VIA Sacremento Bee Inmates at Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW) have flooded the office of Madera County District 2 Supervisor David Rogers with letters expressing their concerns and fears over the state’s plan to convert the prison to a men’s facility.
“These concerns,” Rogers said, “range from losing valuable rehabilitative programs and the potential of being housed near women who have threatened their safety.”
Recent numbers show about 3,000 women are housed in VSPW, Rogers said, which is 150 percent of design capacity. At Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), the second women’s prison located in Chowchilla, there are about 3,400 inmates, 180 percent of design capacity, Rogers said. The only other women’s facility, California Institute for Women (CIW), houses almost 2,000 inmates and was designed for 1,200.
“These women are concerned that the two facilities which will remain after the conversion, CCWF and CIW, will be more crowded than the three are today,” Rogers said. “This goes against the court order that mandated the reduction in population. The concerns that launched the lawsuit againstCalifornia Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation were based on inadequate mental health and medical services.
“How are those services going to be administered to a greater, more condensed population with the existing staff? It makes no sense.”
Rogers added that he fully supports law enforcement and knows the women are in prison to pay for their own actions. He also said the correctional officers who have adjusted to overseeing women will now have to adjust to overseeing men, who are much more violent behind bars.
The letters, while focused on the overcrowding expected at the remaining two women’s prisons, express the fear that not even the correctional officers will be able to protect them, Rogers noted.
” ‘CDCR is failing to protect us,’ one woman wrote,” Rogers said, ” ‘by putting us into a crowded, hostile and volatile situation.’ That’s not what the federal court intended.”
The prison now has about 55 self-help groups initiated and run by inmates, Rogers said.
“These women have dedicated themselves to rehabilitation, and now they are afraid of losing these valuable resources,” Rogers said, adding that CCWF only has about six groups. “According to these women, the inmates at CCWF don’t want the additional groups. Besides, if they’re going to be packed into two prisons, there won’t be time, space or resources for these groups.”
“They have asked me to be their voice on the outside,” Rogers said. “I’m going to do just that. Already my staff has made contacts with state and federal representatives, and has reached out to non-profit organizations that fight for incarcerated women’s rights. The things these women claim have happened, the fear they express in these letters — No one should have to live in fear.
“They are paying their debts to society and aren’t asking anything more than what they have rights to. To live in a safe and secure environment, and have the medical and mental health care they need. Every human is entitled to that, whether they’ve made mistakes or not.”
Most of the letters, Rogers said, come from women serving long-term or life sentences.
” ‘VSPW has a good reputation as far as having the most self-help groups — mostly facilitated by inmates themselves,’ one woman wrote,” Rogers said as he read from the woman’s letter. ” ‘The lifer/long-termer population has worked very hard not only to better ourselves, but to give back to the outside community. These programs will no longer exist if we are moved to CCWF.’ That’s just wrong.
“Another woman wrote, ‘We have been made aware of threats of violence against us if we are moved to CCWF and that staff there do not want us to reestablish our programs once we arrive.’ ” Rogers said.
Rogers noted that yet another woman said she gave law enforcement information years ago that helped convict a woman. That woman, he added, is incarcerated at CCWF.
“This woman said she was in fear for her life should she be housed at CCWF,” Rogers said. “This woman has documented the CCWF inmate as an enemy, someone she believes will do harm to her. She also said someone on staff told her if she didn’t retract her documentation, she would be housed in Administrative Segregation.
“For her safety, they’re going to lock her up and keep her from the programs she has been doing so well with. Again, that doesn’t make sense and I can’t believe the federal courts intended to lock a woman up twice — once in prison, and again in a secure housing unit.”
Rogers said another inmate had a list of concerns that, she said, are not being addressed, such as enemy concerns and possibly being housed in total lockdown if they do not sign waivers clearing those concerns, the housing arrangements when there aren’t enough beds, medical care and the increase in waiting times to see doctors, and how the population in lockdown will gain access to the law library. Others expressed concerns over the amount of gang-related violence at CCWF, Rogers said.
” ‘I am writing to you with the hopes that you will be the voice of prison inmates,‘ ” Rogers read from another letter. ” ‘I am not requesting special treatment, just that we be heard and have our concerns taken into consideration before any drastic changes occur.’ ”
“This prison, according to the inmates, is like a community,” Rogers said. “They are facilitators, mentors, teachers, peace-keepers and mediators through these self-help groups. They have bonded because they have common interests and goals to turn their lives around. How can someone not respect that?
“They talk about the stress levels they’re living with due to this conversion. I can only imagine what they’re going through from the passionate words that pour from these letters. My heart goes out to them, but that’s not going to make their living situations better. Someone has to put a stop to this. And I’m going to do everything in my power, through the contacts I’ve made at the state and federal levels, to help them.”