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Pine Box Parole: Life and Death in Women's Prisons
by Sophia Delaney/ SF IMC
Monday Apr 29th, 2002 11:03 PM
Prison activists fight for better health care in the California Dept. of Corrections, alleging preventable deaths and sub-par medical care.
The volume of Judy Greenspan’s voice drops a few notches. She sighs heavily, and murmurs, “...I saw a woman drop and then I saw the most incredible commotion by staff as they tried to figure out what to do... We saw them bring in an IV, we saw artificial resuscitation, we saw that they were frantic. And then there was nothing.”

Eva Vallario, an inmate at Central California Women’s Facility, had come to the prison’s visiting room feeling ill on December 15, 2000. It was her usual visiting hour, but it ended up being anything but routine: as Vallario waited in the back of the room, she suddenly collapsed from a massive asthma attack. In front of a room full of inmates and their visitors, she choked on her own vomit, stopped breathing, and died.

It came as a shock: Vallario was only 33, and while she was ill with chronic asthma, no one expected her to die. Doctors from U.C. Davis later ruled the death preventable, had she been allowed to bring her inhaler to the visiting room or received CPR more rapidly.

The death was the seventh out of a rash of eight deaths within the prison in a seven-week period in November and December of 2000. Judy Greenspan, a long-time advocate with California Prison Focus, had come to the prison to talk with the inmates about the deaths-- but ended up seeing far more than she intended to. "In all my years of prison advocacy, I have never had a more nightmarish and haunting night..." she wrote about witnessing Vallario’s passing.

California Prison Focus and a host of other local prisoner rights’ campaigners have charged CCWF with creating many nightmarish nights for seriously ill women inmates. Prisoners with life-threatening diseases are routinely transferred to CCWF because it contains a Skilled Nursing Facility (SNF) for treatment of such illnesses, unlike any other women’s prison in the state. But activists say that medical care is mismanaged to the point of criminal negligence-- not only within the SNF, but also throughout California’s prison system. "People have been left to die because they’re not getting the medical care they need," said Karen Shain of the San Francisco nonprofit Legal Support for Prisoners with Children.

The allegations are not new. In 1995, LSPC filed Shumate v. Wilson, a landmark federal class-action suit. The primary plaintiff, Charrisse Shumate, was serving fifteen-to-life for killing her abusive husband. She was also suffering from sickle-cell anemia, Hepatitis C, and cancer, and alleged that the prison system had failed to adequately care for her diseases. Twenty-five other inmates co-signed the suit, including Sherrie Chapman, an inmate in California Institute for Women who discovered lumps in her breasts in 1984, but wasn’t allowed a doctor’s visit until a decade later.

The case won a conditional settlement in 1997: if the penal system did not fix 57 major flaws in its health care units (including long intervals between health care requests and appointments, ambulance service delays, sub-par preventative care, and poor chronic illness treatment), the case would be tried.  In 1998, both CCWF and the California Institute for Women, a maximum-security facility near LA, failed an investigation by state-appointed evaluators. At CIW, eleven violations were found.

The state shrugged the problems off; Attorney General Office’s lead counsel in the case, Ismael Castro, was quoted as saying, "Eleven out of fifty-seven isn’t that bad," in a 1999 article in the SF Bay Guardian.

The case was dismissed by mutual agreement in August of 2000, and Karen Shain says the LSPC will not file a new suit. In fact, it probably can’t. "Since Shumate, the law has changed," said Shain, citing the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act, which was "meant to eliminate frivolous lawsuits... but has eliminated class action."

In the meantime, prison growth has grown explosively in California, particularly among women. Between 1980 and 2000, women inmates increased from 1,316 to 10,978-- for every one incarcerated female then, there are now ten to take her place. (CCWF and Valley State Prison for Women-- a facility located literally across the street from CCWF-- both operate well beyond their holding capacity. Together they house about 7,000 inmates, and constitute the largest women’s prison complex in the world.)

Other circumstances have changed since the case was filed: in 1997, "compassionate release" became California state law. The law, co-authored by Judy Greenspan, stipulates that prisoners who are terminally ill can be released before parole is due-- provided it’s recommended by prison officials and granted by a specially appointed judge.  

But activists charge that the law is underused. In fact, Greenspan says that compassionate release-- which was a clause in a different early-release law before it became legislation of its own-- dropped after the law was signed. “What we wanted to be a medical procedure became a political one. No one [at the Calif. Dept. of Corrections] wanted to risk [looking like] they were soft on criminals.”

Having exhausted legal methods for changing prison health standards, and faced with explosive prison population growth, prisoners’ rights activists say they will continue fighting for justice behind the barbed wire.

On April 27, fifty prison activists-- mostly from the Bay Area-- drove down to Chowchilla, a small town in the Great Central Valley, to protest outside the gates of CCWF.

The protest featured a plethora of speakers. Heidi Strupp of the LSPC referenced a visit only days before by activists and the Dept. of Health Services: "They spent all morning trying to find a way to get us out of there." The DHS was investigating over eight recent complaints by inmates.

She and many other speakers called for a wide range of reforms, including an independent investigation into the prison, a new staff for the SNF, and more compassionate releases.

Greenspan says that such reforms are a possibility, despite the small size of the protest. “I think all the pressure is helping. I think that conditions may change a little bit about for the better... They [the DHS] are taking these complaints very seriously... The SNF might lose its license because of this,” forcing the prison to upgrade its care standards. She cites the recent upswing in prison-related activism, if not in health care issues specifically, as a reason for hope.

One of the speakers read a recent statement from Dee Garcia, a SNF inmate: “We’re the forgotten population... I was wheeled in here in an ambulance. Will I be wheeled out of here in a hearse?”

The protesters also intended to hand-deliver a list of demands for better medical treatment to Prison Warden Gwendolyn Mitchell, but that goal met with no success. "We have no one here to accept that," V. Versage, a guard stationed at the prison’s main entrance, told the group. He explained that it was policy for guards to not accept documents of any kind at the gates.

Warden Mitchell was not available, as she was not working on Saturday. After telling Greenspan to mail or fax the letter to the warden, Versage told the group that he "would appreciate it" if they moved back to the street.
Greenspan proclaimed that they would not only fax the demands, but would request a meeting held between activists, prison officials, and inmates in the SNF.

Although Greenspan admits that the chances of the meeting are slim, she also says that it’s important to the morale of the women inside to continue seeking change. She maintains that the activists exist as a means of support and a method of conveying news of the injustice inside lock-up to others outside, and they will continue to protest poor care as long as the women inside ask them to.

“We don’t want to speak for the prisoners, we want to orchestrate their voices.”

And in the end, they hope, perhaps keep those voices from falling silent forever.
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NegativitypearlMonday Feb 28th, 2005 6:51 PM
There is NO crime worth the timenyima metokTuesday Feb 3rd, 2004 6:47 PM
Gray DavisLoriSaturday Aug 16th, 2003 1:50 AM
MrsKate WebsterSaturday Dec 21st, 2002 6:48 PM
MR.BorskiMonday Sep 2nd, 2002 7:47 PM
HINDSIGHT20/20Sunday Aug 18th, 2002 10:56 PM
Moral of the story:don't get caughtFriday Aug 16th, 2002 2:18 PM
specialkKarenFriday Aug 16th, 2002 1:33 PM
Who's in prison?TessuraeaWednesday Jul 24th, 2002 12:23 PM
to zero tolerancepatrick henryThursday Jul 11th, 2002 8:32 PM
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