[Ppnews] 15 Years of Giving Voice to Women and Transgender Prisoners in California

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Oct 10 18:11:41 EDT 2011

15 Years of Giving Voice to Women and Transgender Prisoners in California

By Angola 3 News, AlterNet
Posted on October 10, 2011, Printed on October 10, 2011

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 
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 
Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), 
self-publishers of a newsletter entitled The Fire 
Inside (archived 
<http://www.womenprisoners.org/fire/>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 
confinement, as well as 
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 
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 
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 was­a 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 
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.” 
(<http://www.womenprisoners.org/fire/000815.html>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.


(Video documentary by Freedom Archives and CCWP 
entitled, <http://www.freedomarchives.org/Charisse.html>Charisse Shumate –
Fighting for Our Lives, can be viewed online 

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 
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 
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 
or send a check to: California Coalition for 
Women Prisoners, 1540 Market St., Suite 490, San Francisco, CA 94102.

You can also 
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 <http://www.womenprisoners.org/fire/>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.

© 2011 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/152675/


Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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