[Pnews] Society needs prison abolition in order to heal, but people living in prison need basic humane conditions in order to survive

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Fri Feb 22 10:40:05 EST 2019


  BAR Abolition Spotlight: Diana Block

Roberto Sirvent, BAR Abolition Spotlight Editor 20 Feb 2019

Society needs prison abolition in order to heal, but people living in 
prison need basic humane conditions in order to survive.”

*/“The experiences of the people caged in women’s prisons tend to be the 
most under-reported and invisible.”/*

In this feature, we ask abolitionists a few questions about their 
work.This week’s featured activist is Diana 
Block<http://www.pmpress.org/content/article.php/DianaBlock>. Block is a 
founding member of The California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) 
and is a current Advisory Board member.

*Roberto Sirvent: Can you please tell readers of the /Black Agenda 
Report /a little about your background and the work you do? *

*Diana Block: *The California Coalition for Women Prisoners 
(CCWP)<http://www.womenprisoners.org/> was founded in 1995 by women 
prisoners and their advocates. One of our founding members was a Black 
woman, Charisse Shumate,<https://vimeo.com/19050308>with sickle disease 
who dared to challenge the abusive health care that she and others were 
receiving in prison. Throughout our history, CCWP has been committed to 
challenging the institutional violence imposed on women, transgender 
people and communities of color by the prison industrial complex (PIC). 
We center the struggle for racial and gender justice and we prioritize 
the leadership of the people, families and communities most impacted by 
the PIC in building this movement. Our visiting program at the women’s 
state prisons is at the core of all our work. Our programs evolve in 
response to the guidance and insights of the people we visit and the 
changing conditions within the prisons and jails. Within that framework 
our programs fall into four major areas. First, we monitor and challenge 
the abusive conditions inside of the women’s prisons, including grossly 
inadequate health care, sexual harassment and abuse, solitary 
confinement and overcrowding. Second, we fight for the release of women, 
trans and gender non-conforming prisoners through individual advocacy 
and systemic reforms of parole and sentencing systems, including the 
extreme sentence of Life Without Parole (LWOP). Third, we support women 
and trans people in their process of re-entering the community upon 
release so they are able to survive, grow and become involved in the 
struggles for civil rights and social change. Fourth, we work in 
coalition with others to promote decarceration strategies, shifting 
state and local priorities away from incarceration and punishment 
towards education, employment, housing and overall social transformation.

*Are there any under-reported stories in your community involving 
prisons, police, or law enforcement that you’d like to share?*

The experiences of the people caged in women’s prisons tend to be the 
most under-reported and invisible. For example, through CCWP’s visiting 
program at the California Institution for Women (CIW), we realized a few 
years ago that the suicides occurring amounted to an epidemic. The 
prison authorities first ignored and then tried to cover up the tragic 
reality that suicides at CIW were occurring at eight times the national 
rate for women’s prisons nationwide. Through our work with family 
members of those who had died we were able to mount a multi-pronged 
campaign. Finally in 2016 a legislator called for a state audit of 
suicide prevention practices and the audit, released in summer of 2017, 
corroborated our findings and recommended many policy changes (which are 
still to be implemented).

*/“Suicides were occurring at eight times the national rate for women’s 
prisons nationwide.”/*

Another under-reported story is the backlash by correctional officers 
against trans and gender non-conforming people in the women’s prisons. 
For over two years we have been tracking stories of physical assaults 
and sexual harassment by guards and staff that have particularly 
targeted these groups of people in the women’s prisons. We are working 
with a number of people to respond to these abusive conditions and 
supported the filing of a lawsuit in November 2017 by four plaintiffs 
filed a lawsuit against the CDCR. The plaintiffs hope that the lawsuit 
will result in policy and culture changes within the prisons. To that 
end we are also developing a grassroots campaign, #MeToo Behind Bars, 
that can amplify public awareness of the issues involved in the lawsuit.

*In your specific context, when are goals of /reform /and /abolition 
/compatible with one another? When do they conflict? *

This is a complicated question which we and others in the prison 
abolition movement are constantly trying to negotiate. We try to focus 
our strategies on campaigns that will shrink the PIC and its impact on 
the people inside and the communities they come from. Currently, our 
DROP LWOP campaign seeks commutations for individuals with the extreme 
LWOP sentence but simultaneously calls for the elimination of the LWOP 
sentence from the penal code all together. This too is a reform but the 
work to eliminate LWOP can potentially expose the barbarity and extreme 
sentencing practices at the base of the PIC. Sometimes it is more 
difficult to figure out whether a reform is in fact compatible with 
abolition especially in regards to campaigns to change conditions inside 
prisons. People living in prison need basic humane conditions in order 
to survive. We support campaigns to change conditions such as better 
health care, an end to solitary confinement and sexual abuse, connecting 
parents and children, and reduction of overcrowding. However, state and 
prison authorities often attempt to leverage the desire for better 
conditions to promote more prisons and jails. For example, in L.A. the 
building of a new large women’s jail, labeled a “women’s village” has 
been promoted by the state as the way to ensure more humane conditions. 
In response CCWP and other advocates are adamant that prison expansion 
can never be more humane but only serves to incarcerate more women and 
other people.

*What recent successes would you like to highlight? *

Our DROP LWOP campaign has contributed to an unprecedented number of 
commutations of LWOP sentences under Governor Brown. Our work to expose 
the suicide crisis at CIW has resulted in media coverage, a state audit 
and a bill that is currently in the legislature to require more rigorous 
reporting of suicides. We have also been able to provide direct 
one-on-one support and advocacy to women and trans people at CIW at risk 
for suicide.

*Are there any new articles or other publications you’d recommend to 
readers of the /Black Agenda Report/? *

Our newsletter /The Fire 
Inside/<http://womenprisoners.org/the-fire-inside-2/>//has given voice 
to people in women’s prisons since 1996.

*What can readers of the /Black Agenda Report /do to help? *

Get involved with CCWP or another abolitionist organization.

*In the face of so much state violence today, what gives you hope? *

Our slogan /Caring Collectively for Women Prisoners/ was created by a 
formerly incarcerated Black woman in the early days of our organization. 
Building movement for justice rooted in collectivity and care is a 
fierce antidote to the reign of state violence. Joining with 
organizations and people on both sides of the walls who fight to put 
these values into practice, on an individual and systemic level, gives 
us hope that another world is possible.


*/Please join the conversation on Black Agenda Report's Facebook page at 

*/Or, you can comment by emailing us at /**/comments at blackagendareport.com/*

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