVID-19, with more than half those deaths at the Paramus site, according to the state. The facility was so overwhelmed in April that the National Guard was sent in to help quell the outbreak. An investigation into what happened is ongoing.

Lawsuit Filed Denouncing Assaults on Trans & Queer Prisoners at CCWF

Transgender, Gender Non-Conforming and Queer Prisoners say “me too”: Lawsuit Filed Denouncing Assaults at The Central California Women’s Facility

On November 9, 2017 four people of color – a transgender man, a gender non-conforming person and two queer female prisoners – who were all at one time incarcerated at the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), filed a lawsuit against the State of California and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).  The lawsuit denounces two vicious assaults where correctional officers beat up, sexually harassed, hurled homophobic and transphobic insults at, and tormented the plaintiffs.  The plaintiffs were then denied medical treatment for their injuries and were prevented from filing grievances about the assaults they had experienced.  The assaults are particularly reprehensible because the plaintiffs are all survivors of sexual trauma and violence and were assaulted while advocating for their basic human rights.

The assaults originally took place on November 11, 2015, when Stacy Rojas, a gender non-conforming former prisoner was brutally attacked by correctional officers after warning that they intended to complain to the prison’s internal investigation unit about repeated harassment by guards regarding their gender.  Rojas’ cell mates were subsequently attacked when they indicated that they would report the use of excessive force against Rojas.  All three were then confined for nearly twelve hours in small programming cages and subject to sexually humiliating and abusive treatment.  This included having their clothing cut off of their bodies, having their breasts and chests stomped on by guard boots, and being told that male guards could “show them what a real man is” while making reference to the size of their penises.  They were then put in solitary confinement without cause and without receiving medical treatment for their injuries or being allowed to use the restroom.

When all three plaintiffs attempted to use the internal system of accountability designed to report abuses inside prisons, they were obstructed. Their original complaints were claimed to have been lost and then mentioned in response to future complaints as a reason to not investigate follow-up reports. Furthermore, they were never informed by the CDCR of conclusive results of any investigation into the incidents. The legal complaint submitted by the law offices of Siegel and Yee seeks the creation of a system of true accountability for excessive use of force, sexualized violence, and targeting of transgender, gender non-conforming and queer prisoners by guards against prisoners as well as freedom from retaliation for reporting such violations.

Released in January 2017, Rojas is now part of the legal advocacy team working on the case, they are committed to making a difference for those still in prison: “Most of us are inside because of the histories of violence and abuse that we experienced and then got caught up in.  Just because we are in prison doesn’t mean that we should not have our basic human rights protected.  I do not want anyone else to go through what I did.  My fellow inmates use to tell me that I was singled out because of my gender and because I advocated for myself and others.  We have a right to stand up for ourselves and to take care of each other.”

On January 5, 2017, Isaac Medina, a transgender prisoner at CCWF, was denied access to his medication.  When he asked why he was being denied, he was then attacked violently by multiple guards.  At the time of the attack, Medina was in a wheelchair and during the incident he was also denied the accommodations he was entitled to under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).  During the course of the attack he endured physical brutality and sexually humiliating treatment, such as having his pants pulled down to his ankles throughout the attack and having his head smashed against a brick wall.  Medina, was also placed in a programming cage and not allowed to use the bathroom after the attack.  Further, he was denied medical treatment for his injuries.

According to Sara Kershnar of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, “These incidents are part of a pattern of abuse at CCWF, part of a climate of increasing violence employed by correctional officers at CCWF against transgender, gender non-conforming and queer women prisoners.  They represent a backlash against hard-won legal rights for trans people in prison, such as the right to access hormone therapy.  They reflect officer resentment about changing cultural norms regarding gender identity.  They also re-traumatize people who have suffered sexual violence and homophobia and transphobia before they were incarcerated.”

This is a moment of exploding social awareness in this country about the pervasiveness of sexual  harassment and violence by those in power against vulnerable people.  This case shines a light on predatory practices by correctional officers that target people who are marginalized within women’s prisons based upon their gender identification and sexuality.  The plaintiffs’ demand systemic policy changes in the prisons to prevent such types of abuse and prejudice in the future.




Dear CCWP Community,

2017 has been a hard year for all people who seek justice in the world.  At the same time, it has been a year when we have all pushed our limits to resist a system that is ramping up white supremacy, anti-immigrant fever, misogyny, transphobia, xenophobia and hate of all kinds. CCWP has responded by intensifying our work on behalf of people living in California’s women prisons – rejuvenating and expanding our visiting teams, pushing forward with campaign to DROP LWOP sentencing, and building a new CCWP chapter in Los Angeles.

One of CCWP’s major highlights of 2017 was our statewide retreat in September. There, we reaffirmed our collective commitment to nurture creative forms of radical sanctuary inside and outside of prison and prioritize mutual aid and grassroots advocacy.

At the retreat, we welcomed members of our new CCWP chapter based in Los Angeles, a major step forward in building our capacity across the state.  Our growing L.A. chapter reflects the tremendous amount of dedicated work that has been done with people at CIW and their loved ones over the past couple of years in response to the suicide and in-custody death crisis there.

In 2017 CCWP worked inside and outside of prisons to accomplish many things:

  • Launched the Drop LWOP campaign!  We sent thousands of signed postcards to the Governor urging him to commute LWOP sentences.  This year, he has started to grant commutations for the first time, including two women we work with, Sue Russo and Liz Stroder. Almost 30 other people at CCWF and CIW who filed petitions for commutations have now been interviewed. We also partnered with people at CIW to hold a powerful LWOP town hall inside the prison! Over 100 people participated, building strength and community for the 36 people at CIW serving LWOP
  • Pressured the California State Auditor to release a highly critical report of CDCR suicide prevention and response policies, focusing on CIW. The report confirmed everything CCWP had been saying for years – but its proposals for change didn’t go far enough.
  • Filed a lawsuit, working with Siegel & Yee law firm, against the CDCR for egregious incidents of excessive force used by correctional officers at CCWF against gender non-conforming and trans survivors of sexual trauma and violence.
  • Stepped up to support immigrant women in detention by demonstrating at the Contra Costa West County Detention Facility on International Women’s Day, offering solidarity to hunger strikers protesting horrendous conditions at Northwest and Adelanto detention centers, and supporting CCWP member Ny Nourn who was recently released on bail!
  • Began the Share the Fire reading circle with members inside and outside of women’s prisons. All members read the same materials focused on race, gender and prisons and exchange reflections about these thought provoking pieces.
  • Supported the passage of many propositions and legislative bills, including SCR 48 (the Felony Murder Rule Change); SB 394 (the Youth LWOP bill); AB 1008 (expanding Ban the Box); and SB 310 (The Name and Dignity Act for Incarcerated Trans People).
  • Initiated FireStorm, a new educational project to build international solidarity with women and trans people targeted by the U.S.-led Prison Industrial Complex around the world.
  • Continued building our visiting teams, parole support, Fired Up empowerment group in the San Francisco jail, and The Fire Inside newsletter (now in its 21st year of publication!)

All of this crucial work requires resources of many different sorts. Your donation will help us strengthen these efforts in 2018:

  • Support the salaries and stipends for our staff members.
  • Sponsor expenses for prison visits including car rentals, gas and food for the people we visit.
  • Provide stipends for the formerly incarcerated members of our Speakers’ Bureau.
  • Contribute printing and mailing costs for The Fire Inside.

We cannot do this without you, our community! Please accept an invitation to be part of this work by:

  • Becoming a monthly sustainer
  • Making a generous one-time contribution
  • Planning a legacy gift through a bequest, a living trust or a beneficiary designation


For 22 years, CCWP has been challenging the impact of state, racist and gendered violence in prisons and on the streets.  There has never been a more important time to come together to dismantle the systems that promote violence and hate and build community based on justice and love. Thank you for supporting us in these efforts!