The Racialization of Justice
I have been getting these Happy Friday emails from artist Jason Austin for over a year. Now I kind of look forward to them--happiness on Friday. What a thought right?!
I needed an optimistic pick up this morning, but I didn't check my messages before heading to the Central California Women's Facility (CCWF) to visit 16-17 women the Sister to Sister program of California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) set up appointments with.
Anxious the night before meant I was sleep deprived— to bed late and up too early as I scrambled around getting dressed, making ginger/green tea careful to read the Yogi meditation, perhaps applicable to my immediate circumstances: "May your inner self be secure and happy."
Hum, it works.
I made organic oatmeal, set up my radio show broadcast— two hours earlier this morning and then after I sorted through books I thought I might want to read once I decided against reading student essays on the way there, I stood on the porch with TJ bag full, white ceramic bowl in my hands warming them as the food, oatmeal topped with bananas and sliced apples warmed my insides looking out onto the quiet street, birds on the high wires chattering singing shouting greetings to everyone within listening distance— I watched for my ride eating the hot cereal and fighting the overwhelming sadness that was enveloping me. I felt the same way I feel when I want to visit a sick friend, but stay away because my world is not as bright as I'd like it, and the purpose of, well, friendly visits to the sick and shut in is to make the patient feel better, not worse.
I knew once I arrived the women would lift my spirits, the same way those with so little time left make one appreciate every precious moment, if one can get there, if I could get there and I was going to get there today because I was a part of a team. Teams are so helpful when one faces such an enormously difficult task one doesn't feel her reserves will get her though not to mention there (smile).
I wore a bright lapa from Gambia, red with yellow cowrie shells, my bubu from Nigeria, lemon meringue with rhinestone chips sprinkled on a tapestry of eyelet sunflowers— oranges with white accents and lace trim. I wore a lovely scarf (borrowed from my daughter’s drawer) which repeated the color scheme, topped off with red socks with butterflies— just in case someone looked down.
I wanted to be a visibly cheery presence, so for once I left the black and white prison visit uniform in the closet. It was Good Friday, the day Jesus died and later rose again, and so I was I planning to rise to the occasion, and so were these women— on the cross or at a crossroads going to rise and walk on water too. I was looking forward to resurrection days and nights and meetings with the disciples on the other side of these prison walls in Jerusalem, Chowchilla, California.
When my friends pull up, I open the door to the van, climb in and begin to pull folders out of the canvas bag when we are almost there to learn what is going on in the women’s lives and check any notes left by staff or other visitors over the year(s). I read the files of women I know and those whom I will meet for the first time that day. The traffic is great and Sister Naeemah is a fantastic driver; she and Hafsa, the CCWP visits coordinator verbally spar in the front seats lending a lightness to the day ahead.
After parking we meet a PO from hell. Really sour like she lived on lemons without sugar, the woman made every aspect of our check-in as difficult as possible from making Hafsa cut up her bra to take the wire out to refusing to let me take my prescription glasses into the visiting room.
“We only allow one pair.” She says. Do I need a doctor’s slip for the glasses, I ask, trying to understand such foolishness and then ignore her when the male police officer hands Hafsa scissors and she and I go into the bathroom to pull the wires out of her bra. That was hard.
Earlier the guard, the same woman asks Hafsa, who had surgery less than a week ago if she could remove her surgical bandages.
Yes, that's exactly what I thought when I heard the statement.
I was further harassed over my wrist brace and chest brace which I put in the locker. Later on, the same woman is in the visiting room and asks me over and over again if I lost my locker key when one is found on the floor. It wasn't mine. Yet, even while looking at mine which I put in the bag with my driver's license, she didn't believe me.
Check-in took about half an hour, so by the time the three of us got in, our 9 AMs had been waiting for a while and by the time 3 PM was rolling around, we only had 15 minutes left to treat the women to lunch and catch up on prison gossip –just kidding; it’s not gossip and the saga is real, like televised revolutions. The women have been waiting all day to meet with us. It was crazy, but the women were happy for those few moments. Leaving them there at 3 PM was hard especially on Good Friday where outside the visiting room cute cotton tailed bunnies frolicked, hip hopping on the neatly tailored lawn, CCWF surrounded by a grove of almonds the women tended and harvested yet couldn’t eat – an ethereal place out of time.
My first conversation was with a woman who is serving her 30th year, hair styled in a cute pageboy, long bangs in the front cut in a diagonal shape tapering to a point over her right ear; Carletha has been incarcerated since 19. Best friends with Debbie Peagler, subject of the new film, Crime After Crime, directed by Yoav Potash, screening at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Sunday, April 24, 6 PM at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, in San Francisco; Wednesday, April 27, 6:30 PM at Pacific Film Archive, in Berkeley, and Monday, May 2, 9 PM at Sundance Kabuki, the two women met in court where Debbie took a plea and Carletha, did not.
"I had a court appointed attorney and didn't understand what the deal would mean. At the time of the crime, I was frightened and the men said they'd kill me if I told." She said of the men who were both older than her.
Debbie and Carletha asked to be transferred to CCWF from California Institute for Women (CIW) a prison in Southern California, because of their good educational programs. Carletha has two associate degrees, one from Patton College in theology (1994) and the more recent one from Feather River College (2011). She is looking to hear if FRC plans to start a bachelors program, so she can apply.
In the film Crime After Crime, one sees Debbie leading the choir at CCWF, Carletha spoke about Debbie's love of singing and the choir they established there. Now Carletha is working on expanding her release employment program GOSO or Get Out Stay Out for Southern Californian parolees with One Stop. GOSO collaborates with Work Net and has served over 450 women.
Right now, Carletha's sentence is indeterminate and each time she goes before the parole board she is denied. Many women prisoners are watching the contest of Marsy's Law/Proposition 9 (to be decided on this week) which if not overturned would give prison parole boards the ability to deny parole appeals for up to 15 years at a time. Marsy's Law also gives Victim's Rights Groups more influence on the outcome in parole hearings.
"In January 2011, the US Supreme Court issued a very disturbing decision that said prisoners have no constitutional right to parole, a sign that is might be more difficult to win writs for those sentenced to life without the possibility of parole (20 percent or 33,200 of the state's 166,000 prisoners). . . .In 2009, only 193 people of the thousands eligible were paroled. Many parole eligible prisoners have received release dates by filing writs in the courts, and 29 survivors of domestic violence have been released through the efforts of the Habeas Project and Free Battered Women" (The Fire Inside 5).
Marsy's Law and trends over the past 30 years also in California "to lock people up for longer and longer times at younger and younger ages, gang enhancements and young people tried as adults, are just a few examples of harsh sentencing laws resulting in the faces of the failed judicial system like Debbie Peagler and Carletha Stewart (The Fire Inside 5).
These visits to the women yield more issues than CCWP has qualified staff volunteers, read attorneys, to address. We are interested in university law students to serve as interns under the guidance of a qualified attorney to take such cases, especially for women who do not have family to advocate on their behalf, which is often the case.
Most of the women we saw were so happy to see us— warm hugs and smiles on all of our faces. For too many of the sixteen seen Friday, these embraces were the first ones many women had received in a long time, some since they'd been inside— as their families have not been to visit them.
Now I know the Pacific Northwest is not next door to Chowchilla nor is Los Angeles county; however, good grief can't a family member get up to see a mother or sister or lover once in two, ten or thirty years? I was floored by the quiet acceptance of the excuses these women have had to live with for so long.
The California prison system in conjunction often with community based organizations like Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and Ida McCray’s Families with a Future, have several programs with transportation to help women prisoners stay connected with family, and even with its flaws it is a ride. If a visit even one as short at 15 minutes is seen as invaluable, evident in the women's smiles and eagerness to share their stories, then one can imagine the joy a family member’s or loved one’s visit would bring.
One woman, Patricia “Breezy” Wright, reminded me to not forget her as she left the visiting room in her wheelchair. Breezy, who has been legally blind since age 17, was diagnosed with cancer at CCWF and has had multiple operations, another scheduled next week. She was arrested 17 years after the crime was committed and given life, which means she is not eligible for compassionate release, even though she is dying.
Women enter the gates at CCWF healthy and over the years develop spots on their lungs and tumors elsewhere— the county's water is contaminated with arsenic among other metals and toxic substances.
Breezy, who was battered by her former husband, will be sixty this summer and all she wants is to go home to be with her grandchildren. Professor Priscilla Ocen, JD, UCLA, writes in an article: “Punishing Pregnancy: Race, Incarceration and the Shacking of Pregnant Prisoners,” “that the regulation and punishment of Black women within these oppressive systems reinforced and reproduced stereotypes of Black women as deviant and dangerous and that these images in turn animate harsh practices against all women prisoners. The Eighth Amendment, the primary constitutional vehicle for challenging conditions of confinement, however, is insufficient to combat this problem at the structural level. This is so because of its focus on the subjective intentions of prison officials at the individual level and through its omission of any consideration of how race underlies institutional practices. Instead, this article suggests an expanded reading of the Eighth Amendment and the “evolving standards of decency” language which undergirds the “cruel and unusual punishments” clause. This expanded reading, which this article refers to as the “Antisubordination Approach,” draws upon Justice Harlan’s oft-cited dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson and his underappreciated reading of the Thirteenth Amendment to argue that conditions of confinement which result from or are related to repudiated mechanisms of racial domination should be deemed cruel and unusual punishment” (abstract).
To deny a woman who is dying from cancer is certainly cruel and unusual punishment. Breezy spoke about how not just pregnant women are shackled, women who are hospitalized for illness are also shackled. I wasn’t clear if she was shackled as well, pre and post surgery. A tiny woman, now wheelchair bound, where would she go?
It doesn’t make any sense even if it made sense to shackle a person with limited mobility and legally blind. I was really happy to meet Breezy who told the story of her younger grandson (8) who told her he was going to get a job to buy her a lovely bouquet for her funeral. He said she could take the flowers to heaven too.
When she started crying. He asked why, “You’re not dead yet.”
I was speechless. What a way to remember one’s grandmother, locked up behind bars, sick and dying.
When Breezy was snatched from her life and her children’s lives, they were still minors and with no one to support them except an older sibling. They all became homeless, even though their mother owned the home they lived in—greedy aunts and uncles took their home and kicked them out.
The children who lived in shelters, have an older brother who enlisted in the military and once discharged brought his siblings together again and put the younger ones through college while providing stability and shelter for the others. Breezy beams when she states how her kids maintained high GPAs despite the difficult circumstances.
Her story and that of all the women I spoke to Good Friday exemplify the cost of incarceration on the families left behind. They are incarcerated too. The historic and contemporary cost of separating parents from their children, boys and girls, is immeasurable, yet it keeps occurring especially to black women in legally sanctioned slavery or incarceration—look at other similarities besides separation like the forced Cesarean sections on pregnant prisoners and the accelerated adoption— read theft or sale of these children without parental permissions. This is a major travesty of the rule of law, plus ethical and moral standards which are nearly impossible to mend once the child is gone for the birth mother and for society—an impact which is not being measured adequately nor often enough.
The film Juvies, dir. Leslie Neale, 66 min., which will be screening at Eastside Arts Cultural Center, 2277 International Blvd., in Oakland, 7-9 PM, Friday, May 13, 2011, addresses some of these issues.
Friday, April 22, I saw a young friend who has been in prison since 16, first offense. Hakim didn’t kill anyone and the person harmed didn’t want her to spend her life behind bars; she like other teens, especially runaways, was intimidated by an older man and threatened with death if she didn’t carry out his wishes.
In our judicial system, it states “the people of California,” but the people of California don’t really have a say in the execution of justice. The East Side event is a free and wheelchair accessible.
The California Coalition for Women Prisoners regularly visits young women like Hakim and trans folk sentenced as adults for crimes they were involved in before they were 18. Some of these people are sentenced to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP). Several women CCWP visits are featured in the film.
This event is being organized in collaboration with women organizing inside prisons in California, and the evening will include some of their writing.
The film will be followed by a moderated discussion with community groups, youth organizers, formerly incarcerated community members, and local activists who will share ideas on how to work together to stop the criminalization of youth, particularly youth of color, to learn about the recent SB9 legislation, to meet with different groups, and get updates on current youth justice campaigns and connect with continuing actions.
Breezy spoke about certain classifications, such as in her case, life without the possibility of parole that keep prisoners behind bars who are dying like herself from soliciting compassionate release. She said Debbie’s sentence was changed from life without the possibility of parole to manslaughter before the decisive parole board hearing. She spoke of another legal angle she is investigating, Senate Bill 1399 which looks at the cost to the state for certain prisoners when it would be cheaper to let them go. Right now, Breezy said, a hospital stay is $1700.00 a day. This doesn’t take into consideration additional costs for operations like the one coming up April 27 or 28.
Wearing a blue cap over a closely cropped smooth head of hair, which she said was growing back since her chemotherapy treatment, she showed me the valve in her chest above her breast bone where the medicine is poured into her body. I wondered at her ability to undergo so many surgeries—her body she said a scarred tapestry. Another mastectomy follows the liver operation—cancer spreading throughout her body, yet at Stage 4, she is denied compassion? When I mentioned to Breezy what I learned about this compassion-with-strings release, that is, if the former prisoner doesn’t die or lives too long after the release, she can be re-imprisoned, she just laughed.
Breezy speaks briefly about forgiveness—forgiving her siblings who are responsible for her imprisonment and her children’s suffering. I sit and watch her wheel herself away. We thought I’d have to get escorted to the Skilled Nursing Facility (SNF) ward to visit her, when she came to the visiting room to see us. Spunky lady indeed (smile).
Carletha Stewart writes in a poem she gave me entitled: Debbie, Mehserle and Me, “Oh I am disappointed, frustrated, and lack the understanding of why Debbie, Mehserle and Me, [were] accused of murder yet our system treated us all so differently.
“Debbie got 25 to life for murder for the death of her abuser, 20 plus years later our injustice system would agree and allow Debbie to change her plea to a lesser charge this would be. Then they change their minds can you believe.
“Heartache, stress, disappointment, frustration, anger, resentment, is what Debbie felt but those emotions are nothing compared to what would come next.
“Debbie was diagnosed with Lung Cancer in the fourth stage; let her go home dear Lord is what I prayed. On August 21, 2009, with very little time left to live Debbie was released from prison after serving 23 years. At least she will be free so what is the difference between Debbie (Peagler), (Johannes) Mehserle, and Me.”
Carletha had a motorcycle accident and the resulting injury gave her little to no use of her left arm. Given this disability, she has been able to get assigned to the lower bunk, until recently. She also was able to get an extra mattress, since she also has carpal tunnel in her right wrist and arm. Just in looking at the prison order denying accommodation, where the official acknowledges the prisoner’s disability status as he denies her accommodation, illustrates the arbitrary and unconstitutional violation these women prisoners experience day after day, year after year.
Carletha, like Breezy, has a sister who is tireless in her work to free her loved one. The women are lucky, but when a person is locked inside a prison, luck is an abstract concept one has to redefine to fit the circumstances.
I think all of the women I visited were from Southern California with families dispersed throughout the Pacific Coast, one sibling in the Pacific Northwest. What worried me about what I learned this visit was the high number of women with tumors detected when the women prisoners were in their 40s and 50s, all the women with no prior family history of cancer.
One prisoner, a cervical cancer survivor, who entered with this condition, has been repeatedly denied the follow-up therapies to make her completely functional again, the repeated denial based on prejudicial thinking about the uses of one’s vagina. Why pray tell should a vagina be functional?
Since the 2010 surgery, the prisoner has had PAP Smears every 90 days. Because of the limited to almost no vaginal opening, the procedure is bloody and painful for the patient.
I was shocked –-okay, I shock easily—no, do not bring cords or chargers, when the prisoner told me that the male official blocking her therapy at CCWF told her that “a penis was a dilator,” we discussed legal suits as an option. She will be out perhaps in July or August.
Another prisoner, Lee Ann, expressed her fear of going for months not knowing the results of lab tests; tests doctors routinely order and then take months to let patients know the results of. “One minute a person is alive and the next thing you hear is so and so died. I don’t want to die in here.” She said.
Lee Ann spoke of physicians who call her on the phone and then start talking and have to stop because they don’t have the right chart. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is going digital with prison records, medical included, but in the meantime, charts seem to be hard to keep track of for some reason. Lee Ann spoke of the physicians’ eagerness to prescribe medications based on symptoms, such as asthma which she doesn’t have but was prescribed when she reported shortness of breath. The same is true for the stiffness in her hip.
“I don’t want to take all these medications,” she stated. “I just want to know what’s wrong.” So she refuses the medication which is sent back.
In the prison system one doesn’t have a doctor who follows one’s treatment or care for the duration of the procedure both Le Ann and Breezy told me. After six months, one might find a completely new doctor on the case unfamiliar with one’s history. The medical information delays can be a number of things from the physician simply not knowing and having to do the research to prison apathy, costs to the state, or institutional prejudice both racial and gender—all or some of these; however, the consequences are the same across the board, women suffer and often die.
Why are so many women prisoners dying of cancer? Lee Ann said just the day before we met, April 21, another woman prisoner was diagnosed with spots on her lungs. She is also a person who has been incarcerated for a long time—in her case 30 years. Is there environmental pollution or a slow poisoning of these women, either intentionally or through neglect of the population to explain the cancers?
Lee Ann said her doctor asked her if she’d ever worked in a mine or around asbestos. She didn’t even know what asbestos was and how she might have been exposed, so I shared what I knew of the substance since my step-father, Snow Banks in his work in the shipyards and factories after WW2 was exposed to such and it ultimately killed him.
Breezy suspected and asked about the Optelec 20/20 machine, PC US Serial # 9812 BD 1102, which she used to enlarge text for her legal defense work for the 16-17 years she has been at CCWF. The doctors said the cancer in her chest looked like something had been eating away at her tissue for a long period of time. Repeated letters to the manufacturer went unaddressed, but certainly the empirical evidence points to the correlation between the two— Optelec 20/20 and her cancer.
When I looked at the machine on line, that model is no longer in use and has been updated http://www.optelec.com/ The older model is available at blindbargins.com and elsewhere. I wonder if Optelec 20/20 sellers know its hazards. I wonder why no one in product safety responded to her queries, yet, the prison I believe ceased using it and Breezy uses a kursweil-type software program which reads to her.
Cruel and unusual punishment doesn’t even come close to describe these women’s suffering, from medical malfeasance to a blatant judicial disregard and disrespect for the rights of another human being. These women who certainly exhibit a stoic, often sad resignation to their circumstances, need to know they are not forgotten or alone.
The last woman I visited with Good Friday, which was also Mother Earth Day after shopping in the prison café, née vending machines, for in her case, a cheese burger, candy bar and soft drink read with pleasure a note Zoe (CCWP) sent to her in her file. She told me about her children, whom her brother is taking care of whom she hasn’t seen in all the years she has been at Central California Women’s Facility. Another woman prisoner said her daughters told her they didn’t want to see her locked up. We met a grandmother who wants to get a message to her granddaughter also at CCWF. All I could think of is Cheryl Dunye's film (2001), Stranger Inside, where this child commits a crime, so she can meet her mother who is incarcerated.
All I could think about in both cases is no matter how depressing one feels either before or later on, at least we can go home. No matter how bad it looks we can leave and the woman prisoner cannot evident in the tight hold each of them has on her memories of the last visit, the last letter, the last phone call. If family members only knew how much a visit means, even if it is just once a year to someone who is locked inside these walls—perhaps the excuses would then turn into action and perhaps get individual and collective butts on a bus, in a car, on a plane.
One woman said how her parents would bring her kids to visit and the kids would refuse to come in, that they would sit in the car while their grandparents visited with their mother. I can’t even imagine how that memory feels.
From lost jobs to high GPAs and kids and busy schedules, the families have to know that without these women many or them would not be here, despite a slip or fall or a tumble, and that even if mom is a recovering heroin addict, she is still mom and no matter how much she says she understands, her heart really doesn’t. And those of us who are not family we can adopt these women, many who will never see the outside of a prison wall ever again.
So why am I so hard on the apathetic family members and those of us with time to lend a hand, yet don’t? I was one of the children with a parent behind bars from birth. When I was a baby, my mother, who was a minor too, couldn’t take me to see my father, but later when my father was incarcerated again for defending his home in San Francisco with a hatchet –the SFPD came back with reinforcements and took him away, our guardian who came to get us—we were at home alone, took us to see him.
I guess Daddy used his one phone call to call the Rashids. I don’t remember the details. I just know they came to get my brother and me soon afterward which was great, because I was worried and didn’t know where Daddy had gone or if he was alive. I had read a lot of books about police and saw what they’d done to the Black Panthers and the Black Muslims, plus I had an active imagination.
I’ve been there. I was nervous going to a jail, but that’s where my Daddy was and I wanted to see him and make sure he was okay. And shortly thereafter, he was home. I also remember my mother getting picked up for driving my father’s car with expired registration and her hysteria over being in jail until my father went to the station to fix it. I think she called me from the jail and again, I didn’t know what to do. Parents take care of their kids, not vice versa. But Daddy fixed it, and Mama came home.
It is disruptive to one’s state of being and feelings of security not having one’s parents at home whether one is two, ten or fifteen. No one dreams of imprisonment or should I say no one I knew dreamed of imprisonment when I was a child. I know I never saw it as a natural state or a rite of passage for anyone. Still don’t.
California Coalition for Women Prisoners has volunteer opportunities, from letter writing to visitation to advocacy for skilled and unskilled volunteers. Call (415) 255-7036 ext.4 or visit www.womenprisoners.org Meetings are on the first and third Wednesday of every month at 6 PM, 1540 Market Street, Ste.490, in San Francisco.