News

Vigil for Vickie Lee Hammonds

Alma Hammonds, Vickie’s sister, speaking in front of CIW at November 9th rally.

Vickie Lee Hammonds, a mother,  grandmother, great-grandmother, sister, and beloved by many others, died from medical neglect at the California Institution for Women (CIW) on June 5, 2019. She was only 55 years old. Her death—devastating and preventable —speaks to a pattern of injuries and deaths as well as a larger culture of disregard at CIW specifically and throughout the CDCr more broadly, despite widespread and persistent public scrutiny. Vickie’s family and CCWP demand that California and its institutions of human caging be held responsible for preventable deaths in their custody, like Vickie’s, and for practices of ongoing abuse and neglect.

Vickie was diagnosed with diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and had suffered through years of poor medical treatment at CIW. She also had trouble walking even short distances, but Vickie was continually denied access to a wheelchair despite repeated requests. Vickie’s health worsened in the weeks leading up to her death, but she and her friends’ advocacy on her behalf was ignored. On June 4th, the day before she passed away, Vickie’s breathing became especially strained. Despite informing the nurse of her difficulty breathing  and that her oxygen machine was malfunctioning, Vickie was sent back to her cell with no additional care, support or resources.

On the morning of June 5th, Vickie’s condition worsened. Once again, Vickie was refused admission to the prison’s emergency medical unit or transfer to the hospital. Later that night Vickie stopped breathing. Guards performed CPR while they waited for emergency responders, but their access was prevented because of new procedures around a newly-installed fence at the prison.  It took a full 45 minutes before the emergency medical team was granted access and reached Vickie. By then it was too late and Vickie was pronounced dead in the hallway outside her cell.

The horrific circumstances of Vickie’s death were compounded by the lack of communication with her family. It was not the prison who contacted Vickie’s sister, Alma Hammonds, but one of Vickie’s friends. And, as if losing a family member is not devastating enough, there was also confusion and chaos around the whereabouts of her body. “We the family of Vickie Lee Hammonds feel that her early demise was due to a lack of proper medical treatment and a complete lack of response to her,” Vickie’s family said in a statement. “Vickie’s family suffered a great loss and we all are lost for words. We all want to know why she was so neglected and allowed to die.”

Taylor Lytle reading the poem she wrote for Vickie

For Vickie, by Taylor Lytle

Help i can’t breathe

 Was her only plea

But it was not met with urgency

and now beautiful soul gone too soon

Preventable yes

But CDCR is never accountable for their mess

So we stand here and protest

We shout the names of our lost loved one

Vickie we love you

 Vickie we will fight for you.

Vickie you won’t die in vain

Vickie we are sorry

Sorry because we couldn’t save you from a system that enslaved you

The same system that claimed they wanted to help you Failed you.

We, your sisters and brothers, are sorry that we are still powerless in 2019

from preventing these systems from destroying our families

CIW u r guilty

Of inmate cruelty

 I have no reason to lie

 I once was a victim you see.

No more hiding behind these gates

The truth has been told

We’re shutting you down

I promise you that even if it cost me my soul

Screaming no more deaths is becoming a little too old

We are taking the power back

We will see to it that you get closed For good

Thank you

Gravestones for some of those who have died preventable deaths at CIW

#MeToo Behind Bars Rally

On Wednesday October 30th, over sixty people rallied in front of the CDCr office building in Sacramento to demand an end to the sexual and gender-based violence that has targeted trans and gender non-conforming (TGNC) people in California’s prisons. The spirited gathering marched, chanted and listened as many formerly incarcerated people denounced the sexual and physical abuse they endured while inside prison.  Stacy Rojas, lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed against the CDCr about the assaults, described their efforts to document incidents of guard abuse which led to a brutal attack against them and several other people in 2015.  Another speaker explained that “we are only asking for them to be held accountable. The (prison) system is designed to hurt people who don’t conform. When you speak out about that, you become endangered.” 

The rally was a powerful expression of outrage at repeated experiences of harassment and violence.  It also demonstrated a fierce determination to work to ensure changes for those who remain behind bars. Demands included an end to the assaults and targeting of TGNC people in prison; a strict process to hold guards and staff accountable for abusive actions; and an end to retaliation against whistleblowers who report abuses.  Plans are underway to hold a statewide Peoples Hearing in 2020 that can clearly expose what’s going on in prisons in California and all over the country and mobilize broad grassroots support for demands for change. 

Dejohnette is CCWP’s Inaugural Charisse Shumate Fellow!

It is a great honor to be the first Charisse Shumate fellow.  I promise to do her name justice!

CCWP is thrilled to announce that Laverne Dejohnette will be the inaugural fellow. We are starting this fellowship program to honor the life and legacy of Charisse Shumate, one of our incarcerated founding members.  Charisse was a lead plaintiff in the 1995 lawsuit Shumate v. Wilson, which challenged the abusive, inhumane health care in California’s women’s prisons, amounting to cruel and unusual punishment. In the very first issue of The Fire Inside newsletter, which she helped start, she wrote, “If walls could talk, we would not have to beg for help.” She was a survivor who was punished with a life sentence for defending herself against domestic violence. Charisse pushed forward the conversation about the criminalization of women who resisted and embodied the phrase that she used repeatedly, “It’s not a me thing, it’s a we thing.”  Charisse died in August 2001 of complications of sickle cell anemia that was never treated adequately inside prison.  The Charisse Shumate Fellowship carries on her powerful spirit.

Dejohnette was released from prison in June 2019 after serving 26 years of a Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentence.  When Dejohnette first came to prison, Charisse was one of the elders who helped to educate her about the need to stand up for the rights of everyone inside.  After years of being resigned to her LWOP sentence, Dej began to actively advocate for commutations for herself and others inside. Right before Dejohnette was due to be released from prison, she worked with Brandi Taliano to create the quilt with CCWP’s logo that she is holding in the picture above.  Dejohnette wants to use the fellowship to speak and advocate for people in women’s prisons and inspire others to be Fearless, Together and Unified.  Dejohnette says, “It is a great honor to be the first Charisse Shumate fellow.  I promise to do her name justice!

Charisse repping The Fire Inside

CCWP Co-Sponsors AB 1764 -Sterilization Compensation


Kelli Dillon, center, and team after Kelli testified at the Assembly Public Safety Committee.

The Assembly Public Safety Committee passed AB 1764 – the Forced Sterilization Compensation Program Bill, authored by Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo.  AB 1764 would provide victim compensation to survivors of California state sponsored sterilization between 1909 and 1979; and survivors of involuntary sterilizations in women’s state prisons after 1979. 

 The bill, which is co-sponsored by California Latinas for Reproductive Justice (CLRJ), the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), and the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) would make California the third state in the nation to provide compensation for survivors who were sterilized under state eugenics laws and the first to offer compensation to survivors of involuntary sterilizations at women’s state prisons.

 The number of people sterilized under the 1909 eugenics law in California account for one third of all the recorded sterilizations that occurred in the United States in the 20th century. All those affected lived in state institutions and were classified as having disabilities or were deemed “unfit for reproduction” by state entities. It is important to note that administrators of the law at the time had broad discretion in practice to decide who was classified as “unfit.” The majority of sterilizations were done on women and girls, and disproportionately impacted Latinas, who were 59% more likely to be sterilized than non-Latinas. 

 “For 70 years, it was legal for Californians to be sterilized just because they were disabled or somebody thought they were disabled. California’s Sterilization Compensation Bill helps provide redress to disabled survivors who were wrongly sterilized against their will,” said Susan Henderson, Executive Director, DREDF. “Taking responsibility for this injustice is the necessary next step to guard against future state-sanctioned abuse and discrimination.”

 While California’s eugenic law was repealed in 1979, a subsequent state audit revealed that at least 144 people had been sterilized during labor and delivery without proper consent while incarcerated in California women’s prisons from 2006 to 2010. Further research indicates that an additional 100 involuntary sterilizations were performed during labor and delivery with an additional small number of other coerced or involuntary sterilizations happening during other surgeries in the late 1990’s.  As with the sterilizations performed under California’s eugenics law, the sterilizations disproportionately affected people of color.

 “The sterilizations at the women’s prisons primarily targeted Black and Brown women as well as poor white women,” said Hafsah Al-Amin, CCWP Program Coordinator. “They were intended to stop the reproduction of a population whom the state would rather see caged, disenfranchised and infertile.”

 Eugenic sterilization programs are now considered a major human rights abuse. California officials apologized for this historical wrong in 2003. Recently the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors issued a public apology for the non-consensual tubal ligations of Mexican-origin women at USC/LA County Hospital in the 1960s-1970s, yet the history and legacy of California’s eugenics laws are little known. 

 “The legacy of California’s eugenics law is well-known and as the prison sterilizations show, the repercussions continue to be felt,” said Laura Jimenez, Executive Director, CLRJ. “As reproductive justice advocates, we recognize the insidious impact state-sponsored policies have on the dignity and rights of poor women of color who are often stripped of their ability to form the families they want. This bill is a step in the right direction in remedying the violence inflicted on these survivors.”

 This bill would help compensate verified survivors of California’s eugenic sterilization program and involuntary sterilizations at California women’s state prisons as well as establish markers at designated sites that acknowledge the compulsory sterilization of thousands of people in the state, raising awareness of the unjust sterilizations of thousands of people. Although monetary compensation cannot adequately address the harm suffered by sterilization survivors, it is a material acknowledgement of this wrong.

About California Latinas for Reproductive Justice (CLRJ) CLRJ is a statewide organization committed to honoring the experiences of Latinas to uphold our dignity, our bodies, sexuality, and families. We build Latinas’ power and cultivate leadership through community education, policy advocacy, and community informed research to achieve Reproductive Justice. Learn more about California Latinas for Reproductive Justice at www.californialatinas.org
About Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) The Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), founded in 1979, is a leading national civil rights law and policy center directed by individuals with disabilities and parents who have children with disabilities. DREDF works to advance the civil and human rights of people with disabilities through legal advocacy, training, education, and public policy and legislative development. Learn more about DREDF at https://dredf.org/
About California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) CCWP is a grassroots social justice organization, with members inside and outside prison, that challenges the institutional violence imposed on women, transgender people, and communities of color by the prison industrial complex (PIC). We see the struggle for racial and gender justice as central to dismantling the PIC and we prioritize the leadership of the people, families, and communities most impacted in building this movement. Learn more at https://womensprisoners.org