Saturday, February 02, 2013

Chowchilla Freedom Rally: It Just Ain't Right

Chowchilla Freedom Rally: It just ain’t right

by Wanda Sabir

Death row inmate Kevin Cooper’s plea for the women incarcerated in California’s Central Valley sounded like a salute to another woman who fought for freedom and women’s suffrage, Iya Sojourner Truth, whose speech, “Ain’t I a Woman,” delivered in 1851 at the Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio, is a classic call for justice from a Black woman to a white constituency that would see her as less than human, and isn’t this the case yet again, when one looks at those enslaved citizens serving time in Central Valley? Gone are their constitutional rights. I am certain Cooper had her in mind when he composed his statement shared at the entrance to Central California Women’s Facility, Saturday, Jan. 26, for the Chowchilla Freedom Rally. In his eloquence, he said that the women who fought for equality and justice did not suffer ill treatment for the right to equal opportunity on death row. (Learn more about Kevin Cooper at

“These women fighters often were brutalized, bloodied, beaten and outright murdered for taking the stance they took. They did not make these sacrifices so that today’s women in the 21st century could be imprisoned as they currently are. That is not how they envisioned women’s equal rights. Nor did they expect for women to be forced to live in overcrowded prisons, suffering medical abuse and neglect, or subjected to all of the daily abuses that they currently face.

“They did not want for women to be placed on death row and then, for what may be the first time in their entire life, to be treated equally as men by enduring the same execution rituals and be murdered by the state in the same way. No, this is not what they had in mind when they rose up to demand a better way of life. This historical oppression of women wasn’t right then, and it ain’t right now! “We all know that ... these negative and life-threatening abuses of prisoners are illegal, immoral, inhumane and just ain’t right, no matter how one looks at it!

“Historically speaking, all women have suffered, often in silence, often ignored. This fact is magnified by those women who are imprisoned.”

It felt like Washington on the mall 50 years ago and more recently, on Jan. 21, 2013 – chilly, overcast with a chance of showers. It did rain a bit when we arrived at Valley State Prison and no one was on the yard. They were locked down, Colby (CCWP rally organizer) said, so we chanted and shouted so the women could hear us.

Parker, a male prisoner transferred to Valley State, the former women’s prison that is now a men’s prison – the women having all been packed into the other women’s prison across the road, Central California Women’s Facility, in December – said in a statement read at the rally:

“It would be a great tragedy if the conversion of Valley State Prison served to divide female and male prisoners, as if either group could have changed the bureaucratic whims of Sacramento. The prison industrial complex is an assortment of many different, often competing interests. These interests have in common only their end goal – the realization of profit. The suffering of those who are caught up in the process is merely incidental to this goal.

“All that matters is one’s CDC number, by which mechanism taxpayer dollars may be transferred to private accounts. Without minimizing the real differences in how some groups have been oppressed, we are together in this struggle, and it seems to me that we ought to struggle together.”

Seeing Judy Greenspan, CCWP member and health care rights advocate, Saturday was a reflection on the time when she was working at Catholic Charities and hosted regular trips to the Central Valley prisons for better treatment for the women. One of those women was Charisse Shumate, who, with sickle cell, Hep C and cancer, advocated for basic human rights and decent medical treatment for all imprisoned women.

The governor would not grant her release and she died Aug. 4, 2001. Charisse was a founding member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) and wrote regularly for The Fire Inside, the CCWP newsletter.

I think her story was one that made me aware of the women locked up. California, known for its oranges and tomatoes and pesticide-filled strawberries and grapes, was also becoming known for the women housed in two prisons, then VSPW and the skilled nursing facility, Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF). Now the only women’s prison in California, CCWF is overcrowded to nearly double its capacity – nearly 4,000 women squeezed into space intended for 2,000.

The Chowchilla Freedom Rally, organized by the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) and other allies throughout the state, was important because women are being parceled off like chattel.

One recently transferred prisoner said that the VSPW refugees are being blamed by the guards for everything. Another woman said: “I felt like it would be a good thing, but its crowded and scary here. I don’t feel safe here. There’s a dark spirit of violence and there’s more fighting every day.”

“We’re stagnant,” another woman explained. “Medical stinks. There’s no access to education and we’re getting penalized because we’re seen as invading their (CCWF prisoners’) space. The correctional officers are fanning the flames by blaming everything on us ‘VSPW bitches,’ in their words. They need to start releasing people.”

And that would be so easy to accomplish, with 4,500 women having been found suitable for release through Alternative Custody Programs, parole for elderly people and compassionate release for the terminally ill. But instead of releasing them and other prisoners to comply with the federal court order to reduce overcrowding throughout the system, prisoners are being transferred – women from two prisons into one and thousands more prisoners from state prisons to county jails. Why is it OK to overcrowd women and not men?

In a cell made to house four per room, now, another prisoner writes, “eight per room will be the standard. Diseases spread here because we are so crowded. Because of the perennial budget cuts, we get fewer supplies. They’ve cut the disinfectant to only a squirt. We don’t get anti-bacterial soap any more. It is very hard to keep ourselves and our cells clean, which is the first defense against disease.”

“It is a misogynistic policy decision that capitalizes on the notion that women are not as inclined to violence and therefore less likely to riot under overcrowded conditions. People so overcrowded will act out, so we’ll mostly be on lockdown, since that’s what they do after a fight. CCWF will stay overpopulated because it will be the only Level 3 and 4 women’s facility in California. As long as they keep handing out life sentences, we’ll have more people coming in and very few going out.”

Women, incarcerated as young as 16 serving life without the possibility of parole sent statements to be read, while youth advocates and recently released women spoke about what it was like for the families and loved ones of incarcerated mothers, sisters, wives, daughters.

What made the Freedom Rally so powerful was the shared support – men, women, children, some too young to stand on their own – Tulare County residents, school teachers, students, plus buses and carloads from throughout California – Youth Justice Coalition traveling from LA on a bus without a toilet. Debbie Reyes, California Prison Moratorium Project, Krys, survivor of Valley State Prison, Oday Guerro, Dream Team, Primero de Mayo Comite spoke followed by Thao Ngyuen of “Thao and the Get Down, Stay Down” (“We the Commons”), who shared a lovely song with us, composed for a woman behind the walls we stood in front of.

At one point in the song, the chorus which we all sang sounded like a bird call. Julio Marquez and Leslie Mendoza, youth organizers from Youth Justice Coalition, spoke, followed by an impassioned high school teacher with a law degree, Ralph Avitia, Fresno Brown Berets, California Prison Moratorium Project. Cerrita Wilson, advocate against injustice everywhere, and Alisha Murdock, peer mentor in Project WHAT, whose mother spent time behind the walls of CCWF, spoke about what changed in her life when she lost her mother to prison for four years. Her mother needed a treatment program, not prison, she stated.

As we stood close together, ignoring the police patrolling the street in front of the prison, solidarity statements were also shared by Critical Resistance, Occupy 4 Prisoners, represented by Kevin Cooper, Global Women’s Strike and Melvin Dickson for the Black Panther Party.

When Samantha Rogers read a statement from an 81-year-old woman transferred to CCWF, I just had to shake my head after I realized I hadn’t heard Samantha wrong – 81 one years old in prison?! When she visited a doctor, he said: “You’re old. You’re going to die anyway. You don’t need any tests.” That day, those at risk were paired with those with minimal risk – no strikes with one-two strikes – the goal Manuel La Fontaine, All of Us or None, stated to the Peace Keepers during their briefing was to make sure that everyone left at the end of the day. Bright pink armbands on to indicate their status, they kept us out of the street and interceded with the police when needed to keep the march safe and without incident. When night fell and the Liberation Brass Orchestra had played their last tune outside VSP again, Manuel was standing in the street directing foot traffic.

There were the People’s Community Medics, a sag van and plenty of food, from pizza to energy bars, and lots of water. At CCWF, children played on the huge rocks that lined the area beneath the sign. Hafsa Al Amin of CCWP asked her grandchildren if they remembered photos she’d shared with them of the Sister-to-Sister Visiting Team outside the prison.

On our walk back I recalled another such walk in the dark – the walk from San Quentin after Stanley “Tookie” Williams was executed. No one was executed Saturday, yet we were leaving all the women there – women like Carletha and Patricia, Georgia and Hakim.

I never visited women at VSPW, but I did attend one of their programs looking at domestic violence. What was so amazing were the many self-help or self-improvement or treatment programs there, then just before the men began coming into the facility, the programs stopped with no guarantees of them being picked up by the new facility.

This means the women are being housed or caged with no opportunity for assistance in their rehabilitation process. For more information and to stay abreast of developments, visit, email or call (415) 255-7036, ext. 314.


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