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Inhumane Treatment of Prisoners in Chowchilla
The words of a women locked up in one of the many prisons in the Central Valley.
Inhumane Treatment of Prisoners in Chowchilla
Sara Jane Olson
According to Title 15 of the California Code of Regulations for Crime Prevention and Corrections, "Institution heads shall maintain family visiting policies and procedures. Family visits are extended overnight visits, provided for eligible inmates and their immediate family members, commensurate with institution security, space availability, and pursuant to these regulations." The key word is eligible. Family visits used to be available to most prisoners in the California Institution for Women (CIW) in Frontera when it was the only women's prison in the state. They were in place at the Central California Women's Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla until 1996. In October 1996 the state legislature outlawed family visits for many prisoners: those with life sentences; inmates under Close A and Close B Custody, a designation limiting in-prison movement applied to 375 women at CCWF alone; and those in Administrative Segregation (prison jail) or those guilty of various in-prison offenses.
J.S., a lifer nearing 24 years in custody, entered prison at CIW in 1982. She was 23 years old, and she was told that she'd surely be released by age 36. She's 47 now. J.S. has two sons. Her boys were two and four years old when she was imprisoned. J.S. says, "My husband considered family the number one thing." The boys knew they would see mom at least once a month for a visit. They could count on that. She says she raised her kids in prison through family visiting.
The physical set-up for family visiting at CIW included a trailer, three connected apartments, and a duplex. There were two barbecue pits, picnic tables, and a playground, all situated in an open, shared grass yard. Children and adults freely mingled. The kids played together; if one of them had a birthday party, there were festive hats, party favors, and cake for all. A "camera girl" attached to CIW's canteen took many family photos. Visits lasted for three days once a month.
J.S. says, "The first thing we did was put away the food." In those days, families brought in groceries from the outside and Match Light charcoal for a barbecue. After that, "each one of us would get a cool drink. We would all sit down at the table and have a family discussion to catch up. Each person could bring up any issue and we'd have it out there, good or bad. We couldn't leave that table until a compromise on each person's issue had been reached."
J.S. reminisces, "When I came to prison, I'd never heard the word 'heroin.' I came in young. My probation report described me as '21 going on 15.' I was taken in by the older ladies. They took me under their wings. They showed me how to be a lady and helped me grow up. Then you could get boxes from home with dresses, high heels, perfume, you know--girlie stuff. You could dress up and look like a woman."
J.S. arrived at CCWF on October 1, 1990, one of the first group of volunteers who came north from CIW to prepare the prison for opening. It was a gift to her family. They lived in Merced and Fresno, so seeing her at CCWF would eliminate major travel time and expenses. As she saw it, "It was giving back to them." If a scheduled visitor canceled, J.S. could call her nearby family and often they could come. Sometimes she got two visits a month.
"At CCWF in the 1990s they started taking the girlie stuff. The hair dye went because they said we'd disguise ourselves to escape, but we still kept our personal clothes. Since 2004 we can't even get personal boxes from our families. Now it's all vendors, all gray and white, no colors allowed. We look grungy, and the violence level went up. Now we're drab, sad, and unemotional-looking."
In 1995 the prison began to convert the visiting apartments, one by one, to offices. "When they took the first apartment, we knew it was only a matter of time before they'd take our family visits away." In the late 1980s there had been a flurry of publicity at CIW around family visiting. It involved Kathy Smith, imprisoned for giving John Belushi the lethal injection that killed him, and Susan Atkins, one of the Manson women. In interviews Smith glamorized prison and Atkins revealed that Atkins and her husband James were trying to have a baby. Doris Tate, mother of one of Atkins’s victims, and the Victim Services group became incensed. They started a campaign to take family visits away from ALL prisoners. Prisoners reached out for help and State Senator Richard Polanco helped halt the campaign for a number of years. But by 1996, with the public political mood shifting toward pure punishment, a bill restricting family visits was put forward at the state level. It focused on lifers, those convicted of violent crimes, and those who picked up a drug case inside prison. Family visits were outlawed for a large group of inmates.
In 1996, a week before J.S.’s last family visit, her husband died. During that visit her son told her, "Last night I was going to run away or slit my wrists, but I knew I had this visit with you, so I came."
J.S. says, "Now everything is gone. No visits, no family boxes. It's all punishment. The guards are lazy. They don't want to keep an eye on things. They lump us all into one mess and categorize everyone as the same. They make everyone look like a man, a man and hard, so they can treat us hard."
In 2005 the Criminal Justice Institute did a cultural assessment of the CCWF work and social milieus. Interviewers questioned many staff members, both custody and noncustody, and several inmates. Many guards referred to CCWF as ". . . the best-kept secret in the state. The lack of violent behavior . . . has resulted in staff becoming more accustomed to a 'relaxed' correction environment. Consequently, boredom and complacency have emerged and contribute to the culture at CCWF . . . Not being threatened or having to 'watch their backs' on a daily basis, results in staff from all levels making small issues into something larger."
J.S. says, "There are drugs in here but they don't come through Receiving and Release (R&R) because all merchandise is ordered from vendors. The vendor prices are high, sometimes 100 percent more costly than the same item on the street. All the boxes and books that move through R&R are unpacked by a guard and written on an inventory. It would be impossible to get more than a tiny amount through day visiting.” When asked how drugs get in, J.S. pauses then replies, "My belief . . . I think the institution allows so much in. There's too much observation: guards, cameras, binoculars and searches. I say, check the staff as they come into work."
J.S.'s most recent Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) appointment was July 14, 2006. She says, "I expect no change. It's like being on trial again. At every BPH session, one is forced to relive the events of one's crime many years before. The commissioners want all the little details. They want you to remember every minute of a report that's a quarter century old. They look at codefendants’ statements from their hearings and order you to respond. I don't know what my codefendants said.
"I'm different now. There's no regard for maturity. For women who kill, the majority are abused terribly in their early lives. I was molested since I was six. It's my first real memory.
"I don't even tell my family anymore. Knowing I'm going to a BPH hearing gives them hope and there's no hope. My family writes to the BPH and begs for my parole. It's too painful. The BPH always denies me. They want us to pay again and again . . . lawyers, courts, fees, all of it. If you can't, oh, well. Stay in prison.
"After the [overnight] family visits were eliminated for lifers, my husband was dead, so it was harder for my family to get my kids here. My older son lives in Oregon. My younger son lives in Fresno and he brings his daughter, my little granddaughter, to see me. My son says, "Mom, if the family visits are restored, write or call immediately. We'll come."
Some prisoners, mostly short-termers, can still have family visits every six weeks. The visits are limited to two days. The inmate and visitors must buy food from the prison's canteen list except for a few extra items. For those who qualify, the visits make prison bearable.
For the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to be more than Orwellian-speak, it must enact a program of true rehabilitation where more of the CDCR budget is spent on programs than on staff salaries. It must do all it can to reconnect prisoners with the larger society and to help them find their places in it. This can be done through better education, job training, and mental health programs than the ones that currently exist. Family restoration should be a top priority and family visits are a crucial element for such a goal. Limit the use of restricted custody levels (Close A and Close B) that only exist to enhance the number of staff positions and to further segregate inmates within the prison. Give us back our quarterly boxes from our families and/or friends; they sustain an important "link of love" and are much cheaper than vendor boxes for our families to assemble. Let us look like women again in all our individual permutations.
Note: The Criminal Justice Institute used CAP (the Institutional Culture Assessment Protocol), "a standardized process and instrumentation designed specifically for use in assessing a prison's culture,” to describe the CCWF work and living environments from June 6, 2005, through June 14, 2005. Its report was published January 5, 2006, by the Criminal Justice Institute, Inc., Middleton, Connecticut (860) 704-6400.
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.