Solitary Confinement in Women’s Prisons in California: Important Message to the Politicians

Received by email: 

October 17, 2013

To:  Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner
From:   Diana Block & Misty Rojo, California Coalition for Women Prisoners

“Last night another girl hung herself, and as they drug her out of her cell and down the stairs and put her on the stretcher it occurred to me that it’s become so common, so common it hurts. I mean I woke up out of my sleep and got off my bunk, got a sip of water and looked out the window and there they were silently dragging her out, no alarm, no sense of emergency or urgency. Just your run of the mill ordinarily scheduled suicide. Nothing special going on here, just all in a day’s work. I don’t know. I laid in bed, praying her spirit would fight for her life since she obviously didn’t have the strength to fight for it herself. By the time breakfast rolled around her bed was already filled by a new inmate. Like rotating cattle.” (Excerpt from a recent letter from a woman in CIW’s SHU)

Dear Assemblywoman Skinner:

The California Coalition for Women Prisoners ( is a grassroots advocacy organization that works with women and transgender prisoners in California’s prisons and jails. Many of our members live in your District. We are also active in the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition which deals with issues of solitary confinement in California prisons.  Unfortunately, we were unable to attend the recent hearing on solitary confinement which was held on October 9th, but some of us were able to watch on CalChannel. We appreciate your focus at that hearing on information regarding solitary confinement in the women’s prisons.

Much less is known about solitary in the women’s prisons than about conditions in male facilities.  Over the past several months, CCWP has been trying to gather information and testimony about these conditions.  One thing that has become clear is that the recent conversion of Valley State Prison for Women into a male facility (VSP) has led to a dramatic increase in the use of solitary confinement: Ad Seg at CCWF and the SHU at CIW.  Concurrently, there have been several suicides in Ad Seg and the SHU in recent months, at least one from an alleged “overdose.” The excerpt from the letter quoted above is one of many that indicates how desperate the situation is.  

We write to ask that your office initiate an investigation into women’s solitary confinement conditions.  This could include on-site visits of the SHU and Ad Seg. Legislators did visit the SHU at VSPW in 2000 as part of Senator Polanco’s  hearings about the women’s prisons in 2000. They were appalled by what they saw.  In particular, they witnessed women who were held in cages being given “therapy”  for their mental health issues.  Those “therapy cages” are still being used today in both women’s and men’s isolation facilities.

We believe that several key factors have contributed to the increase in the use of solitary in the women’s prisons. 

  • First is the use of the category  “enemy concerns” to designate women/trans prisoners to Ad Seg and the SHU.  “Enemy concerns” is a documented disagreement between inmates that may have led to threats or acts of violence. However, the documentation can be up to decades old in a person’s central file and the person may have been successfully programming in general population for years.  When they are transferred to a new prison, they are put in segregated housing based on this documentation in their file, even when they don’t have any disciplinary issues.
  •  The existence of “enemy concerns” tags for prisoners transferred from VSPW to CCWF or CIW has caused them to be placed in segregated housingindefinitely due to a lack of other alternatives.  Even though women are being placed in isolation for their “protection”, they lose all privileges and are kept in solitary cells for 22-24 hours per day just as women who are there for disciplinary reasons
  •  Because there are no protective housing units for women, they can be kept indefinitely in segregated/solitary housing if enemy issues are involved.  Using the “enemy concerns” label to keep women in the SHU for indeterminate amounts of time is similar to the use of the “gang affiliation” label in the men’s prisons and is increasing the average amount of time that women spend in Ad Seg and the SHU.
  • The extreme overcrowding at CCWF (currently at 173.4% of capacity) has caused increased tensions and conflicts which have led to fights and assaults resulting in more people being placed in Ad Seg/SHU either thru “enemy concerns” designation or disciplinary reasons.
  • The deteriorating conditions in the women’s prisons aggravate mental health issues which also have led to increased placements in Ad Seg/SHU.
  • We are hoping that your office can help further investigate the situation of women in solitary which is largely invisible but is getting worse all the time. Some questions that we think should be answered include:

    1.  How many women/trans prisoners are in Administrative Segregation at CCWF and the SHU at CIW?

    2. What is the average length of time that women are held in Ad Seg/SHU?  What is the longest amount of time that women are being kept in the SHU?

    3. Of the women and trans prisoners in Ad Seg and the SHU how many are there for disciplinary reasons and how many for “enemy concerns?”

    4. Has there been a thorough investigation into recent suicides in Ad Seg and the SHU and if so what are the findings?

    5. What % of women in Ad Seg/SHU were receiving some form of mental health diagnosis and treatment before they were placed in solitary?

    Again, we appreciate your concern for women in solitary and hope that your office can help shine a light on increased use of Ad Seg and the SHU for women/trans prisoners in this period.  We also think it would be important to specifically include women and isolation  at the next hearing on solitary confinement which is scheduled to be held in Los Angeles.  We would be happy to discuss this issue in more depth with you.

    Thank you!

    Diana Block and Misty Rojo, CCWP

    415-255-7036 ext. 314 or

    CC: Tom Ammiano, Loni Hancock