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California Legislative Committee Hearing Meets Behind Prison Walls To Hear Testimony From Female Prisoners

by Silja J.A. Talvi

It was anything but an ordinary California legislative hearing. On Wednesday, October 11,2000, behind the barbedwire grounds and multiple security checkpoints of Chowchilla's Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW), the bulk of a nearsevenhour, nonstop hearing held by the Joint Legislative Committee on Prison Construction and Operations was focused on the health and medical issues of female prisoners who had come to testify on their own behalf.

In a recreational room inside VSPW, prisonbluesattired female prisoners filed in shortly after the hearing started at noon. Some 100-prison activists, family members, lawyers and journalists, in addition to numerous California Department of Corrections (CDC) officials, were on hand to observe the hearing.

According to Senate Majority Leader Richard D. Polanco (DLos Angeles), it was the first time in over a decade that a California legislative committee was conducting a public hearing in a state prison facility.

After opening testimony from Ellen Barry, founder of the San Francisco based Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, over a dozen current prisoners of VSPW and the adjacent Central California Facility for Women (CCWF), in addition to several former prisoners, offered their stories to three members of the legislative committee in attendance.

The first to do so was 46yearold Pat Shelton, a frail, pale and emaciated woman accompanied to the hearing by her 21yearold son, Jason. Incarcerated in October 1998 for an eightmonth sentence for a parole violation, Shelton discovered a lump in her breast the following month and asked to see a prison doctor. Although she did not know it at the time, she had developed breast cancer.

But Shelton says she was not seen by a doctor until March of 1999. By that point, the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. A mastectomy was performed, but the delay had taken its toll. Shelton, who says she has anywhere from a few months to a few years left to live out her years, is now struggling with terminal bone cancer.

Prisoner after prisoner spent the next several hours telling stories of delays in the treatment of serious illnesses, botched surgeries and followup care resulting in severe infections, worsened medical conditions and chronic pain. The required prison paperwork which each prisoner must fill out in order to get a medical appointment, charged each of the women, is often ignored.

The women also described their own battles with HIV, hepatitis C, cancer and other lifethreatening diseases, pleading with the committee members and CDC officials to think of them and their fellow prisoners as human beings.

Many prison guards, they added, do treat them well. "There are staff that will go beyond the call of duty to help us," said Charisse Shumate, the lead plaintiff in a major class action suit, Shumate v. Wilson, against CCWF and Chino's California Institute for Women in 1995.

Two women also described the deaths of two women in prison from complications resulting from hepatitis C and HIV. Prison medical staff, they said, did not hospitalize the women in time or pay attention to their obvious symptoms, including the yellowed eyes and severely distended belly of one woman who was dying before their very eyes, stuffing pieces of tissue paper and tampons in her nose to try to stop profuse bleeding. Another prisoner described a prison climate of sexual harassment and abuse on the part of some male guards. "They prey on us," said the woman, who said she was sexually abused by a guard in 1990.

Committee members appeared rattled by the testimony. By the time that representatives of the CDC were able to testify, Sen. Polanco and other committee members were demanding answers to the allegations raised by the women. They had hoped that medical supervisors responsible for health care in the two prisons could respond to some of the implications of negligence and indifference.

But CCWF and VSPW prison medical staff declined to testify at the hearing. Instead, Dr. Susann J. Steinberg, Deputy Director of the CDC's Health Care Services Division, CDC consultant Dr. Ronald Shansky, and Dr. Augustine Mekkam, a previous health care manager at CCWF, spoke on behalf of the prison system.

"Some of these things you're hearing are not accurate," said Dr. Steinberg, who said that she was in the awkward position of caring about the women who testified and knowing that their testimony about medical issues was not completely correct.

The answers of the CDC representatives did not appear to appease members of the legislative committee. "From what I've heard, cats and dogs are treated better than some of these people," said Assemblyman Carl Washington (DCompton).

But by the end of the hearing, both the committee and CDC representatives had agreed to work together to address many of the issues raised by the prisoners and a handful of prison experts, including the creation of an independent panel of doctors to review some of the more outrageous sounding medical cases discussed during the hearing.

With a combined population of slightly over 7,000 prisoners, VSPW and CCWF constitute the largest women's prison complex in the world. Having doubled in the last decade, the number of women in prisons is increasing at a much greater rate than male prisoners, a trend that has been linked to the implementation of mandatory minimum and three strikes legislation and determinate sentencing. There are now roughly 12,000 women imprisoned in the California state prison system.

Both CCWF and VSPW have been criticized by such international human rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which have pointed to what they consider problems of substandard medical care and sexual abuse. Shumate v. Wilson accused prison administrators and medical staff at CCWF and CIW with cruel and unusual punishment and "deliberate indifference" to the health needs of inmates. In 1997, the state of California agreed to institute prisonwide changes and submit to courtordered monitoring, without admitting wrongdoing. In August 2000, the suit was dismissed with the agreement of all parties involved.

Sen. Polanco, who chairs the Joint Committee on Prison Construction and Operations, made several remarks intended to allay the anxiety of the women who had agreed to come forth to tell their stories. Their fears of retaliation by CDC guards, said Sen. Polanco, were well founded.

Sen. Polanco emphasized that any indication of retaliation against the women for their testimony would be dealt with promptly and seriously. Terhune responded that he would similarly take any such reports seriously, and expressed his hope that the hearing would "bring out the truth."

Senator Cathie Wright (RSimi Valley) promptly turned to CDC Director C.A. Terhune, who was seated behind one row of prisoners. "I hope this is true," she said, in reference to his willingness to crack down on any reports of retaliation.

"You have my promise," replied Terhune.

A version of this news report first appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

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