Visiting Mothers in Prison at Central California Women’s Facility

By Anuja Mendiratta
RGHR Fund Program Advisor
The Women’s Foundation of California

As part of my work with the Race,  Gender and Human Rights Fund of the Women’s Foundation of California, I co-organized a visit to the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla, California. Last week’s visit provided a rare glimpse into the lives of women inside  and provided a powerful experience for me and the 50 donors, funders and criminal justice reform advocates who joined me.

CCWF, which was designed to hold 2000, now houses nearly 4000 women and is the largest women’s prison in the United States. The majority of women at CCWF are black or brown and most are poor. Approximately 75% are incarcerated for non-violent, economic-related or drug or substance abuse-related crimes.

Conditions are extremely poor and there have been many reports of human rights abuses. Overcrowding is the norm as eight women are forced to live together in small 12 x 20 foot rooms. Imprisoned women are rarely served fresh vegetables or fruit.  They lack proper medical, dental and mental health care. They suffer regular verbal and sometimes physical and sexual abuse by the guards.

State budget cuts have dismantled essential educational and rehabilitation programming as well as substance abuse treatments efforts. The shackling of infirm, older and pregnant women still occurs inside prisons despite federal laws and national advocacy efforts to see such barbaric practices banned. Slave labor is alive and well in California’s state prisons with women inside earning as little as $.08 an hour for their jobs, which keep the prisons running. Yes, you read that right: EIGHT CENTS an hour.

I sat in a small circle with four amazing, strong and spiritual women – all mothers – all serving sentences of 25 years to life. They shared bits of their respective stories and the conditions they face inside. The struggle to get quality medical attention and medicine, because each time they visit the clinic, they must pay a $5 copay. The lack of blankets to keep warm in the winter. The rationing of toilet paper and menstrual pads by the prison. The lack of educational programming And how they miss their children―some women see their children only once a year, if that.

Yet each woman I met is striving to be as positive as she can be, to support others, to live with a sense of dignity, and to grow personally, even while being locked up indefinitely. One woman said, “Instead of my time doing me, I am figuring out how to do my time.” She reads constantly and mentors other new lifers on how to make the best of their time inside. Another said, “I am at peace, my heart is free―I am flying like a bird even though I am caged.”

As I listened to these women I asked myself questions. Does locking up these women keep the public safer? Does incarceration, as the dominant policy solution to social issues, address the underlying individual or systemic factors that led to these women’s arrests?

Although California faces its largest budget deficit in recent history, it continues to lead the nation in corrections system spending. In 2007, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) spent upwards of $8.8 billion―more than any other state. This year, California is projected to spend more than $9 billion on the criminal justice system. It costs more than $45,000 to incarcerate an individual in California’s prisons annually―a figure that surpasses a year of undergraduate education at the University of California by four times. What would our system and society look like if a significant percentage of the CDCR’s budget was spent on critical prevention and social service programming (i.e., job training, mental health services, substance abuse treatment, re-entry supports, etc.) instead of incarceration? We need to change our fiscal priorities so that they reflect the value of people over prisons.

As we left CCWF’s visiting room, the women on the inside lined up to go through security and to be strip-searched (a regular practice after visitations). We were ushered down a pretty rosebush-lined path, as if the beauty of the roses could belie the realties of razor wire fences and caged lives. I got back on the bus to Oakland stunned, angry and energized to be part of the movement for change.

Over the coming months, many of us will be working together to develop and implement strategic actions that we, as individuals on the outside, can take to spotlight the issues and create impact. Please sign up for the Women’s Foundation of California enews so that you can be kept informed of opportunities to join us. Sign up here.

You can also learn more about AB1900, sponsored by Assemblywoman Skinner. This bill will help protect the health and safety of incarcerated pregnant women by requiring the Corrections Standards Authority to set standards for how pregnant women are restrained during transportation to and from state correctional facilities.

Share on:

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine



  1. Posted 05/19/2010 at 6:22 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I, too, went on the Prison Visit to Chowchilla. We could make a long list of stunningly horrifying practices we saw/heard about. Here’s the one that I woke up thinking about the next morning: every 2 hours in the night, certain guards go through the women’s prison and bang on the window with their big stick, (no comment) so they can see movement from each of the 8 women sleeping in the 4 bunk beds. Gratuitous, harmful to health, humiliating.

    As someone said on the bus, here we are in 2010, and we’re seeing prison conditions of de-humanization and deprivation that parallel pre-victorian age prison reform. The rose gardens and lawns are beautiful, though, as you drive up to the prison in the middle of nowhere. That’s before seeing the $3 million rolled razor-wire fence that looms very large when you step inside.

    The other very long list we could make, however, is about the resilience, spirit, and strength of the women inside who are figuring out how to survive in that environment. It was daunting and inspiring.

    It’s up to us on the outside to do our part to spotlight and challenge the far-ranging atrocities of mass incarceration, especially of people of color.

  2. Posted 05/28/2010 at 6:06 am | Permalink | Reply

    If only I had a buck for each time I came to… Superb article.

  3. Connie Chung
    Posted 07/12/2010 at 10:15 am | Permalink | Reply

    Thank you for such an eye-opening article and shared experience.

  4. sandra
    Posted 12/07/2010 at 1:45 pm | Permalink | Reply

    my cousin who is a mother of 5 just got send there and im scare for her just hearing all this bad things about the prison makes me really sad god i hope shes just there for recepcion

  5. Ashley
    Posted 01/27/2011 at 3:19 am | Permalink | Reply

    My mom has been in prison for 10 years off and on since i was 5. i am now 21 and she is back in jail.. I fell that she has lied and used me many time.. i have learned more about about her in the last couple months than i have my whole life.. i believe that she needs those rolled razor-wire fences to maybe knock some sense into her conniving mind… apparently nothing else has..Why do you think you deserve anything better when you have committed a crime, not only of drugs or identity theft, but of making a HUGE negative impact on your childs life!! sorry, but you deserve it!!!! so maybe you should think of it from a child’s perspective.. maybe you needed it!!!!!! Its not race!! Its Law!! and Whats Right!!!!!!!!!

  6. Posted 02/04/2011 at 8:38 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Dear “motherless child”,

    Reading your message made it evident that you are walking around with an open wound. And trust me I do believe that you have the right to be angry and a right to express how you feel, but more importantly I believe that you have a right and the duty to heal. Keep the past in the past. Recover from the hurt and move forward knowing that you and your mother are human both prone to make mistakes. Your only responsibility
    as a daughter is to love her. She has her own guilt to face and it’s not
    fair for you to dump more on her plate.

    As daughters, we must understand that our mothers are women first who are not perfect, who cry, who struggle, and who make mistakes. Support her like you would support a friend. Help her rebuild her life by not
    blaming her and adding to her burden. The door to reconcile your relationship begins and ends with the willingness to do so, and that comes from both of you.

    No woman, or man, should be treated inhumanely no matter what crime they
    may have committed. And your mother is not different. These are people like you and I and if we don’t treat them as such they may not ever have a chance repair their lives. In the end, you do want your mother to
    recover – don’t you? In the end it is my hope that all incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people recover. And it is my job to help make that happen by advocating for justice and fairness for all.

  7. ROSE
    Posted 03/18/2011 at 11:48 am | Permalink | Reply

    I WAS 8 years old when the cops took my mom. The olny thing she did was selling durg. other then that she was a good mother.I visted her when i was 10 years old. It was hard for me to see her. the years went by and nobody told me where she went. now im 21 years old, i dont feel the same when i was 8 years old. l know she did something wrong. the should let her out. so i dont know if she still in prison or heaven??? I think some mother should have a chance….

  8. sharon pittman
    Posted 02/05/2012 at 8:41 pm | Permalink | Reply

    i am the mother of a very intelligent, beautiful young woman who had everything going for her. this is not her first but hopefully her last incarceration, this time she was sentenced to 14 plus years.the true victim in this story is the son she left behind. i take him to visit his mother as often as possible. for those who think it gets easier each visit, you are wrong! her son is a well mannered, polite, very intelligent and handsome young man who has been left behind with many unanswered questions. As his maternal grandmother i see the pain he suffers. As he matures i can only pray that HE survives the life he has been dealt. I believe that even though very limited, a continued communication between mother and child whenever possible is of great importance.There are inmates for whatever reason have little or no contact with their children. Granted a visit to thr prison may not be the most pleasant experience, the emotional strain in itself i find difficult, but it is not about nor my daughter. It is about limiting the damage that a mothers incarceration does to the children. If a woman is forced to endure many inhumanities while imprisoed the effect will no doubt end up trickling down even if in some small way, to her child. Reality is having to personally witness a male guard flirt openly in an intimidating way with my daughyer in her sons presence, unable to remark for fear of retaliation towards her after we had left. These women have committed terrible crimes, but they are still huan beings and should be treated as such! sign me a Loving Mother and Grandmother

  9. Posted 02/23/2012 at 6:49 pm | Permalink | Reply


Post a Comment

Required fields are marked *



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,959 other followers