Recent efforts to convert one of California’s three women’s prisons into a men’s facility has sparked an angry opposition from women all over the state who say the shift will have detrimental consequences to the already overcrowded women’s facilities.
In opposition to the conversion, 400 protesters from all over the state organized a demonstration in Chowchilla, CA, home to both Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) and Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW), on Jan. 26. The protest drew activists from organizations all over the state, including Mills College.
“I was inspired to be with so many people, young people, parents, organizers, musicians, former prisoners, elders, who are doing the same wild dreaming and hard work to dismantle the prison industrial complex,” said Jess Heaney, a Mills Graduate Coordinator and a member of Critical Resistance Oakland, a grassroots organization that seeks to build an international movement to abolish the prison industrial complex (PIC).
Denise Benevides-Silkwood echoed Heaney’s excitement over the community’s participation in civil action.
“It was beautiful to be a part of a rally of people speaking out for the human condition of the women on the inside and for waking us up to what is really happening in the California prison system,” Mills College student Denise Benevides-Silkwood said later.
In response to a U.S. Supreme Court order to reduce overcrowding of prisons across the state, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) had begun converting VSPW into a men’s facility and shipping out the majority of its current female inmates to CCWF in Chowchilla.
With only 2,004 beds, CCWF already houses over 3,608 women as of Dec. 26, 2012, which puts it at 185.3 percent of their designed capacity before the planned transfer of 1,000 women from VSPW.
On Tuesday Jan. 29 three federal judges extended California’s deadline for prisons to reduce their population levels below the maximum over capacity limit of 137.5 percent from June to December, allowing an additional six months.
The 2011 Public Safety Realignment program allows for lower level felons to serve their sentences at County jails instead of State prisons. In a December press release, the CDCR explained due to the Realignment program population of CCFW is expected to drop, alleviated some of the overcrowding.
“We’re not overcrowded,” said Dana Simas, a California Department of Corrections Spokeswoman responding to the court order, and “No inmate is being housed in nontraditional beds,” Simas said, according to The Merced Sun-Star.
CPMP, an organization that was founded in 1998 to challenge California’s massive prison expansion, argued that most people being incarcerated do not need to be completely removed from society for rehabilitation.
According to CPMP, the Fresno Board of Supervisors contracted an auditor in 2006 to review the Fresno County Jail System in hopes of a recommendation for a $700 million jail expansion project. Instead the auditor provided the Board with recommendations for alternatives to incarceration and potential adjustments.
“Since that time, the department of corrections deemed 4500 women (VSPW data) non-violent and applicable to return to the community through alternate custody programs, but so far the prison has released a total of 200 prisoners,” said Debbie Reyes, Central Valley coordinator of The California Prison Moratorium Project.
Manuel Lafontaine, member of All of Us or None – A Project for Prisoners with Children, opened the rally at CCWF.
“We’re here to amplify the voices of those inside,” he said.
In an interview with The Sacramento Bee, Madera County District 2 Supervisor David Rogers said inmates have been flooding his office with letters voicing their concern over the facility conversion.
“Prisoners concerns include the possibility of losses to rehabilitative programs and potential safety issues when prisoners have the potential to be housed near women who have threatened their safety,” Rogers said.
The peaceful rally and march on Jan. 26 included a marching band, posters and banners, who travelled from VSPW to the CCWF, both located in Chowchilla. There were no disturbances or arrests made, though California Highway Patrol monitored the event.
After the rally, protesters marched less than a mile to VSPW with posters and banners, marching band in tow. Chants of “Hey hey…Ho ho…overcrowding’s got to go” and “Ain’t no power like the power of the youth, because the power of the youth don’t stop” projected from the crowd.
Emotions ran high when protestors realized the prison was on lockdown as they approached a clearing in the trees near the entrance of CCWF exposing the empty main yard that would normally be filled with inmates.
As of Jan. 23, the weekly prison population detail showed CCWF to hold a total of 3,714 women, 1,710 over capacity or 185.3 percent over capacity.
Critical Resistance Oakland (http://criticalresistance.org/) is an active member of the Stop the Injunctions Coalition (STIC), which has been fighting the use of gang injunctions and other policing policies deemed by many to be destructive in Oakland since 2010.
Critical Resistance is a member of a statewide coalition called CURB (Californians United for a Responsible Budget).
Anti-Expansion is an organization that focuses on stopping the expansion of prisons and jails. The organization sees building new prisons as a justifaction of over incarceration.
The Chowchilla Freedom rally was organized by a number of ally organizations, some of whom are part of CURB, or who are involved in anti-prison industrial complex movement in California.
Women inside were really excited about the demonstration and requested their loved ones and supporters to share pictures.