Saturday, January 10, 2009


I was so excited to finally be able to visit black women in a Sister-to-Sister visiting program set up by California Coalition for Women Prisoners, an advocacy and policy making organization. An active member of CCWP and a long time advocate for the abolition of prisons and for restorative justice and other such models of equity and justice for victims and perpetrators, I couldn’t sleep the night before—what between preparing my radio show in advance, to just wishing the night away, the time between before the visit and time to leave and walk over to the BART station where I was to get picked up, I just couldn’t sit still. And now that I am home and looking back, the morning after…I still can’t stop or wait to get moving on the pressing civil rights and justice issues I was made aware of through the personal stories of the four women I sat with in the cafeteria between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. January 9, 2009.

It was the usual security processing nightmare. There are security checks and then there are security checks. With a name like mine, I still haven't found anything as bad as airport security, but yesterday at the California Women's Prison, the details and the inconsistency between the three black women checking in the the five white women who followed--all from the same agency, CCWP, was noticeable.

But anyway, after taking off everything I thought would make the alarms go off, I put my earring back on, took the bobby pins out of my hair, checked my bracelets in the locker, took off my coat, gave my pen to a CCWP comrade, and after three tries got through. (We found out later that when the guards ran their copier while processing guests, the machine's activity made the security gate alarm go off repeatedly.)

I wore all black, a scarf with an African print and earrings shaped like the continent of Africa. I thought my adornment would cheer the sisters up and when the guard looked skeptically at my earrings and then at me and started to tell me I couldn't wear them, his eyes centered on the Horn of Africa...I had to press my lips together and not speak as he left to consult a colleague.

I let out a sigh of relief when he returned and made no comment.

The three of us, Hafsa, Hamdiyah and I, were running late, the women had been waiting since 9:30 a.m. when we arrived at 10:00 a.m. We only got lost once—we couldn’t find Hwy. 238 to get back to I-580 E, but after backtracking we figured it out as we looked for Exit 20-this and Hwy. 99 and then Road 24 and 22.

In the prison parking lot we ran into the other CCWP team: "the white team," which included an attorney, board members and volunteers. Once we’d all cleared security and set up, we then proceeded to meet with the women who’d signed up in advance to visit with us. Filers were pulled out and materials: informative articles and the CCWP newsletter, “The Fire Inside,” were given to each woman. We bought refreshments for the women, hot food, salads, and fresh fruit which included oranges and avocados which many women hadn’t had in a long time. We also bought popcorn, candy and sodas for the women. I called it going shopping and had to press the women into not being thrifty, just asking for what they wanted so we could treat them.

I felt an immediate affinity with the first woman I met. She and I hit it off and felt so connected and happy to be talking to each other. We knew some of the same people like Steve Champion, a good friend of Stanley "Tookie" Williams. She was the first female member of the Crips she said. She and Stanley were like brother and sister and she was happy to hear I was in touch with Adisa (Steve). We discovered we'd also read a lot of the same books like Edwidge Dandicat's "Krik Krak," and agreed philosophically on a lot of issues, especially the role of women in Islam.
It was with reluctance that we ended our conversation when I was told our time was up --there were other women waiting to come in to speak to me, and they weren't allowed in until the others returned, sort of like a tag team or what I'd call a bureaucratic red tape relay. There was no one in the huge room except us. There was plenty of room for the women to hang out afterwards and relax. But I didn't create the stringent rules of engagement, was new on the front line and didn't want to rock any boats--after all, this was a prison. I even let the guard put a stamp on my wrist so if there was a question of who was incarcerated or not, the infrared bulb would verify my right to leave. Yes, I know the language is horrible. Of course all the women should have the right to leave, especially given the horrible treatment the sick women, the women in skilled nursing, were receiving.

And so it went all day--"time's up in 10 minutes Wanda," until my last conversation.

My last interview was with a cute kid, petite, hair braided, she reminded of of Sister Souljah's character "Winter," in looks. There the parallel ended. She was 15 when the ordeal began. A straight A student at the time when she ran away from home, this young woman has spent 13 years behind bars serving a life sentence. I met her last, and couldn’t help but see my daughters reflected in her face. Petite and bright, she could be my child. One impulsive action changed her life forever. It was the same with other women I met; most charged with murder or accessory to murder, the minimum length spent behind bars, 30 years. These were not old women either. The 28-30 year sentences started when most of the women were 19-20 years old, which meant all of them were either my age or a little younger. I thought about what a waste of human potential and human life these crazy long and punitive sentences were. And then I reflected on the added burden youth or disability added to the situation. One woman battled spiritual freedom and access to counsel which was open and nonjudgmental. For 15 years she battled ideology which was exclusive and patronizing so she’d have a sense of belonging in a community of believers even if the acceptance was meted out based on conditions, conditions she didn’t agree with.

I sit here the day after heavy with the knowledge that if more citizens understood what goes on behind bars and the important work organizations like the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Sister-to-Sister project, does, the passage of laws like the recent Proposition 9 which makes it harder for those incarcerated to get paroled, would cease.

My heart went out to the woman I met whose butchered body and chronic pain didn’t stop her from smiling and caring about the women who were not seated in the room with us, as she asked me to address the pressure administration placed on her to have surgeries which are not only ineffective, they are often unnecessary and dangerous to her health.

I met women writers whose stories reflect a reality and a ideology which is often life affirming and filled with success based on a belief that if one doesn’t advocate for one’s rights, a right to decent treatment and a right to freedom and release from bondage, one will never be free. One woman shared her insight into the criminal justice process, a recent one, when she said she believed in the process. She thought if she did what she was told, she would be freed. She learned that this system is not concerned with what is right, it is concerned with continuing a corporation which employs generations in one family.

Children in the California’s Central Valley look at law enforcement and the prison industrial system as potential career opportunities. I don’t know the percentages, but with the shrinking agricultural segment of our economy, with the demise of family farming, dairies, ranching and other agriculturally based incomes, the prison system has become the career of choice for physicians, psychologists, and high school graduates and drop-outs, police, and veterans of war. Corporations are able to find cheap labor. The imprisoned laborers are the new indentured servants or sharecroppers or sweatshop employees. One doesn’t have to look at Haiti or Korea or Taiwan, look at California’s vast pool of incarcerated women and men and children, and one sees the reasons why blue collar jobs are disappearing, why factories are closing.

Legal advisers are cautioning their clients against going before parole boards unless their cases are air-tight, but when is justice ever on the side of a client whose life is dependent on the will of an appointed judiciary body who often sees their job as one which makes it nearly impossible to ever get out of prison?

I sat speaking to a woman who has organized fundraisers for an organization which reunites mothers with their children. She said the recent fundraiser was her 99th. The amount raised was $65,000 or something like that (my notes are in her folder at CCWP). I was amazed. The way she did it was to connect with a vendor who could supply the items she wanted to sell such as large bottles of body lotion, buckets of fried chicken, and other items, and then had the women purchase these items. With a population of 4000 at the prison and the quality of the merchandise, coupled with the need, the sale seemed an easy one.

I thought about how great it would be if this same entrepreneur raised such funds for CCWP and for organizations like Ida McCray’s Families with a Future, which seeks to unite children with their incarcerated parents, providing support—specifically psychological support, outside the prison and within for both.

By the time I spoke to the last woman yesterday, I was brain dead literally. I couldn’t remember my name and all the stories were one. I took a water break to clear my head, so I could focus. I began to appreciate what Hafsa said on the way down to the prison, that she often felt like crying as she listened to the stories of suffering, let me add, unnecessary suffering, these women have been subject to. When I think about one women’s inability to get denture cream so she can chew, her dentures 35 years old. That she is ineligible for a kidney transplant because she is incarcerated, yet the renal problems the result of 15 years incarcerated in a place where the drinking water was polluted (Valley State Prison for Women). She was transferred to the medical facility because it has dialysis. I met another woman who was sentenced to Central California’s Women’s Facility the year after it opened in 1990, and has been there ever since. Still another woman requested a transfer to CCWF from a Southern California facility so she could continue her job preparation in information systems. CCWF is where women are executed, and is the larger of the two facilities. Both are over crowded. CCWF has a juvenile facility where young offenders are housed until they are 18. My last conversation was with an incarcerated woman who turned 18 at CCWF, once she was aged out of youth correctional facility in Ventura and Sacramento.

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I am full and this year, as I figure out the second half of this journey and who and what I want to take along for this next portion of the ride, I monitor my energy and think long and hard about not allowing myself to linger in despair or entertain hopelessness. I can’t, these women need me. I wasn’t given these stories to hold, rather it is my job to move them along, to find resources to address the medical malpractice issues facing one woman, the pending board hearing facing another and the righteous anger, grief and regret facing another.

As I reflect on these women, their desire to live and help each other live, I am encouraged, because given the personal stories, so many could choose to end their lives. In more than one conversation I learned of suicide attempts. My second conversation was with a woman who tried to kill herself more than once. She was sitting with us because a "sister" made it possible for her to see us as an emergency appointment. The woman I saw was in crisis and crisis trumps race.

In a panel I facilitated in 2007 we asked the question, "Who are California's incarcerated women and why should we care?" The answer is they are our mothers and sisters, aunts and grandmothers, neighbors, even daughters. They are American citizens with rights going unaddressed and ignored.

To help visit California Coalition for Women Prisoners volunteer nights are the 4th Wednesday of every month at 6 p.m. at 1540 Market Street, room 490, in San Francisco. For more information write or call (415) 255-7036 ext. 314 or email:


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