An interview with Diana Block, Pam Faden, and Dierdre Wilson of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners
On Sept. 26, the statewide prisoner hunger strike resumed after a postponement of almost two months to give the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) time to implement policy changes. The CDCR has reported that as of Sept. 28, almost 12,000 prisoners were striking and public support is needed in order for the strike to be most effective. An update posted October 7 at the “Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity” website stated that “medical conditions are also worsening for strikers throughout the state. We’ve received reports that after 12 days of no food, prisoners are once again losing severe weight and fainting. One hunger striker at Pelican Bay was denied his medication and consequently suffered from a heart attack and is now is an outside hospital in Oregon.”
The current hunger strike demonstrates once again that injustice fuels resistance, and California has a rich history of prisoners, former prisoners, and their supporters taking a stand. Among these freedom fighters is the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), self-publishers of a newsletter entitled The Fire Inside (archived here). CCWP will be celebrating its 15th year anniversary on October 14, with an event in San Francisco featuring longtime anti-prison activist and former political prisoner Angela Davis along with other speakers and performers.
Our previous coverage of the statewide hunger strike focused on the issue of solitary confinement, as well as statewide grassroots organizing against California’s prison system. In this interview with three members of CCWP, we examine the treatment of women and transgender prisoners in California and discuss how CCWP is fighting back.
Diana Block is a founding member of CCWP and has been working on The Fire Inside newsletter since it was started. She is a mother and the author of a memoir entitled Arm the Spirit – A Woman’s Journey Underground and Back (AK Press, 2009).
Pam Fadem is a long time member of CCWP and has worked on the Fire Inside for over 10 years. She is a mom, a health educator and a disability rights activist as well. Pam had her own experience with the criminal injustice system when she refused to cooperate with a federal grand jury targeting the Puerto Rican Independence Movement.
Deirdre Wilson is a former prisoner, a program coordinator for CCWP and a mother. She began to work with Free Battered Women/CCWP shortly after she got out of prison because “the whole FBW/CCWP community made me feel honored for surviving my experiences and accepted me just as I was—a rare feeling for people released from prison!”
Angola 3 News: When and how was CCWP first started?
California Coalition for Women Prisoners: First, we want to thank Angola 3 News for this opportunity to discuss the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) and The Fire Inside newsletter. This 15th Anniversary of The Fire Inside gives us a chance to reflect on where things were 15 years ago and all the many struggles that CCWP has been a part of since 1995.
Some of the founding members of CCWP are still involved with the organization, but many have gone on to other work and different parts of the country. Far too many prisoners and former prisoners have made their transition and are not around to remind us of our roots.
Luckily, The Fire Inside itself offers first-hand documentation of this history which is invaluable for building our movement forward through the next fifteen years and beyond.
CCWP was started by prisoners, former prisoners and advocates on the outside in 1995 when a lawsuit, Shumate v. Wilson, was brought by a team of legal organizations to challenge the cruel, inhumane, and unconstitutional medical care that women prisoners were enduring. The prisoner plaintiffs in the lawsuit recognized that they couldn’t expect that legal challenges alone would improve their conditions of confinement. They wanted to ignite a grassroots movement to challenge not only health care conditions but the entire prison system. CCWP was born from this vision and from the beginning it included members on both sides of the walls.
Soon after CCWP was started, prisoners decided that they wanted to put out a newsletter in collaboration with members outside. As founding member Charisse Shumate put it in the very first issue of the newsletter: “I, Charisse Shumate, wish I could be there with you because as you grow in numbers, for us behind the walls of CCWF, the big cover up is going on inside . . . Is it because they have forgot we are human? If walls could talk, we would not have to beg help.” (FI #1, June 1996).
From that first issue, published in June 1996, The Fire Inside has allowed the “walls to talk,” making visible the lives of tens of thousands of women and trans prisoners who have been literally disappeared from society.
A3N: What is published in The Fire Inside? How is it used as an organizing tool?
CCWP: For us, the newsletter has always been more than a printed set of words and some photos. When Dana, a former prisoner, suggested the name “The Fire Inside,” it clicked with all of us immediately because it signified that this newsletter could be a means of nurturing the fire of creativity and resistance on both sides of the walls.
As we say in the editorial for our special 15th Anniversary Commemorative issue: “Spirit and character shaped in resistance to systematic dehumanization give rise to profound expressions of humanity. The lessons are deeper than the news of particular issue or events…As long as we have a voice and can hear the voice of another, we can transform our conditions. It is not only those on the inside who suffer. It is not only those on the outside who provide the inspiration.” (FI #45, fall 2011)
The Fire Inside (FI) has always dealt with news, issues, events and the many dimensions of activism and resistance inside the women’s prisons. FI has been on the front lines of exploring and contesting the multifaceted ways in which gender oppression constructs the entire prison system. Many of the subjects it has opened up have subsequently been further investigated, documented and analyzed by advocates, academics, policymakers and authors across the United States.
Health care, motherhood and parenting, lesbianism and transgender experience, immigrant prisoners, racism, parole, spirituality, the school-to-prison pipeline, decarceration strategies and resistance are among the many topics that FI has explored over the years. Since Fall 2001, a portion of each newsletter has been translated into Spanish, since many prisoners do not speak or read English. FI has also engaged in dialogue about the torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the ravaging impact of Hurricane Katrina, the racist legacy leading to the prosecution of the Jena 6 (young black men in Jena, Louisiana), and the racist prosecution and incarceration of the New Jersey 4, four young black lesbians in New York State.
FI has provided an opportunity for people who might not think of themselves as “writers” to see their own words and thoughts in print, whether as a full article, an interview, or a collage of many short statements woven together. These conversations have provided direction for CCWP’s activist program that addresses the range of problems identified in the pages of FI. The newsletter’s purpose is not just to describe existing conditions but to support an action program which will transform them.
A3N: What are some of the key projects that CCWP is involved in today and what role do current and former prisoners themselves play in CCWP?
CCWP: Our programs are all developed through the guidance and collaboration of the prisoners and former prisoners with whom we work. Since the overwhelming majority of women in prison are women of color, we prioritize the input of people from these communities – inside and outside of prison. Our current projects fall into four main categories:
(1) We monitor and challenge the abusive conditions inside the women’s prisons, including grossly inadequate health care, sexual abuse, and economic exploitation. We are actively supporting the Supreme Court ruling that requires California to reduce its prison population by 44,000 over the next three years. With regular input from prisoners, we are closely monitoring the state’s realignment process, which is shifting prisoners from state to county institutions in order to reduce overcrowding.
Unless realignment means the actual release of prisoners AND providing those returning to the community with the livelihood, shelter, trauma recovery services and peer support they need to succeed, it is just a matter of channeling prisoners from one inhumane facility to another.
(2) We fight for the release of women and transgender prisoners from life sentences as directed by law. We advocate for changes in the dysfunctional parole system in order to insure that all of those eligible for parole are actually released. We put a focus on the campaigns for release and change of the laws regarding survivors of intimate partner battering and those convicted as juveniles.
Recently we have expanded our work with young lifers – women and trans prisoners who are sentenced to life terms, or life without parole, when they were juveniles, an increasing trend in California. The U.S. is the only country in the world that sentences juveniles to life without parole and California has 270 juveniles in this category, the largest number in the country. We are working closely with a group of young lifers at the Central California Women’s Facility to educate the public about this issue and pass legislation that will change this policy. Currently, SB9, which is pending legislative approval, is a small step in this direction.
(3) We support women and transgender prisoners in their process of re-entering the community so they are able to survive, grow and become fully involved in the struggle for civil and human rights. It is extremely difficult for women and trans people coming out of prison after many years to sustain their survival and also become involved with social change activities unless they receive support and become part of a community that is dedicated to safety and to making change.
CCWP is developing new methods of offering peer support for sustainable re-entry and community involvement through our PAR program (Peer Advocates for Reentry). Through this program, we pair up women and trans people coming out of prison with former prisoners who have been out for a while to share their experiences, help navigate the system and encourage people to become involved with challenging the prison system.
(4) We organize against prison expansion and advocate for prison population reduction. As part of the CURB alliance, we develop campaigns that shift budget priorities away from incarceration and towards education and other forms of community investment. Unless we can reverse the tide of prison expansion in California and achieve a shift in public consciousness toward health and justice instead of destruction and death, we will not be able to achieve our other long term goals.
The CDCR has a history of trying to coopt activists working for women prisoners into supporting so-called “gender responsive” programs which actually feed into the expansion of the PIC. We are committed to insuring that any positive changes for women and trans prisoners do not lead to more prison beds or buildings.
A3N: Why do you think the number of women prisoners has increased so sharply as of late? How, if at all, has the mainstream media presented the rising incarceration rate?
CCWP: The growth surge for women prisoners began in the 1980’s and has continued steadily ever since. The population of women in prison has grown by about 800% since 1980. A large part of the increase has to do with the drug war and the way sentencing for drug-related offenses accelerated during the eighties. Approximately one third of all women in prison are now there due to drug-related offenses. Many women are serving long sentences for participation in incidents they were coerced into by men they were involved with.
The rising incarceration rate for women has had a devastating impact on children, families and the fabric of community life, especially in communities-of-color. From a structural perspective, undermining community fabric is part of the state’s strategy to destroy the capacity of communities to effectively resist.
When women prisoners are discussed by the corporate media, the focus is usually on sensational cases which involve violence and sex. The majority of offenses which land women in prison are ignored along with such chronic, crucial problems as health care, aging, and family relations. Legal and economic factors which have led to the dramatic increases in the women’s incarceration rate are rarely discussed. Still, it is important to recognize that women-centered advocacy organizations have forced the media to pay more attention to women prisoners over the past ten years, overcoming some of their invisibility.
A3N: What is different about conditions for female prisoners in California and throughout the US, as opposed to their male counterparts?
CCWP: We want to be careful in how we discuss the differences in conditions between men and women’s prisons. There are real differences, but our goal isn’t to make the conditions in women’s prisons “as good” as the ones in men’s prisons. Rather, our goal is to decrease the incarceration of all women, transgender and men prisoners and to improve conditions of confinement as much as is possible given the repressive nature of the PIC.
Prisons are organized to reinforce gendered forms of behavior based on a strict male/female dichotomy. So in women’s prisons this means that passivity, femininity, and obedience are consistently stressed in order to control the prisoners. There is rampant sexual abuse of large numbers of women by male officers and the trading of sexual favors for privileges. Since 80% of the women in prison have experienced abuse either as children or adults, the continuation of abusive treatment in prison is especially damaging. Women who exhibit so-called “male” behavior and transgender prisoners who identify as male or are transitioning from female to male are targeted for abuse and punishment by correctional officers. This is also true for prisoners who have transitioned from male to female.
Approximately 70% of people in women’s prisons are mothers and the majority were the primary caretakers of their children before they went to prison. This means that custody and parenting issues are extremely important for most women prisoners in a different way than they are for men. Many women are pregnant when they come to prison. Adequate healthcare during and after their pregnancy is a key issue which men do not have to face. Women face other specific health care issues over the course of their confinement as do trans prisoners. Women are also less likely to be supported by their former spouse or partner once they come to prison, leading to greater isolation.
Recently, in response to the US Supreme Court ruling mandating a reduction in the prison population, a plan has been floated to dramatically reduce the women’s prison population and possibly close a women’s prison. Of course, in and of themselves these are very positive steps which CCWP has been advocating for over the years.
However, it is important for us to insure that such plans are implemented in a way that will allow them to work. Unless women receive support and services when they are released, there is little chance that they will succeed in the current brutal economic environment with the types of stigmas and restrictions that all prisoners face.
We also need to insure that the remaining women prisoners are not subjected to more overcrowding and further reduction in basic necessities, as has been occurring over the past couple of years. And we need to counter any media formula which exceptionalizes women prisoners while it demonizes male prisoners. We need to be clear, mass incarceration is a racist, unjust and dysfunctional system for men as well as women.
A3N: What are some of the challenges to building public support for women prisoners? How do you address these challenges?
CCWP: Women prisoners have historically been invisible to the public. Over the past decade, largely as a result of demands from women prisoner organizations, this has become less true. However, the prototypical image of the violent, gang-involved, black or brown male prisoner is still the one the public is inundated with. It is the one that drives public discourse about prisoners and prisons.
CCWP’s main strategy has always been to create opportunities for prisoners, former prisoners and their family members to give voice to their own experiences and their own humanity. This is key in countering both invisibility and the demonization of prisoners.
A3N: Andrea Smith, co-founder of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence argues that “the criminalization approach proffered in the mainstream anti-violence movement doesn’t work. And, also, this criminalization approach obfuscates the role of the state in perpetrating gender violence.” Similarly, in our previous interview, author/activist Victoria Law presented a variety of reasons why activists need to work outside of the criminal "justice" system. What do you think of Smith and Law's arguments? What is the best way to reduce and prevent violence against women both inside and outside prisons?
CCWP: We strongly agree with Smith and Law’s perspectives. Our work with incarcerated survivors of domestic violence has been rooted in exposing the role of the state in perpetrating gender violence. We have shown how domestic and state violence are part of a continuum of patriarchal, gendered violence through our campaigns to free incarcerated survivors starting with Theresa Cruz (see Fire Inside Issue #5 & #15). Not only are women consistently imprisoned for self-defense against violence, but once they are incarcerated they are required to accept guilt and show remorse for these acts in order to be released.
Violence reduction and prevention is a very complicated issue. Developing community based alternatives to the state is a necessary but protracted process. Such alternatives need to be rooted in consciousness raising and public education to expose how a violence-steeped patriarchal state promotes violence on all levels of the society.
It is absurd to look to this type of state to remedy problems with violence. Instead we need to work together to create healthy communities and new transformative structures that uproot the multi-dimensional causes of violence.
A3N: In what ways did CCWP and women prisoners participate in the recent statewide hunger strike in California prisoners? [Editor’s note: This interview was conducted before the strike restarted on September 26.]
CCWP: We have been an active part of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition from the beginning. Our members have visited prisoners on strike at Pelican Bay, fasted in solidarity with the prisoners, attended rallies, the legislative hearing in Sacramento, and have mailed in information to prisoners.
People in the women’s prisons told us that they had not known about the strike until they received information from us. Once they knew about it, some women fasted for a period of time. We have an article about the strike in the commemorative issue of our newsletter.
To us, the hunger strike exemplifies the leadership that prisoners can take in organizing against the most torturous of conditions and the ways in which prisoners can overcome their divisions to act together.
It shines a spotlight on the way in which the state is increasingly using prolonged solitary confinement as a means of pressuring prisoners to inform against each other. It also exposes how the issue of “gang affiliation” is being used to silence vocal and active prisoners and keep prisoners from organizing in any way.
A3N: How can our readers best support CCWP and subscribe to The Fire Inside?
CCWP: If you are in the Bay Area, consider volunteering with CCWP. We are a volunteer-based organization with only a couple of paid staff members, so we are always in need of committed volunteers. In these challenging economic times, financial support is also critical. You can donate online or send a check to: California Coalition for Women Prisoners, 1540 Market St., Suite 490, San Francisco, CA 94102.
You can also join our Women’s News email list, which is a low volume list-serve which covers issues and articles concerning women and transgender prisoners. You can subscribe to The Fire Inside through our website or by sending us a check for $25 (to the address in the previous paragraph). And if you are in the area, please join us at our Fire Inside celebration on Friday, October 14th, 2011 (Silent Arts & Crafts Auction of donations by local artists begins at 6:30 pm; Program at 7 pm; $20 donation, no one turned away for lack of funds; At The Women’s Building, 3543 18th St. @ Valencia, San Francisco, near 16th St. BART station, Wheelchair accessible; Childcare available – please call 415-255-7036 x314 by Monday, Oct. 10.)
Thank you again for the opportunity to share information about our vision and our work.
Angola 3 News is a project of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3. Our website is www.angola3news.com where we provide the latest news about the Angola 3. We are also creating our own media projects, which spotlight the issues central to the story of the Angola 3, like racism, repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement as torture, and more. Our work has been published by Alternet, Truthout, Counterpunch, Monthly Review, Z Magazine, Black Commentator, SF Bay View Newspaper, and many others.