Women in prison:

Dying and living at the end of a millennium

By Marilyn Buck

Because I'm a federal prisoner in California, I hear more about what goes on in California state prisons than in other states. Fortunately, there exists a progressive, growing prisoner support movement with numerous groups. There needs to be, given the proliferation of the, California prison state run by the California guards union with its maximum control units brutality, gladiator fights and carnival shooting sprees.

Prisoner support groups have organized hard, protested, filed law suits. Some victories have been won. But in spite of their unceasing labors and dedication, prisoners continue to die at the hands of the state inside these prison walls. Until recently, because of prison and AIDS' activists, there was a possibility of a compassionate release for a prisoner dying of AIDS or cancer. The current governor, Gray Davis, has thrown that out. The prisoner must die in custody.

Women prisoners were recently slapped in the face. The court appointed assessor in the Shumate suit (a class action suit filed by Charisse Shumate and other women prisoners at Chowchilla against medical malpractice and lack of treatment) is prepared to announce that the DOC has complied with the court's order to provide adequate medical care. This is in a prison where the head doctor told Ted Koppel on Nightline that the reason for unneeded pelvic exams instead of other medical treatment was that women are sexually-deprived and like them! (This Dr. was moved to a desk job for revealing the practice.) Better sexually abused than sexually deprived?

Women are dying in Chowchilla and Valley State prisons from lack of adequate medical attention. They aren't dying from lack of forced sexual attentions! A one or two year sentence has become a death sentence for several women in this past year.

Women everywhere are struggling to stay alive and to be treated as human beings. U.S. female prisoners have a lot in common with women in Taliban dominated Afghanistan. We are among the "missing"-missing from free, productive labor, from the schools, from our home. Our ideas, skills, wisdom and common sense are missing from society. We are locked away, gagged and bound by our absence; we are censored. We are not present.

Afghani women are imprisoned behind the shuttered walls of their family homes. They do not receive adequate medical treatment, either, because the female doctors are also locked away, and male doctors may not even see the face of a woman needing care. We are all pushed toward death by deliberate detention and neglect.

Prisoners-women and men-would do well to remember and support the missing women, and all the missing who are locked away and hidden. We would do well to find ways to remove the gags, like sister Shumate and her courageous sisters in California prisons have done at great personal risk.

Few women may receive an officially imposed death sentence, but we are dying behind these prison walls. There are even prisoners who support the death penalty (though not for themselves I'm sure). There are others who act as executioners for the guards and/or prisoner bullies. Can we stand by silent and accept dying as our "punishment" for being less human?

We can be motivated, productive women and men even behind these walls: artists, craftspersons, writers, engaged parents and students. Our lives have value no matter what any cop, politician or right wing fundamentalist shill may scream.

Wouldn't it be novel, interesting and maybe even exciting to stop killing ourselves and, instead, to look for ways to save our lives? We can support those who are fighting to stay alive, like the women prisoners with HIV, HCV and cancer who have sued to be treated like human beings; or like Mumia Abu Jamal who is fighting for his life and those of other condemned prisoners on Pennsylvania's Death Row.

Our silence is suicidal.

From Prison Legal News, April 2000