In all of my years of prisoner advocacy, I have never had a more nightmarish and haunting night than my visit with women prisoners at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla on Friday, December 15, 2000. Members of the HIV in Prison Committee of California Prison Focus (including myself) witnessed the seventh death of a woman prisoner since November 9th.

We undertook this visit to continue our advocacy efforts on behalf of women prisoners with HIV, hepatitis C and other serious illnesses. We visited with a woman who recently suffered a stroke after being forced to take the wrong medications by prison medical staff. We visited with women with hepatitis C who are not receiving any education, care monitoring or treatment for their disease. We visited with a woman living with HIV who recently survived an attack of AIDS-related pneumonia without receiving any medical treatment from prison staff. We talked with every woman about the six deaths that occurred since November 9 -- three of the women who died had HIV (and possible hepatitis C co-infection). (And, by the way, the local county coroner has a policy of not doing autopsies on HIV-positive women prisoners, so we will never know the real cause of medical neglect that precipitated their deaths.)

At about 6:45 pm, we saw a group of guards and MTAs (Medical Technical Assistants) race to the back room behind the visiting room. While we could see only bits and pieces of what was going on, there was clearly a medical emergency happening. Not surprisingly, six deaths in a month made medical staff respond quite quickly to this emergency. An IV pole was brought in and MTAs were trying to perform CPR on a yet unidentified prisoner. We could see much of the motion but not the whole picture. Several of the women prisoners in the visiting room were standing on benches near the window so that they could see what was happening. There was a lot of commotion going on. One of the women who had a good view of the back room said that the woman on the floor wasn't breathing anymore.

We knew the woman was dead when guards forced the two women porters in the visiting room to go into the back room and don gowns, masks, goggles, and gloves to clean up the bodily fluids that the woman expelled all over the floor before dying. The guards just stood around without any expression -- supervising. The terrified look in the eyes of those two women continues to haunt me. They were porters in the visiting room and never expected to have to clean up vomit, urine and excrement after a woman had died. Are there any international human rights sanctions against this callous abuse of women prisoners?

The death took about 45 minutes, during which time no prisoner was able to move in or out of the visiting room. At least 15-20 women prisoners also witnessed this death. I can only imagine how women inside CCWF are feeling right now -- seven deaths, who is next?

We are demanding (even louder than before) an independent investigation into these deaths. We have asked California State Senator Richard Polanco, Chair of the Joint Subcommittee on Prison Construction and Operations, to conduct this investigation, and to bring in a panel of doctors and specialists to review these women's medical files. We have also demanded that the MTA system be suspended and competent medical staff be brought in from the public health sector to save the women's lives. This is a life and death situation for the women inside CCWF. If something is not done soon, many more women will die.

The women prisoners I was meeting with have seen a lot of death and dying inside the Central California Women's Facility, but even they are deeply affected by the current death toll. These seven deaths come in the wake of the dismissal of the Shumate case (class action litigation challenging medical neglect and abuse at CCWF and another women's prison) and the historical two-day long legislative hearings held in October inside two California women's prisons.

I can only conclude that there is a war going on against our sisters at CCWF and they are losing.

Please call, fax or write to Senator Polanco today. The address is:

Senator Richard Polanco, Chairperson
Joint Committee on Prison Construction and Operations
Room 400 State Capitol
Sacramento, CA 95814
Phone: (916) 324-6175
Fax: (916) 327-8817

We are working within a coalition of groups to stop the death toll at CCWF. Contact us [see the "Inmate's Resource Guide" in this issue] to get involved and to get on our rapid response list. We will post events on our web page ( and also keep you informed. Keep in touch. We need to let the women inside know that they are not alone and that we support their right to live and to receive health care.

Chowchilla Petition

Women prisoners are fighting for their lives. Join the fight for adequate medical care for HIV-positive women at Chowchilla. Women with HIV receive substandard care. They are forced to stand in line outside in the raw valley weather once a day (for one to two hours) to receive their daily bag of HIV medicine. Women who are too ill to stand in the med line do not get their medications at all. Medications are still not renewed in a timely fashion. Opportunistic infections are often misdiagnosed due to the ignorance of medical staff. HIV-positive women feel that their confidentiality is continually violated by the med line. Women prisoners want consistent, adequate and accessible HIV care. What you can do: Send a protest letter!

Sample Letter

To: Warden Teena Farmon
P.O. Box 1501
Chowchilla, CA 93610
Fax: (559) 665-7158

I am deeply concerned about the mistreatment of HIV-positive women at the Central California Women's Facility. Forcing women to stand outside in a med line in inclement weather does not guarantee consistent access to life-extending HIV medications. Women who are too ill to stand in line are not receiving their HIV medications. The confidentiality of HIV-positive prisoners is being violated on a daily basis on pill call lines. Many women with HIV have already quit their HIV therapy due to the hardship of standing in line and the confidentiality violations. We urge you to provide consistent, adequate, confidential and accessible HIV care. Women prisoners deserve the dignity of taking their medication on their own in the privacy of their cells.


(Your name and signature)

CC: Director C.A. Terhune
California Department of Corrections
P.O. Box 942883
Sacramento, CA 94283
Fax: (916) 322-2877

Show your support to the women inside by sending letters and stamps to Beverly Henry, W72830, 510-06-02L and Judy Ricci, W69939, 511-16-1L, both at P.O. Box 1508, Chowchilla, CA 93610.

See also: "Positive Women Prisoners Speak Out" in this issue.
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