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 (www.womenprisoners.org) 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 info@womenprisoners.org

    CC: Tom Ammiano, Loni Hancock

    A New Way of Life: VIsions of Abolition

    This woman rocks. Check out Susan Burton and A New Way of Life on the new Critical Resistance video: Visions of Abolition. Here’s a preview:

    ————via the Real Cost of Prisons’ listserve——————–

    Women’s prisons closures good fiscal, social policy
    Timothy P. Silard, Jean Ross
    Tuesday, September 13, 2011
    San Fransisco Chronicle

    After the death of her 5-year-old son, Susan Burton turned to drugs and ended up in California’s criminal justice system.

    Over the course of two decades, Burton’s addiction caused her to cycle through California’s prison system six times for drug offenses. She finally got help and turned her life around at a local rehabilitation center, not in prison. Today, Burton helps other formerly incarcerated women to permanently exit the system through A New Way of Life, a nonprofit in South Central Los Angles that she founded.

    Burton and the women she works with are among the key groups that could be helped by the impending “realignment” of the corrections system, a groundbreaking effort to give counties – rather than the state – responsibility for managing low-level, nonviolent offenders. If implemented effectively, restructuring could result in one significant yet often overlooked solution to California’s economic woes: closing one or more of the prisons used to house women.

    California warehouses one of the largest populations of female prisoners in the world and also has the dubious distinction of being home to two of the world’s largest women’s prisons. Both in Chowchilla, these prisons cost our cash-strapped state $278 million a year. This reform presents an unprecedented opportunity to rapidly reduce the number of women sent to state prison and to shutter one or both of the women’s institutions in Chowchilla.

    More than half of the state’s 9,500 female prisoners are classified as low risk, locked up for nonviolent and non-serious offenses. Under AB109, signed into law this year to implement the governor’s plan for restructuring corrections as part of the budget agreement, these women would not be sentenced to state prison, but would instead be placed in county jail, drug-treatment programs, community service or other alternatives to state custody.

    California desperately needs the savings that would be realized by closing down these facilities. For instance, saving a significant portion of that $278 million could offset a sizable share of the $650 million in budget cuts made to the California State University system in the recently passed state budget.

    Reducing the state’s population of female prisoners and closing down the facilities used to house them is not only fiscally prudent, it is also good public policy. These are women who often do not belong in state prison in the first place. Research shows that they are more likely to be victims of violent crimes than perpetrators, and 4 out of every 10 women behind bars have histories of being physically or sexually abused. Most of the women in California state prison are mothers, and many are single parents. Without the support these women need to successfully re-enter their communities and get off drugs, nearly 60 percent of them end up back in prison within three years. It’s a frustrating revolving door that comes at an enormous cost to our budgets and to the lives of tens of thousands of women and children. The restructuring of corrections lays the groundwork for counties to pursue treatment, education, home detention and other alternatives to incarceration.

    Now is the time for California to make a novel and bold move. A recent survey shows that a large majority of Californians are tired of bearing the burden of the “lock ’em up” approach to public safety that has driven criminal justice policy in California for years. And, after a nearly 40-year prison boom, 13 states – including Texas – have closed or are planning to shutter such facilities.

    Let’s commit now to full and effective implementation of realigning public-safety programs by providing treatment-based solutions for female offenders. Let’s start planning to close state prisons that are no longer needed.

    Timothy P. Silard is a former prosecutor and president of the Rosenberg Foundation, a statewide grant-making foundation based in San Francisco. Jean Ross is executive director of the Sacramento-based California Budget Project.

    This article appeared on page A – 10 of the San Francisco Chronicle