I first went to prison in May 2010. Luckily for me, I was able to leave the same day because I was just a visitor. I was part of a group invited by Get On The Bus, a nonprofit organization that had recently brought together mothers incarcerated in the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) with their children, who had been brought by bus from across California. For me, while this visit was a life-changing experience, it was just a day. For the women I met at the CCWF – part of the largest women’s prison complex in the world – this was their life.
We “outsiders” heard stories about overcrowding, lack of basic healthcare and preventative screenings, rationing of sanitary pads and toilet rolls, random strip searches and invasions of privacy, violence and abuse involving both guards and other inmates. We heard about the women’s frustrations and disappointments – one of the most painful examples being that children come to visit, but are turned away because they have the wrong paperwork. We heard these women, many of them in their twenties and thirties, open their hearts about the mistakes they had made, and the way their failures had led to the fracturing of their families and the loss of their children. It was clear that the bond these women still felt with their children, many of whom they had seen that Mothers’ Day for the first time in years, was the only thing keeping them hopeful, wanting to do well, get out, and stay out.
We came away from that visit wanting to tell the world about the conditions experienced by women in our prisons. We also wanted other “outsiders” to learn about the additional punishments and injustices that women endure – such as the termination of their parental rights without them even knowing it until it is too late. Women are the fastest growing population in California’s prisons – in a system that was designed to house and control men.
If you would like to learn more, please join us at 4:15pm on Thursday March 8, 2012, International Women’s Day, at the Bechtel International Center, 584 Capistrano Way, Stanford CA 94305, for a panel discussion co-hosted by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research and the Women Donors Network, moderated by Stanford Law Professor Joan Petersilia, and featuring an amazing group of women representing three organizations working for justice for incarcerated people which are grant partners of the Women’s Foundation of California’s Race, Gender and Human Rights Donor Circle: Robin Levi, formerly the Human Rights Director, Justice Now; Hamdiya Cooks, Administrative Director, Legal Services for Prisoners With Children; and Susan Burton, founder and Executive Director, A New Way of Life. Susan and Hamdiya are both formerly incarcerated women who can speak directly from their own experience of life inside. Please join us for what promises to be an enlightening and powerful conversation about inequality, injustice, and hope in our criminal justice system. For more information
Michelle Cale is a Board Member of the Women’s Foundation of California, and co-chair of the Criminal (In)Justice Action Circle at the Women Donors Network.
Our blog posts on Chowchilla:
Photoblog: Visiting Women Prisoners in Chowchilla, by Judy Patrick
Visiting Mothers in Prison at Central California Women’s Facility, by Anuja Mendiratta