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Voices from the Chowchilla Women's Prison

Women in prison are entitled to the same community standard of care that people have outside. However, just the opposite is true at the Central California Women's Facility at Chowchilla, California (CCWF). The CCWF is probably the largest women's prison in the country.

The Facts
There are over 3,000 women incarcerated at CCWF. Approximately 100 are known to have HIV.
There is no HIV/AIDS medical doctor on the staff, and no routine exams or clinical follow-up.
The prison just hired a gynecologist. The waiting time is several months. There are women with level four pap smears who are not receiving follow-up care.
The infirmary is unlicensed. The prison doctor is a pediatrician with little knowledge of women's health care needs. Guards with an elementary first aid course (MTAs) dispense medication and diagnose illnesses. Recently 450 women prisoners signed a petition protesting abusive treatment from MTAs.
There is no confidentiality. All "known" HIV+ women live on C Yard. A xeroxed list of women with HIV was circulated on the prison yard that had been left out on an administrator's desk. Because of the ignorance and stigma surrounding HIV, many women refuse to identify as HIV+ and therefore receive no treatment. There are big signs in every yard, "Beware! There are HIV infected inmate persons housed in this facility!"
The only HIV/AIDS education is given by HIV+ women prisoners who have set-up an informal peer education program. The Program Administrator hordes HIV/AIDS education brochures in her office. She says she does not have time to distribute them to the women. Women who request material from the outside agencies have their mailings confiscated.
Women are discouraged from being tested for HIV. There is no pre-test and little post-test counseling.
Women with HIV are "medically restricted" (not allowed to work). Therefore they do not earn the same good time credits as other prisoners and serve longer sentences.
A pregnant woman lost her baby when the medical staff diagnosed her early labor as "a bladder infection."
Another woman suffered a painful death from and untreated brain tumor. The medical staff told her she had migraine headaches and was faking seizures.

Excerpts from HIV+ women at Chowchilla Prison

"I received a package of literature on HIV/AIDS in May 1993. Someone decided they did not like the letterhead and sent it back. I got no notice."

"I'm 2 weeks from the date I parole and I still haven't seen a doctor of anyone from the medical staff. I'm scared."

"Four of us have been trying to educate other inmates throughout the facility. The institution always puts some kind of obstacle in our way. But I keep on trying, I won't give up. I realize I am only one person, but someone will hear me sooner or later."

Campaign to free Betty Ross

One of the most distressing stories is about Betty Ross, a prisoner with AIDS, Who was just denied compassionate release by California Department of Corrections Director, James Gomez. Joann Walker, A prisoner and peer educator, wrote to us about Betty's case:

It is this PWA's opinion that everyone has a right to die with their family around. No one should suffer death alone or with strangers. Far too many PWAs are left to die in what we call the penal system. This system is a murderer of people with AIDS. Too little medical care, too little education, no confidentiality, too small diets and no compassion at all. The list just gets longer. We, the incarcerated women of the Central California Woman's Facility, feel deeply that Betty Jo Ross should be given compassionate release.

Betty is suffering from and has been diagnosed with AIDS--dementia, MAC, CMV retintis--and has been told that she has less than six months to live. Betty has a T-cell count of one.

Director Gomez has used the excuse of Betty's criminal record to deny her early release from prison. Betty has been this writer's cellmate for over two weeks. I have not seen any assaultive behavior or outbursts during this time. I have seen a women who is very ill and has a hard time walking around. Betty is almost blind. Betty is no threat to anyone and should be allowed to live her last days on the outside with her mother and four children. Over 1,000 women prisoners at CCWF signed a petition demanding that Betty be set free!

Please help us in this struggle

1) write to Director James Gomez.

Demand that Betty Jo Ross, #W49772, be granted early release.
Director James Gomez
California Department of Corrections
POB 942883
Sacramento, CA 94283

2) Get involved in the Coalition to Support Women Prisoners at Chowchilla. We are planning a demonstration on Jan. 15 outside the prison. Call (510) 530-6214

3) Send letters of support to:
Joann Walker
#W17572, C509-19-2L
P.O. Box 1508
Chowchilla, Ca 93610

For more information

"Voices from Inside: Prisoners Respond to the AIDS Crisis," produced by the Prison Issues Committee of ACTUP/ San Francisco, is a collection of writings by prisoners, many of whom are HIV+ and/or peer educators. Copies may be obtained by sending $4.00 ($3.00 + $1.00 postage and handling) to:

Prison Issue Committee
ACT UP/ San Francisco
POB 14844
San Francisco, CA 94114

The booklet is free to prisoners.

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