The recent deaths of Sonja Stapels, Molly Reyes and Jackie Jenkins sparked a public outcry for an immediate, impartial legislative investigation. The Coalition to Support Women Prisoners at Chowchilla called this week upon the State Assembly Committee on Public Safety to begin an immediate investigation into both the deaths and the quality of medical care at the prison. (Last year, the Public Safety Committee's scathing report on medical care at the California Medical Facility at Vacaville sparked substantive changes at that prison.)
Sonja Stapels died on January 2, 1994, of AIDS-related pneumonia and other complications. Stapels was not discovered to be HIV+ until two weeks before she died. Her cellmates tried in vain for over a month to bring her poor condition to the attention of medical staff. She never received any preventive care, monitoring or treatment which may have extended her life. Jackie Jenkins, a woman living with AIDS, became very ill after working with pesticides on the prison farm for nine months. Her cellmates tried unsuccessfully to get her appropriate care and later, compassionate release. Jenkins was finally taken to a hospital in a nearby town where she died at the beginning of March from Kaposi's Sarcoma and other AIDS-related complications. Molly Reyes suffered an internal organ rupture and was violently vomiting blood all over her cell. She and her cellmates had to scream for over an hour to get any medical attention. Reyes was finally placed in the infirmary and died shortly thereafter.
Unfortunately, death and medical neglect are nothing new to women prisoners at Chowchilla. Women inside often have a 3-4 week wait to see the doctor who is a retired pediatrician with little knowledge of women's health care and no knowledge of AIDS. Guards with an elementary first aid course (called MTA's) dispense medication and diagnose illnesses. The prison administration contends that a gynecologist has been hired. However, none of the women, including those with level 4 (cancerous) pap smears, have seen the gynecologist. Most of the identified HIV+ women live in C yard. Big signs in every yard warn "Beware! There are HIV Infected Inmate Persons in this Facility." What's lacking is real HIV/AIDS education. The only AIDS education has been done by a loose-knit group of women prisoner peer educators organized by an inmate, Joann Walker. The prison refuses to officially sanction or support this program. In fact, Walker has been forced to choose between organizing and peer educating. The prison first gave Walker a support group to lead and then took that privilege away when she refused to stop talking to the media.
Approximately, a year ago, women prisoners with HIV contacted ACT UP/San Francisco and other organizations on the outside to ask for help in exposing the poor care and abuse faced by women prisoners with AIDS. Joann Walker's organizing inside led to the formation of the Coalition to Support Women Prisoners with Chowchilla on the outside. Walker and other women with HIV formulated four key demands: 1) Quality health care for all women prisoners - hire an HIV/AIDS specialist now, 2) High nutritional diets and vitamin supplements for HIV+ prisoners; 3) Support peer education efforts; and 4) Compassionate release for all terminally ill prisoners!
Walker spearheaded a successful campaign to win compassionate release for Betty Jo Ross, a woman prisoner dying of AIDS-related complications. Walker got over 1,100 signatures on a petition demanding Ross's release. Women prisoners pinned protest notes to their clothing, " Free Betty Now!" Outside, the Coalition organized a phone and fax "zap" campaign to the Director of the California Department of Corrections. Ross was finally released to her family at the beginning of January.
Supporting the four demands of the women at Chowchilla, over 100 people from the Bay Area made the three and a half hour journey to Chowchilla to demonstrate on January 29. Speakers included Yvonne Knuckels, former prisoners and member of Women Organized to Respond to Life-Threatening Diseases (WORLD); Dr. Corey Weinstein of the Pelican Bay Information Project; Crystal Mason of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation; Dorsey Nunn, former prisoner and staff member of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and Rita "Bo" Brown, former prisoner and member of the Norma Jean Croy Defense Committee. A statement from the women inside was also read. After the rally, demonstrators marched up the road running parallel to the prison. Several hundred women prisoners were out on the yard and saw the demonstration. Members of the Coalition chanted and yelled messages of support for the women inside and released a banner that floated over Chowchilla prison.
The Coalition urges everyone to join the campaign for justice and better medical care. Letters demanding a legislative investigation of Chowchilla should be sent to: Assemblyman John Burton, 455 Golden Gate Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94103. Cards and letters (stamps too) expressing support for the women inside can be sent to Joann Walker, #W17572, C509-19-2L, P.O. Box 1508, Chowchilla CA 93610. For more information, contact the Coalition to Support Women Prisoners at Chowchilla, P.O. Box 14844, San Francisco, CA 94114; (510) 530-6214.
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