CDCR Edmund G. Brown, Jr. (Jerry)

Letters From Orange by Matthew Fleischer

WLA’s Matt Fischer continues to report on conditions for women in California’s prisons. Here’s his latest.


Life in California’s Overcrowded Women’s Prisons

by Matthew Fleischer

Back in July, WitnessLA reported that, while officials are hyper-focused on the population levels
in California’s men’s lockups, our women’s prisons are dangerously overcrowded. The state’s female correctional facilities are currently operating at 153.5% of capacity — now officially higher than the infamously crowded men’s facilities, which are operating at 145.7% capacity. Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) outside Chowchilla is particularly crammed. According to a recent population report from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, CCWF is operating at nearly 175% capacity, second only to North Kern State men’s prison as the most packed in California.

The reason for the overcrowding is not a mystery: last year, the CDCR converted Valley State Prison for Women into a men’s facility, in order to ease overcrowding elsewhere. CCWF and the California Institute for Women in Chino, were forced to absorb VSPW’s female inmates.

After our story ran, we heard from several women housed in the Central California Women’s Facility. Some told us about escalating violence in CCWF as a result of overcrowding. Others told us about their daily lives. A few just wanted to talk about their individual cases. But each provided a small personal window into what life is like in the state’s second most overpopulated lock-up.

The original Netflix series Orange is the New Black, based on the experiences of author Piper Chapman at the Federal Correctional Institution, in Danbury, Connecticut, has done much in recent months to attract attention to the unique set of challenges faced by women in American correctional institutions. Here in California, the situation inside women’s facilities is far more severe than depicted in the show – with women often housed eight-to-a-cell built for four.

Now that Governor Jerry Brown and the California Senate have reached a compromise agreement that pointedly avoids having to release any actual inmates in order to reach the court-mandated 9000-inmate population reduction by the end of 2013, there appears to be no end in immediate sight to the crowding in California’s female facilities.

For this reason, we wanted to share these women’s stories about life in a packed California prison. We are presenting these stories edited only slightly for concision and clarity.

Inmate Cindy Oakley, who has been at CCFW since 1992, wrote to tell us how the quality of daily existence has changed at the prison since VSPW was converted to a men’s facility, and its female inmate population was squeezed into CCWF last year. She described how the tensions and violence of living in a jam-packed prison aren’t always reflected in the numbers.

About the same time that VSPW merged with CCWF, staff “shortages” caused the department to implement “modified programming.” Modified programming only means that some units and/or yards will be locked down. While a total institutional lockdown requires paperwork from the warden, a sergeant or a lieutenant can modify a unit or the entire yard if he or she deems it appropriate….

[During these lockdowns] people are bored – and don’t seem able to entertain themselves apart from terrorizing someone else. During these extended periods of lockdowns a couple of things occur.

One, because staff have less contact with us, and get more involved in their personal activities in the “cop shop,” (watching tv, sleeping, talking on the phone, etc.) they become very resistant to dealing with us at all. Calls for help are ignored, and any contact that does occur is riddled with resentment and hostility.

The second thing happening is that there are more fights – technically beatings – in the rooms. Because the officers are engrossed in their own activities they manage to never “know” what is happening. So while the reports of violence may be nominal, we are experiencing a significant increase in violence and threats of violence (which can almost be as emotionally damaging as the actual violence itself).

Inmate Josephine Moore wrote to tell us about how, from what she has observed, much of the inmate population at CCWF is composed of aging women like herself – women who are often eligible for parole, but have yet to be released due to what is arguably politically-driven over-cautiousness on the part of the governor’s office.

I have been incarcerated here at CCWF since 1976. I was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. I have been to the parole board for suitability hearings twenty-five times and have been granted parole on three different occasions. All three times my sentence was reversed by the governor.

I myself am 62 years of age with several medical issues. The cost alone for housing the elderly is outrageous. Off the top of my head, I would say about one-fourth of the population here is over 50 years of age…There are numerous elderly women who are still incarcerated and have been way past their MERP (Minimum Eligible Release Date). These women do not deem any threat to society, as a lot of them are disabled…Allowing these inmates a chance in society would ease the overcrowding tremendously.

Releasing elderly inmates would also save California millions. A 2010 California Legislative Analyst’s Office report found that the average prison inmate costs taxpayers $51,000 per year. Inmates over the age of 55, however, cost two to three times that amount, largely due to health care services.

Finally, we received a letter from a women who had been transferred to CCWF from VSPW after its closing. Per her request, we have agreed not to share her name, out of respect for her fear of retribution. The woman says she is a victim of domestic violence, whose abuse caused her to lash out violently. She is serving a lengthy sentence for an unspecified violent crime. She says that for her first 15 years in prison, life was manageable at VSPW. She felt like her tenure at the facility was helping to prepare her to manage her eventual life on the outside. She writes about how her optimism vanished once VSPW was closed to women, necessitating her transfer to CCWF.

I have been incarcerated since 1998. I did all my time at VSPW until we were forced to come to CCWF. I can say at VSPW I felt safe. Nobody was hurting me. It sounds crazy, but it’s true.

In my time there I took every self-help class available. Even helped create some classes. I had to relearn who I was. I lost myself in the violence that was so secret in my life. It took losing everything to find me again. I found my voice. I got active in domestic violence and restorative justice advocacy….

The woman goes on to suggest that continuing this personal journey has become nearly impossible since she was transferred to CCWF.

Verbal abuse by staff and inmate bullies are rampant at CCWF. Prison life is both mundane and unpredictable. It’s abusive and oppressive. We sleep in a room designed for 4 people that houses 8. This conversion was horrifying – bullies, violence, severely overcrowded conditions. Absolute inadequate medical care….It’s a pathetic culture we didn’t have, or tolerate, at VSPW. Women are often scared to speak out for fear of reprisals….Due to poor management, we often times don’t have any recreation time. We are locked in, which breeds hostility. The conditions continue to decline…How we are treated should be seen as a crisis. We are warehoused and treated inhumanely.

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