15 Years of Giving Voice to Women and Transgender Prisoners in California
--An interview with Diana Block, Pam Fadem, and Deirdre Wilson of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners
By Angola 3 News
On Sept. 26, the statewide prisoner hunger strike resumed after a postponement of almost two months to give the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) time to implement policy changes. The CDCR has reported that as of Sept. 28, almost 12,000 prisoners were striking and public support is needed in order for the strike to be most effective. An update posted October 7 at the "Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity" website stated that "medical conditions are also worsening for strikers throughout the state. We've received reports that after 12 days of no food, prisoners are once again losing severe weight and fainting. One hunger striker at Pelican Bay was denied his medication and consequently suffered from a heart attack and is now is an outside hospital in Oregon."
The current hunger strike demonstrates once again that injustice fuels resistance, and California has a rich history of prisoners, former prisoners, and their supporters taking a stand. Among these freedom fighters is the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), self-publishers of a newsletter entitled The Fire Inside (archived here). CCWP will be celebrating its 15th year anniversary on October 14, with an event in San Francisco featuring longtime anti-prison activist and former political prisoner Angela Davis along with other speakers and performers.
Our previous coverage of the statewide hunger strike focused on the issue of solitary confinement, as well as statewide grassroots organizing against California's prison system. In this interview with three members of CCWP, we examine the treatment of women and transgender prisoners in California and discuss how CCWP is fighting back.
Diana Block is a founding member of CCWP and has been working on The Fire Inside newsletter since it was started. She is a mother and the author of a memoir entitled Arm the Spirit -- A Woman's Journey Underground and Back (AK Press, 2009).
Pam Fadem is a long time member of CCWP and has worked on the Fire Inside for over 10 years. She is a mom, a health educator and a disability rights activist as well. Pam had her own experience with the criminal injustice system when she refused to cooperate with a federal grand jury targeting the Puerto Rican Independence Movement.
Deirdre Wilson is a former prisoner, a program coordinator for CCWP and a mother. She began to work with Free Battered Women/CCWP shortly after she got out of prison because "the whole FBW/CCWP community made me feel honored for surviving my experiences and accepted me just as I was--a rare feeling for people released from prison!"
Angola 3 News: When and how was CCWP first started?
California Coalition for Women Prisoners: First, we want to thank Angola 3 News for this opportunity to discuss the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) and The Fire Inside newsletter. This 15th Anniversary of The Fire Inside gives us a chance to reflect on where things were 15 years ago and all the many struggles that CCWP has been a part of since 1995.
Some of the founding members of CCWP are still involved with the organization, but many have gone on to other work and different parts of the country. Far too many prisoners and former prisoners have made their transition and are not around to remind us of our roots.
Luckily, The Fire Inside itself offers first-hand documentation of this history which is invaluable for building our movement forward through the next fifteen years and beyond.
CCWP was started by prisoners, former prisoners and advocates on the outside in 1995 when a lawsuit, Shumate v. Wilson, was brought by a team of legal organizations to challenge the cruel, inhumane, and unconstitutional medical care that women prisoners were enduring. The prisoner plaintiffs in the lawsuit recognized that they couldn't expect that legal challenges alone would improve their conditions of confinement. They wanted to ignite a grassroots movement to challenge not only health care conditions but the entire prison system. CCWP was born from this vision and from the beginning it included members on both sides of the walls.
Soon after CCWP was started, prisoners decided that they wanted to put out a newsletter in collaboration with members outside. As founding member Charisse Shumate put it in the very first issue of the newsletter: "I, Charisse Shumate, wish I could be there with you because as you grow in numbers, for us behind the walls of CCWF, the big cover up is going on inside . . . Is it because they have forgot we are human? If walls could talk, we would not have to beg help." (FI #1, June 1996).
From that first issue, published in June 1996, The Fire Inside has allowed the "walls to talk," making visible the lives of tens of thousands of women and trans prisoners who have been literally disappeared from society.