Visiting Mothers in Prison at Central California Women’s Facility - Women's Foundation California

By Anuja Mendiratta
RGHR Fund Program Advisor
The Women’s Foundation of California

As part of my work with the Race,  Gender and Human Rights Fund of the Women’s Foundation of California, I co-organized a visit to the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla, California. Last week’s visit provided a rare glimpse into the lives of women inside  and provided a powerful experience for me and the 50 donors, funders and criminal justice reform advocates who joined me.

CCWF, which was designed to hold 2000, now houses nearly 4000 women and is the largest women’s prison in the United States. The majority of women at CCWF are black or brown and most are poor. Approximately 75% are incarcerated for non-violent, economic-related or drug or substance abuse-related crimes.

Conditions are extremely poor and there have been many reports of human rights abuses. Overcrowding is the norm as eight women are forced to live together in small 12 x 20 foot rooms. Imprisoned women are rarely served fresh vegetables or fruit.  They lack proper medical, dental and mental health care. They suffer regular verbal and sometimes physical and sexual abuse by the guards.

State budget cuts have dismantled essential educational and rehabilitation programming as well as substance abuse treatments efforts. The shackling of infirm, older and pregnant women still occurs inside prisons despite federal laws and national advocacy efforts to see such barbaric practices banned. Slave labor is alive and well in California’s state prisons with women inside earning as little as $.08 an hour for their jobs, which keep the prisons running. Yes, you read that right: EIGHT CENTS an hour.

I sat in a small circle with four amazing, strong and spiritual women – all mothers – all serving sentences of 25 years to life. They shared bits of their respective stories and the conditions they face inside. The struggle to get quality medical attention and medicine, because each time they visit the clinic, they must pay a $5 copay. The lack of blankets to keep warm in the winter. The rationing of toilet paper and menstrual pads by the prison. The lack of educational programming And how they miss their children―some women see their children only once a year, if that.

Yet each woman I met is striving to be as positive as she can be, to support others, to live with a sense of dignity, and to grow personally, even while being locked up indefinitely. One woman said, “Instead of my time doing me, I am figuring out how to do my time.” She reads constantly and mentors other new lifers on how to make the best of their time inside. Another said, “I am at peace, my heart is free―I am flying like a bird even though I am caged.”

As I listened to these women I asked myself questions. Does locking up these women keep the public safer? Does incarceration, as the dominant policy solution to social issues, address the underlying individual or systemic factors that led to these women’s arrests?

Although California faces its largest budget deficit in recent history, it continues to lead the nation in corrections system spending. In 2007, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) spent upwards of $8.8 billion―more than any other state. This year, California is projected to spend more than $9 billion on the criminal justice system. It costs more than $45,000 to incarcerate an individual in California’s prisons annually―a figure that surpasses a year of undergraduate education at the University of California by four times. What would our system and society look like if a significant percentage of the CDCR’s budget was spent on critical prevention and social service programming (i.e., job training, mental health services, substance abuse treatment, re-entry supports, etc.) instead of incarceration? We need to change our fiscal priorities so that they reflect the value of people over prisons.

As we left CCWF’s visiting room, the women on the inside lined up to go through security and to be strip-searched (a regular practice after visitations). We were ushered down a pretty rosebush-lined path, as if the beauty of the roses could belie the realties of razor wire fences and caged lives. I got back on the bus to Oakland stunned, angry and energized to be part of the movement for change.

Over the coming months, many of us will be working together to develop and implement strategic actions that we, as individuals on the outside, can take to spotlight the issues and create impact. Please sign up for the Women’s Foundation of California enews so that you can be kept informed of opportunities to join us. Sign up here.

You can also learn more about AB1900, sponsored by Assemblywoman Skinner. This bill will help protect the health and safety of incarcerated pregnant women by requiring the Corrections Standards Authority to set standards for how pregnant women are restrained during transportation to and from state correctional facilities.

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