Chowchilla vigil and protest

On Saturday, January 27th, Mary Smith (BE Smith's wife) attended a protest at the Central California Women's Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla, California. The event was held to call attention to the nine women who have died since November 1st due to lack of medical care by the CCWF.

The protest went really well. There were at least 150 people in attendance. The prison is in the middle of the Central Valley, almond orchards all around. We gathered at the main gate to the prison. The prison officials knew ahead of time about the protest and had put up barriers so we couldn't park right up at the entrance. There was a large group of guards at the gate, about a dozen, and they called in the Sheriff and CHP officers to man the roadway. Organizers did not seem fazed by this, and just moved in with their sound system, tables, banners, and people! The CHP came over to tell us to be sure to stay out of the road so no one gets hurt. The prison guards milled nervously around their little booth and looked at us with binoculars, even though they were only about 50 feet away.

We started by marching in a circle across the entrance, bullhorns leading us in chants regarding the murders of the women. The sound system arrived and was set up facing the prison so that the women inside would know we were there. The prisoners could not see us. Signs in the shape of tombstones had been made and inscribed with all the names and death dates of the women who had died since November 1st. People, including some family members, stood in a line in front of the entryway holding the tombstone signs.

For about an hour various people spoke in a memorial for the women. Family members and friends told about each woman, and prayers were lead asking for peace and appropriate medical treatment for prisoners. The overriding message was that these women did not receive a death sentence from the judge; yet they were still killed by the prison system. Most of them had died from cancer left untreated. Some of them had died in the prison; others died at the Madera County Hospital, which has a prisoner wing.

A couple of the women had received a Compassionate Release Order a few days prior to their deaths, and had the opportunity to die in the arms of their loved ones. We then marched and chanted again, and staged a 'die-in'. Various folks laid down in the middle of the road in front of the entrance to the prison, and chalk lines were drawn around them. There was a lot of press there, and this provided a fine photo opportunity.

Chowchilla is only four hours away from the Bay Area, just off Highway 99. There will be more protests there in the coming months. The many different groups represented amazed me. The HIV in Prison Committee, part of California Prison Focus, sponsored the event. Food Not Bombs was there. Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, November Coalition (, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (, Families to Amend California's Three Strikes (FACTS), Prison Activist Resource Center, Women for Leadership Development (WILD), Justice Now - Network on Women, California Coalition for Women Prisoners (, Criminal Justice Consortium, Death Penalty Focus - Fresno, Jesuit Volunteer Community, Locked Out, Out of Control - Lesbian Committee to Support Women Political Prisoners, Prison Moratorium Project, Project Inform, WORLD - Women Organized to Respond to Life-Threatening Diseases, Families With A Future.

So many people working toward change! I picked up some of these names in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago when I went to hear a replay of some of the prisoners and family members testifying in front of the Senate regarding the conditions in Chowchilla: rape by prison guards, podiatrists doing gynecological exams, women suffering with cancer for months and years left completely untreated, treatment for cancer - Motrin and Metamucil, cellmates of the sick providing all the care for the dying women, the bodies of the dead women being held from families, and many more first hand stories of horror.

One of the people attending the protest was a Buddhist nun from New York. She embarked on a walk to call attention to the out of control prison situation in California - the California Dharma Prison Walk starting on February 1st in San Francisco, ending March 3rd in Lompoc.

Thank you for caring! Write your congresspersons!

Love and peace, Sharon North