Sisters Behind Bars: Inside the Women's Prisons of California

Revolutionary Worker #911, June 15, 1997

"When I was in jail I kept thinking, `me and my baby might make it out of here alive and we might not.' I wasn't born with a silver spoon, I've gotten pushed around a lot, but when my baby died I'd had enough. It hasn't brought her back but someone has to be willing to stand up."

California woman prisoner
who was a plaintiff in a lawsuit
against prison conditions

"Most of us are afraid to speak out but there is a lot going on here that society needs to know. People are afraid to know that women are raped in here and left to die."

Woman prisoner at the
Central California Women's Facility

California currently incarcerates almost 10,000 women in four large institutions--more women than any other state in the U.S. Chowchilla, in California's largely rural central valley, is the site of the world's largest prison complex for women1. The Central California Women's Facility (CCWF) which opened in 1990 and the newly opened Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW) together imprison over 6,300 women. The Frontera State Prison for women, built to house a maximum of 1,011 inmates, now holds over 2,500 prisoners. Valley State Prison contains a Security Housing Unit (SHU) where women are locked into their cells 23 hours a day. Sexual abuse and harassment are prevalent. And the conditions in these prisons are not exceptions--they reflect conditions in women's prisons nationwide.

The number of women in prison has more than quadrupled since the early 1980s. In 1980 there were 25,000 women in federal and state prisons and local jails. Now over 116,000 women are locked up in the United States.

The biggest factor accounting for the increase of the number of women in prison are harsh new drug and mandatory sentencing laws. In California almost 38 percent of women are serving prison time for drug related offenses. In New York, between 1982 and 1989, the number of women convicted of violent crimes went down while drug sentences rose more than 20 times. Women are most often jailed for small desperate roles in the drug trade.

In California over 76 percent of women in state prisons are serving time for drug, property theft or other non-violent crimes. And the percentage of women in prison convicted of violent offenses has actually declined since 1980. One in four women in California prisons is serving time for either simple drug possession or petty theft with a prior, the most common offenses.

Another factor forcing many women into prison is the increasingly difficult economic situation women face. Eighty percent of the women imprisoned in California jails are mothers who have at least two dependent children. An October 1996 article in Scientific American which looked at single mothers on welfare showed how for many families, receiving or not receiving AFDC and other benefits often made the difference between a family being homeless or not. The article also showed that even if a family receives AFDC their income falls short of what is required for the basic necessities of life. And now, with drastic cuts and elimination of welfare, many more women will be forced into either homelessness or crime to survive.

One woman prisoner told the National Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, "When I talk to my kids, they have told me, `please don't steal, we can do without,' but my kids never did without. I stole for need. I would go to a store and open a package to get diapers."

Many women are sent to prison for killing abusive husbands or boyfriends. It is estimated that in California alone there are 600 women in prison for killing an abuser in self-defense. The average prison term for wives who kill their husbands is twice as long as for husbands who kill their wives.

Racism also plays a big role in deciding who gets sent to prison and for how long. In California about 70 percent of women prisoners are Black or Latina. Black women are twice as likely to be convicted of killing their abusive husbands as are white women. Black women, on the average, receive longer jail times for the same offenses.


"As it is they're killing people who don't have death sentences."

Woman prisoner, whose friend died of heart failure
after she was refused medical treatment numerous times
and was forced to work on yard crew
in 112 degree heat

  • Jane B. was a 36-year-old mother serving two years at a large state women's prison for forging checks worth about $1,000. She suffered from a severe gastrointestinal disorder. In spite of her requests for assistance, she was not given effective medical care for her condition. She slowly starved to death and the coroner's report listed starvation as the cause of death. She left two young daughters.
  • Mary H. was a 40-year-old woman serving a three year sentence for possession of drugs. She had a serious heart condition for which she received very little treatment or care. On the day she died she requested to be seen by medical staff at the infirmary on two separate occasions but was denied treatment. Later, she had a heart attack and died on the way to the hospital.
  • Angela H., a 20-year-old woman from a large county in Southern California, was serving time on a parole violation for possession and sale of marijuana. She was almost five months pregnant at the time she entered the state prison. Soon after she was incarcerated she started to experience vaginal bleeding, cramping and severe pain. She requested medical assistance numerous times over a three-week period but was not seen by an OB-GYN, since there was no OB on contract with the institution. She was finally seen by the chief medical officer, an orthopedist, who diagnosed her as having a vaginal infection without examining her physically or running any laboratory tests, and prescribed Flagyl, a drug that should be avoided during pregnancy because it can induce labor. The next day, Angela went into labor and delivered on the way to an outside hospital. Her infant son lived approximately two hours.
  • Cases cited in a paper titled,
    "Women Prisoners and Health Care: Locked Up and Locked Out"
    by Ellen Barry


    Many women have died needless deaths as a result of California's inhumane health care for women prisoners. And while all prisoners face poor medical care, the prison system seems especially unwilling to meet the particular health needs of women prisoners.

    It is estimated that 10 percent of the women entering California prisons are pregnant. Ellen Barry, Director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, wrote, "Although I have many years of experience working with women prisoners, I was unprepared prior to initiating litigation on behalf of women prisoners for the shocking disregard of basic humanity that I saw reflected in the type of treatment to which pregnant women were subjected."

    In one recent court case, a woman prisoner in Connecticut challenged the lack of medical care for pregnant women. One of the women in this case was forced to deliver while her legs were shackled together--leading to the death of her infant twins.

    The nutritional needs of pregnant women are ignored. Women report receiving sour milk, food contaminated with roaches, mold and generally inadequate diets. One pregnant woman joked about her assignment at the honor farm of a large women's jail. She said as she picked string beans she would put one in the basket and pop another in her mouth--the only fresh vegetables in her diet that week.

    A 1994 study conducted by the State Department of Health Services reported that 3.2 percent of women entering prison in California were HIV-positive. But health care in California prisons for women with AIDS or who are HIV-positive is completely inadequate:

  • In the early 1990s, the infirmary at the California Institute for Women was inspected by the State Board of Health and declared inadequate and substandard in the following categories: physician and nursing care, pharmacy, dietary kitchen, patient handling, medical policies and procedures. It was found to have unsanitary conditions, including unsafe storage of infectious waste.
  • It routinely takes two to three weeks for a prisoner at the CCWF in Chowchilla to see a doctor, if she is lucky enough to get a guard to approve a doctor's visit.
  • Women at Chowchilla are not tested for AIDS unless they are showing AIDS symptoms.
  • While there are at least 100 women with the AIDS virus at Chowchilla there is no doctor who specializes in treating HIV/AIDS.
  • Women who are HIV-positive or who have full-blown AIDS in California prisons get no routine exams or clinical follow-up.
  • At Valley State Prison for Women, prisoners with AIDS and other serious diseases are often locked down in the Security Housing Unit.
  • HIV-positive women are denied certain prison privileges, such as jobs and spousal visits.
  • Women prisoners with AIDS-related wasting syndrome are not provided with medically necessary diets or nutritional supplements--putting them at risk of severe malnutrition and starvation.
  • Ellen Barry's paper exposes that despite court cases supposedly guaranteeing women reproductive choice, women in prison or county jail are often denied access to abortions. In California, some county jail officials who oppose abortion have denied women prisoners all access. Other women have been told that they could only have abortions if they paid for the procedure themselves and the time of the sheriff's deputies accompanying them to an outside clinic.

    Other women have been coerced into having abortions, especially when their pregnancies are the result of abuse by guards or prison officials. And women prisoners have also reported unauthorized hysterectomies and tubal ligations.

    Women prisoners are subject to many more outrageous denials of basic medical care. Guards with minimal medical training are allowed to screen inmates seeking medical attention and often prevent women from seeing a physician. Women suffering from seizures, diabetes, cancer, sickle cell anemia and other severe medical conditions often have a hard time getting prescriptions filled because they are unable to see a doctor. At Chowchilla, women have to wait several months to see a gynecologist. Women with drug and alcohol dependencies are not given treatment. And the needs of women with disabilities are ignored.

    In 1995, 24 women prisoners, many with life-threatening illnesses, filed suit against California Governor Pete Wilson and the California Department of Corrections, charging the government with systematic denial of necessary medication and care. The plaintiffs in this case include women with cancer, heart disease, sickle cell anemia, AIDS, tuberculosis, and other illnesses. The case, known as Shumate v. Wilson, is scheduled to start trial on July 29.

    The lead plaintiff in the case, Charisse Shumate, suffers from sickle cell anemia, a disease that strikes Black people, and has been in the CCWF since 1989. While at CCWF she has not received medical care from a doctor who specializes in the treatment of sickle cell anemia. As a result of not receiving adequate medical care, every month, like clockwork, she goes into crises and has to be rushed to the Merced Community Medical Center for emergency care.


    "It's not just me who suffers, it's the kids too. My children and my family were sentenced along with me."

    Woman prisoner interviewed by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice

    In California almost 80 percent of women prisoners are mothers with an average of two dependent children. Nationally over 1.5 million children are separated from a parent who is in prison. And now, with three strikes laws, it is estimated that the number of children whose primary parent is in prison will grow by a factor of six to ten times in the next decade.

    The system makes it very difficult for children to visit parents in prison. In California most prisons are built far away from major urban centers. The California Institute for Women is a five-hour drive from Los Angeles, the nearest major city. Over 60 percent of children with mothers in prison live over 100 miles from where their mothers are incarcerated.

    Meanwhile, the California Department of Corrections is taking action to significantly limit visitation. It is considering requiring children to visit their imprisoned parents unsupervised. The accompanying adult is already refused admission to the state prison in many cases, forcing the children to undergo a body search alone. And many women prisoners with children in foster care are unable to meet court mandated "family reunification requirements" for contact and visitation with their children.


    "I felt fear real quick. I knew something was wrong and I didn't want to look. [Officer G] pulled the blanket. I sat up and tugged at the blanket. The other guard had the garbage can in the door and then the whole blanket came off... He just tore my whole shirt. That's when he assaulted me sexually. [Officer H] yelled at [Officer G] to calm down and left. I was screaming, yelling and crying. Martha across the hall was banging on her window. I went into the shower. I felt dirty."

    California woman prisoner quoted
    in the Human Rights Watch Report,
    "All Too Familiar: Sexual Abuse
    of Women in U.S. State Prisons"

    In December 1996, Human Rights Watch, an international human rights group, released a 347-page report documenting sexual abuse of women in U.S. state prisons. The report, based on interviews with more than 60 current and former women prisoners, focuses on abuses in California, the District of Columbia, Georgia, New York, Illinois and Michigan. This report reveals that sexual abuse of women in prisons is widespread and condoned by the system. Prison guards are given the right to rape and abuse women prisoners and are rarely punished.

    In California, most of the guards at state prisons for women are men. At Valley State Prison 73 percent of the guards are men and at CCWF the percentage of men guards is even greater.

    Sexual abuse of prisoners in prisons takes many forms: violent rape, guards exploiting their ability to secure or deny goods or privileges to coerce women into sexual relations, groping women, verbally abusing them, and denying them privacy.

  • In 1990 the Orange County Register ran a series of articles documenting rape, corruption, negligent medical care, and retaliation against women at the California Institute for Women at Frontera. According to the Register, Harold Anderson, the son of former warden Kathleen Anderson, forced at least 10 incarcerated women into sexual relations. Other guards reported finding him in "compromising positions" on at least three occasions before any action was taken. A woman guard who exposed Anderson's actions was harassed by other guards. The department considered Anderson's actions a "personnel matter" and did not refer him for prosecution.
  • A September 1996 article in the San Francisco Chronicle reported that three women are suing federal prison officials and guards saying that they were sexually assaulted, beaten, and sold as sex slaves for male prisoners while at the Federal penitentiary in Dublin in Alameda County.
  • Another California prisoner, Rose S., interviewed by Human Rights Watch told how she was repeatedly verbally harassed by a male guard. One day when Rose arrived at her work assignment Officer R was there alone, locked the door and proceeded to abuse her. Rose told Human Rights Watch that she later learned that Officer R raped another woman a year earlier.
  • A staff attorney from Legal Services for Prisoners With Children told Human Rights Watch that several women at CCWF had been sexually assaulted by a prison doctor and that a prison nurse had abused a disabled prisoner.
  • In 1995 the Post-conviction Justice Project at the University of Southern California filed a lawsuit against a prison chaplain who sexually assaulted women prisoners. Prisoners reported the assaults to officials in 1994, but no action was taken against the chaplain until 1996. By then he had attacked at least one other woman.
  • The report by Human Rights Watch also documents how prison guards and officials use their positions to grant or withhold small privileges like extra phone calls, shampoo, sanitary napkins, etc. In exchange for these so-called privileges women are supposed to provide sex. Guards have also been known to take advantage of a prisoners' drug addiction to force them into sex.

    Women in prison have no privacy; their every and most private moments are observed by male guards. In California, male guards are prohibited from conducting gross gender strip searches. But strip searches are often conducted in full view of male guards. At CCWF, women are prohibited from covering their windows for short periods while they are changing clothes. Guards enter living units while women are dressing or showering on the pretense of conducting a search. Male guards routinely watch women use showers and toilets.

    For those in administrative segregation at VSPW there is virtually no privacy. If a women needs to go to the bathroom during her three-hour exercise period, she must use a toilet that is directly below the guard tower that is usually staffed by a male guard. Often the woman must request toilet paper from the same guard. The showers are positioned so that all male guards have an unobstructed view of the women showering. Women prisoners must receive their medical exams, including their gynecological exams, in the presence of male guards.


    Prisoners can file grievances against abuse. But when officers get "602" grievance forms, they often just throw them out. One prisoner told Human Rights Watch, "[Corrections Officers] will tear it up and throw it in the garbage...or [they] will say, `Go ahead and 602 me because I know it won't go nowhere.' Most 602s get thrown in the garbage before you go away. It's a joke to them."

    California requires that the prisoner speak to the person who they are accusing of sexual abuse before filing an appeal. This is meant to intimidate inmates from filing grievances because they fear retaliation from the guards. And even if woman prisoners get hearings on their charges they face a system that almost never believes their word over the word of a guard. One woman prisoner, with a very well-documented claim of abuse by a guard, told Human Rights Watch that the investigator opened her hearing by asserting that she would not believe any charges of sexual misconduct and stating, "Do you know how many girls say they've been sexually harassed? What do you want, to go home early?"

    One woman told Human Rights Watch that after she filed a complaint against a guard she faced constant harassment by prison staff. And the harassment continued even after she was transferred to a different facility. At the second prison two officers pulled her from her room, handcuffed her and took her to their office where they proceeded to badger her. They repeatedly asked her why she was going to get one of their colleagues suspended.

    In the Dublin case, three women were transferred to a men's security housing unit after attorneys started looking into the women's charges that the guards were selling women prisoners as sex slaves to male prisoners. Prisons are supposed to be prohibited from mixing men and women prisoners together like this. Late one night, three male prisoners were let into the cell of one of the women. The prisoners had handcuffs which only guards in prison are allowed to have. The men repeatedly raped her and threatened her with continued abuse if she kept complaining. They called her a snitch and told her to keep her mouth shut about the sexual abuse. The woman told the San Francisco Chronicle, "If they hadn't put handcuffs on me they would have had to kill me."

    Prisoners who file complaints against guards are routinely sent to administrative segregation where they are kept in isolation and denied access to telephones or attorneys. They are permitted out of their rooms for only brief periods. The food in administrative segregation is often inedible. Prisoners in administrative segregation at the California Institution for Women reported that there were rats and bugs in their cells and that the food arrived cold with bird droppings in it.

    One woman prisoner told Human Rights Watch why she was afraid to report a guard who groped her in the bathroom: "My friend tried to get me to go tell. I wouldn't do it out of fear. I envisioned them putting me in the hole [segregation]. People are thrown in the hole all the time, for anything."

    Meanwhile, the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) signed by President Clinton in April 1996 has made it much more difficult for individuals and organizations to challenge oppressive prison conditions through the courts. Among other things, the PLRA terminates any court order after two years, whether or not the prison officials have complied. The PLRA severely restricts court-granted attorney's fees, the main source of income for prisoners' rights attorneys. And it severely limits the authority of federal courts to assign people to monitor prison reform.

    Sources used for this article include:

    1. All Too Familiar: Sexual Abuse of Women in U.S. Prisons. Human Rights Watch Women's Rights Project, December 1996.

    2. Criminal Injustice: Confronting the Prison Crisis. Edited by Elihu Rosenblatt. South End Press, 1996.

    3. Death Behind Bars. Nina Siegal. San Francisco Bay Guardian, February 5, 1997.

    4. Women in California Prisons: Hidden Victims of the War on Drugs. Barbara Bloom, Meda Lind, Barbara Owen. Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice Report, May 1994.

    5. Women Prisoners and Health Care: Locked Up and Locked Out. Ellen Barry.

    6. In Man-Made Medicine: Women's Health, Public Policy and Reform. Duke University Press, 1996.

    7. Women in Prison: Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report. Tracy Snell. March 1994.

    8. Report from Valley State Prison for Women SHU. Sharon Sadler. California Prison Focus, Winter 1997.

    According to California Prison Focus and the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

    This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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