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Central Valley | Police State and Prisons

Rehabilitation, Orange Crush, and Little Fallujah
by Sara Jane Olson ( c/o AllianceEditor [at] Comcast.net )
Monday Feb 26th, 2007 2:23 PM
Sara Olson shines a light on the Prison Industrial Complex and what it is like to be in the Central California Women’s State Prison in Chowchilla.

Rehabilitation, Orange Crush, and Little Fallujah
By Sara Olson

Prison reform and implementation of rehabilitative programs in a violent, racist culture, beset by increasingly acceptable high levels of mass poverty, sound like a fairy tale. At Central California Women's Facility (CCWF), there are women who don't even want to be released. There's nothing to go home to: certainly no home, no family that will take them in, no job and no hope of one, no medical care and no hope of any, no money and no hope for some. What there is, is the scarlet letter stamped on one's Homeland Security file, the big "F for felon" with all the fear, superstition, and hatred that label carries. The only forever-after in an ex-felon's life is that she'll be forever cursed by the antisocial history in her computerized personal saga. In short, except for a fortunate few who have families to help them when they get out, there's no hope.

A few reforms for women were enacted in 2005. Women prisoners can now wear our hair down all the time at CCWF. Prior to this, we could be sanctioned for one strand below our necks while at work or in education (sic). Women are no longer shackled to a bed during labor and childbirth. Most importantly, male guards can no longer pat search female prisoners.

Recently, staff members have begun to grouse and complain about how violent women inmates are or, at least, are becoming. They dissect their fears of imminent physical attacks from inmates. Even though Oleoresin Capsicum or "Orange Crush, " as it's colloquially known, an oil-based pepper spray, dangles in canisters from staffs' utility belts, nestled next to collapsible Monadnock flexible metal batons that snap to full length at the flick of a wrist, guards still do not feel safe. They've taken to wearing stab-proof vests at $500 a pop courtesy of the guards' union (Hey! I want one of those!) over and under their uniforms or, in the case of non-uniformed staff, over their street clothes.

People need hope to more than survive in prison

When guards first began wearing the vests, a woman in our housing unit asked one of the staff, "Why are you wearing that?" "Oh," he replied, "I'm wearing it in case there's a riot in a men's prison." She said she mumbled, somewhat ruefully, under her breath, "Then why doncha just leave it in your car?"

For females, life in prison is a daily tightrope walk. The ambient stress levels due to loss of family and loved ones, a pervasive sense of threat, a high incidence of mental illness, and total lack of privacy encompassed by gross overcrowding batter the fragile parameters of a prisoner's emotional and psychic supports. Inmates, when in violation of a rule, are cuffed and walked to the Program Office where they are put in individual cages. This can occur if one raises one's voice, or if one argues with a girlfriend, the latter one of the BIG THREE causes of fights: Chips, Chicks and Cigarettes. People argue over food, usually purchased from the monthly canteen (the inmate store), which is used to pay debts in the barter economy. The root cause of almost all fights is relationships between girlfriends, often exacerbated by homemade hooch. Although tobacco is now a contraband item in California prisons, there is still plenty to go around (How does it get in? Miraculous materializations? Hidden in vaginas?) and rolled cigarettes create bigger-than-ever debts. When a siren alarm goes off anywhere on one of the yards (creating a havoc of seizures in the epileptics as a byproduct) all women inmates, from 18 to 75, must crouch down. Anyone who doesn't risks a walk off the yard in cuffs even if she merely bobs up mistakenly before the all-clear is announced. She can be threatened with a 128 or a 115, a disciplinary write-up, which carries its own list of potential penalties. If one walks over an Out of Bounds red line, it could result in a 115. If hooch is discovered in a room (remember: eight women per room), all the women can get a write-up, maybe even the one who brewed it.

A while ago, there was a "riot" on the Main yard. Four hooched-up women, two couples, started fighting and the guards got excited and began spraying everything in the immediate area with Orange Crush. As one woman later exited the main yard to her housing yard, she was pushing a wheelchair-bound prisoner. The officer who opened the yard gate snarled, "You want some of this?" as he tapped his canister of Orange Crush on the cement. She demurred, "No sir. I don't." "Well," he replied, "you won't be able to get away from it when we use the smokebombs!" Smokebombs?

Two of the women captured on the day of the riot had to be released from Ad Seg (Administrative Segregation: jail in prison) after a couple of days. They were arrested for running. Later, they explained that they ran to get away from the overwhelming burning pain of the Orange Crush sprayed around the yard.

The usage specs for Orange Crush state that it should be sprayed at a prisoner from the neck down and at a distance of no less than five feet. Often, guards go right for the head: eyes, ears, mouth, and nostrils are drenched. To add insult to injury, those sprayed are charged $50.00 per can, which is automatically deducted from inmates' accounts.

I have seen women fight in ways I have never before seen women battle. I had no idea. The biggest melees are about, besides some girlfriend, respect. In a 2006 issue of a Sunday New York Times I read that an increase in the U.S. in sudden, emotionally-based killings is due to that intangible quality -- respect. It seems that when people have less and less to call their own, be it property, pride in a job, educational attainment, vocational training, or a stake in community, lives become unanchored and adrift. Widespread poverty and weak social environments lead to a tenuous stability. One social faux pas can lead to a massive overreaction, even in women. It's rare but it does occur, particularly in a prison pressure cooker.

Inmates are barked at constantly over the P.A. system. We are insulted, directed to stay off the grass until a certain hour, directed to walk between two lines painted on the asphalt, day in and day out. We are called stupid. Stupid. Television "news" in the Central Valley advertises an upcoming segment with the headline, "Another stupid criminal!" Stupid, stupid, stupid.

CCWF is populated by women with ruined lives. Many were on paths to destruction before they ever collided with the Criminal Justice (sic) System where they were plea-bargained, as are 95 percent of all U.S. felony cases, into a long sentence or life or life without possiblity of parole (LWOP), far longer than their crimes merit. The once-proud California public school system failed these women who have ended up here. It's in shambles in poor communities, the most de facto segregated public school system in the country, which means everything to a convict population that is predominantly one of color; 65 percent of CCWF Women inmates have a minimum level of education. Many are just plain illiterate, asking a fellow prisoner how to multiply the sales tax on a vendor box order or please do it for her . . . please.

There are plenty of decent people who work for CCWF in custody, non-custody, and administrative jobs. But there's no tradition of rehabilitation. There are mistrust and paranoia between prisoners and staff. The prison culture is structured like any totalitarian society with one "side" having unlimited power over the other. The other side has only the individual hustles people employ to make day-to-day survival a bit easier. Throughout human history, people have survived in prisons, concentration and internment camps, and in penal colonies on the hustle. Many staff members understand this. As long as the hustles don't hurt anyone, they leave the hustlers alone. Sometimes they are fair, or beyond fair. Sometimes they tell individual prisoners, "You shouldn't be here," or, "You ought to go home," or ask, "Why are you still here?" with the caveat, "If you ever mention I said this, I'll deny it." They have to issue this disclaimer. They endanger their comfort level on the job, maybe even the job altogether, if they're too inmate-friendly. A totalitarian culture makes no allowance for compassion.

Besides, what's to be gained by compassion? What's to be gained by complying with new gender responsive strategy training? What will happen if some staff member doesn't comply? Nothing. If they don't comply, will staff be fired? No! So?

There are 2.2 million people in U.S. prisons and jails. The female population in prison in California and throughout the nation is growing faster than any other demographic, reaching a high of 7 percent of all prisoners in 2006. Of the three major racial groups in the U.S., despite being the smallest size overall, black women are more than twice as likely as Latinas and three times as likely as white women to go to prison. The effect on the thousands of children left behind by all these incarcerated mothers is devastating.

Women go to prison for nonviolent drug offenses. Convictions are primarily for use, not for sale or transport. Nixon's Controlled Substances Act spawned the Reagan administration's War on Drugs. The "war" was spearheaded by Edwin Meese and his erstwhile subordinate, First Lady Nancy Reagan, who promoted the socially moronic Just Say No campaign. At the same time, the CIA was flooding poor communities of color with Contra cocaine. These policies have produced 20 million criminals since the 1970s.

Since the beginning of 2007, the only new policies we've seen at CCWF are the implementation of a 55 percent restitution increase and the new property matrix for women and men imposed by the CDCR. The restitution increase means any money earned by a prisoner or sent in from the outside will have 55 percent deducted from the total to pay restitution costs levied by the courts on most of the state's inmates. Tens of millions of dollars have gone into the Crime Victims' Restitution Fund to which victims apply for psychological services. The charge is 50 percent plus 5 percent administrative costs. When restitution was 40 percent, administrative fees were 4 percent. At 30 percent they were 3 percent, and at 20 percent a plus 2 percent. The more the restitution, the higher the administrative costs for the same work. Go figure.

The property matrix delineates every item, such as the exact number of candy bars and bras and panties, an inmate can have in her personal property. It was put in place in the men's institutions too . . . without the bras and panties, I think. We can no longer have our personal towels that loved ones sent us more than three years ago, when boxes from home were banned. No sweaters. Not one blouse. No turtlenecks. No Gap slacks, no slacks, period. All disallowed items had to be sent home or donated. Except for a few allowable colors left over from old vendor boxes or from home, we can have only gray or white and precious little of that. We are allowed only two appliances. A small TV, a clip-on lamp, and a fan? No! Get rid of one!

The policies most likely to make a difference for women prisoners would apply to many of the men, too. They would be: a) de-schedule marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act; b) abolish parole; c) release more people; d) reform sentencing guidelines; and e) establish community supports for newly released prisoners that offer a possibility for successful reintegration into communities.

Within women's prisons, the Close Custody classification should be abolished. If Close Custody is used at all, it should be done for disciplinary reasons only and, even then, sparingly. Close Custody prevents Close As from attending any event after 6:00 p.m., sometimes for as long as five years. The five-year Close A status can apply to discipline problems and to those who are perfectly disciplined. Close As can't attend educational or vocational classes or any religious services that fall between 12:00 p.m. and 1:00 p.m. or after 6:00 p.m. every day, due to institutional counts. Close B classification, the rank following at least one year at Close A, lasts from four years for some to up to seven years before a prisoner's first Parole Board appearance. One woman I know won't get off Close B until 2070. Rehabilitation, we hope, will unlock the prison doors to more people from the outside world. Close Custody classification, the sole purpose of which is punishment, interferes with access on evenings and on weekends to those who bring a bit of the free world into prison.

Close Custody classification elimination should be part of a larger program to reunite families. Overnight Family Visits, now prohibited for lifers, LWOPs, long-termers, and all Close Custody prisoners, should be restored. Close Custody guard positions could be transferred to Family Visiting that, with greater access by prisoners, could be scheduled seven days a week rather than the three days currently in effect.

People need hope to more than survive in prison. CDCR plans to put some form of gender responsive strategy in place. Part of that should encourage sensitivity to prisoner gender differences. It's crucial to address not only actions, but language as well. For instance, when the U.S. military assault on the Iraqi city of Fallujah occurred in November 2004, one of the housing cops labeled our unit "Little Fallujah." Not good. It desensitizes. When the National Guard was deployed in New Orleans after Katrina, the troops called the lower Ninth Ward "Little Somalia." Not good. It dehumanizes those who were rightly nothing but victims. To add insult to injury, when the housing cop referred to our unit as "Little Fallujah," a female officer perked up, swiveled her head and chirped, "Fallujah? Who's she? When did she move into the unit?" Huh.


Sara Jane Olson is a prisoner, a mother and an activist. She is from Minnesota, where her husband and daughters still reside, transplanted to CCWF for a long -- though impermanent -- sojourn.

Sara Olson
W94197 506-10-04Low
P.O. Box 1508
Chowchilla, CA 93610-1508

Want more information about the Prison Industrial Complex? Contact:

California Prison Moratorium Project
1055 N. Ave Van Ness. Suite C1
Fresno, CA 93728
(559) 916-4370


The Assessment

A. In January 2006 the Criminal Justice Institute published a summary of an institutional culture assessment conducted at CCWF from June 6, 2005, through June 14, 2005. The assessment was conducted during a site visit by a six-person team . . . trained in the use of Institutional Culture Assessment Protocol (ICAP), a standardized process and instrumentation designed specifically for use in assessing a prison's culture.

B. The assessment described the culture at CCWF as "a tranquil yet restless culture." Because CCWF is a women's prison, "staff feel safe in their workplace." They don't "feel threatened by the inmates. They do not operate under the threat of violence that staff in many male institutions usually experience." (However, I found it interesting to read in a Boston Woodard article in Fresno's Community Alliance, December 2006, that the greatest number of threats against staff in California's men's prisons are of a verbal nature.) "Many staff commented that the 'women aren't as violent as the men,' expressing a great deal of appreciation for the more relaxed atmosphere that resulted from the low incidence of violence at the institution. Many referred to CCWF as 'the best kept secret in the state . . . .'"

C. "The lack of . . .violent behavior . . . has resulted in staff becoming more accustomed to a "relaxed" correctional environment. Consequently, boredom and complacency have emerged. . . . Thus, staff have looked for something else upon which to focus their attention. Not being threatened or having to 'watch their backs' on a daily basis, results in staff from all levels making smaller issues into something larger."

This is important to highlight because a Gender Responsive Strategies Committee has recommended reforms for women prisoners within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). The reforms could allow for some genuine change within the women's system and a chance for lower recidivism rates and successful inmate reintegration with families and communities. As one of my roommates says, "The pendulum between punishment and reform is on the upswing in favor of inmates. We have about four years to gain some positive changes. Then it'll swing back even further toward punishment and we'll have to claw our way back to somewhere reasonable."

D. In practice, it's going to be difficult to enact the gender strategy. There is staff resistance in the prisons, which is hardly surprising. According to ICAP: "Line staff at CCWF do not have a clear understanding of what gender responsive correctional practices are . . . female inmates ARE different from male inmates -- but staff lack the guidance and leadership necessary to help them understand HOW they are different and WHY things are done differently . . . WHAT the true mission of the facility is and HOW that mission applies to female offenders."

Guards can be overheard saying that the retraining programs will result in "no change." Even the inmates agree there'll be no change. In a bureaucratic system constructed to punish for more than a quarter century, the CDC can't simply add "R" for rehabilitation to a departmental title and expect it to mean anything. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore, once an instructor in UC Berkeley's former School of Criminology and an antiprison activist, writes in her book, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California, "We've crammed 173,000 convicts into the nation's largest prison system, designed to house at least one-third less . . . . California may lag behind many other states in high school graduation rates, welfare benefits and investment in public health, but when it comes to punishment, we rank at or near the top."




§Sara Jane Olson
by Sara Jane Olson Monday Feb 26th, 2007 2:23 PM

Sara Jane Olson is a prisoner, a mother and an activist. She is from Minnesota, where her husband and daughters still reside, transplanted to CCWF for a long -- though impermanent -- sojourn.
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following your logic to the absurdmeSaturday Aug 16th, 2008 6:13 PM
not our faultj.c.Wednesday Feb 28th, 2007 7:43 PM