By Angela Y. Davis and Windy Click
Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013 in the Fresno Bee
Just a couple of weeks ago, Gov. Jerry Brown declared California’s prison crisis over and demanded an end to federal oversight of the state prison system.
This declaration was especially troubling given that it coincided with reports of severe overcrowding at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), which is filled to twice its capacity, and news that the Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW), just across the road, would be closed as a women’s prison and then filled with men.
Furthermore, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) plans to open a new facility for women at the notorious Folsom Prison.
Despite threats of retaliation, more than 1,000 prisoners inside CCWF and VSPW sent declarations demanding that VSPW not be converted to a men’s facility, that it be shut down and that thousands of women who sit needlessly in horrendous conditions in places like CCWF be released.
Those of us working to end the prison crisis, and those of us who have lived inside these prisons, can tell countless stories of ongoing suffering: up to eight people living in cells that were built for four, or even two; lack of basic hygiene; the spread of infections; and failure to address preventable illnesses leading to health disasters.
One of us knew a woman who suffered from a severe stomachache for more than six months and when she was finally seen by a doctor was given only Pepto-Bismol. Ultimately, she was diagnosed with stage IV stomach cancer and died shortly thereafter.
The effects of poor health conditions and crowding are especially difficult for elderly prisoners, and the widespread use of lockdowns are contributing to mental health problems, including suicide. Access to jobs, programs and legal resources are largely unavailable. People living inside these prisons, along with their advocates on the outside, have noted that these unimaginable conditions and the state’s decision to continue to crowd women and transgendered people into these prisons constitute clear violations of human and civil rights.
In 2006, then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that 4,500 people in women’s prisons could be released. Five years later, the prison administration said that 4,000 prisoners — female, pregnant or primary caregivers with less than two years of their sentences left — were eligible to serve the rest of their time in residential homes, residential substance-abuse treatment programs or transitional facilities. However, since this Alternative Custody Program went into effect, only a few hundred people have been released. Why does such suffering continue?
One reason given by the prison administration is that there is a lack of services and programs at the local level that would support their release. Yet while the state offers huge financial incentives for counties to build new jails, it offers nothing to expand housing and health care programs that are underfunded in most communities, and it opens a new facility for women at Folsom Prison. What are we left to assume? That even though the prison administration has said that thousands of women could safely be sent home, there is a priority on keeping them locked up and on expanding the number of cages for them. What does this say about how we view the lives of these overwhelmingly poor women and transgendered people of color?
We are joining thousands of prisoners and families when we declare it is past time to bring our loved ones home. It is past time to stop the prison and jail expansion that has devastated our communities. It is past time to stop the criminalizing of our families, friends and neighbors. It is time to end policies like Three Strikes that leave many to needlessly die of old age in cages. It is time to institute and expand parole for sick and elderly people. It is time to widen alternatives to imprisonment. Thousands of people in women’s prisons can be freed right now. Money saved by reducing the prison population could provide drug treatment, re-entry services, mental health support and job programs.
On Saturday, people from throughout the state will get on buses and travel to Chowchilla to stand in solidarity with the 3,900 women and transgendered prisoners who are being crammed into space designed for 2,000, who against all odds have spoken out against the terrible conditions of their confinement.
We will join them in demanding no more cells, no new women’s facilities, no new men’s facilities. We are calling this a Freedom Rally because we are fighting for the dignity and humanity of our loved ones. We are fighting to bring them — as well as their families — home to communities that are safe, sustainable and strong.
Angela Y. Davis is a political activist, author and distinguished professor emerita at University of California at Santa Cruz. Wendy Click is a former prisoners at Valley State Prison for Women.