Via Workers World News Service
Reprinted from the June 20, 1996
issue of Workers World newspaper


By Brenda Sandburg in Chowchilla, Calif.

After traveling hundreds of miles into the hot, desolate California central valley, 85 people protested in front of Valley State Prison for Women here on June 8 to demand an end to the medical neglect of women prisoners.

They accused prison authorities of deliberately denying medical care-a form of punishment that has resulted in dozens of deaths.

The June 8 demonstration focused on both Valley State, which opened last month, and the older Central California Women's Facility right across the street. The largest prison for women in California, CCWF holds approximately 3,300 women. VSP has about 2,400.

Two years ago, Molly Reyes, a Latina imprisoned at CCWF, hemorrhaged to death in her cell. She screamed in pain for two hours. Guards ignored her.

Sonja Stapels, also at CCWF, was very ill for several months without receiving medical attention, despite her cellmates efforts. One week before her death, she was diagnosed with AIDS.

The protest was organized by the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. It also called for shutting down security housing units, compassionate release for dying prisoners, abolition of the death penalty, support for HIV peer education, and ending the California Department of Corrections' ban on media interviews of prisoners.

Chowchilla is a small town of 6,000 people in the middle of barren fields. Chanting loudly, picketers circled in front of VSP for half an hour.

As the rally was beginning a police car drove up. A cop demanded through his car speaker that protesters clear the road.

Police lined up in the street to push people back-even though no more than one car comes by there every 10 or 15 minutes, primarily friends and family of those in prison.

Former CCWF prisoner LaJuana Norrise, a member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, said, "I have been to animal shelters and seen animals treated better than women in prison." Fighting back tears, she told the protesters to "holler for as long as you can."

CCWF prisoner Marcia Bunney sent a statement to the demonstration calling the denial of medical care a "back-door death penalty, a shadow row" where women are destined to untimely death. "In the 14 years I have been incarcerated, scores of women prisoners have lost their lives through inferior medical care.

"Most died in fear and terrible pain, often alone, locked away where their agony and pleas for help could be concealed from those who might try to intervene, to show a little mercy."

Bunney is a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed in April 1995 by 24 women at CCWF and the California Institution for Women in Frontera. It charges that chronically and terminally ill women are suffering and dying from lack of medical care.

In May, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Brenda Otto, died in the prison yard. "She had previously had a stroke and kept asking for medical care," said Karen Shain of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. When she finally got to a hospital the doctors wanted to keep her there, but "the prison said no and took her back."

She died soon after of a heart attack.

The lawsuit was filed by San Francisco-based Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, the ACLU National Prison Project in Washington and several other law firms.

Judy Greenspan of the California Coalition of Women Prisoners and co-chair of the rally noted that four women at CCWF are dying of AIDS-related diseases. A struggle is being waged to get them out under compassionate release.

A bill now before the state legislature would set strict time limits and medical criteria for compassionate release of terminally ill and physically disabled prisoners with AIDS and other serious illnesses. The bill was approved in the Assembly by a vote of 62 to six and is now going to the Senate.

Last year Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed a similar bill. Greenspan said that while at least half the states, including California, have laws on the books regarding compassionate release, they are unworkable. Many prisoners die before getting through the process.

Other speakers at the rally included a representative from Women Organized to Respond to Life-Threatening Diseases, an organization of HIV-positive women, Leslie DiBenedetto-Skopek and Sharon Sadler of Pelican Bay Information Project, and Azania Howse of Workers World Party, who spoke on behalf of the Monica Moorehead/Gloria La Riva campaign.

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