The publication advocating for women in California prisons for more than 25 years.
“Now please don’t give up. When times get rough, hold your head up… It is not a ‘me’ thing. It’s a ‘we’ thing, and together with the dream team and the help of CCWP (California Coalition for Women Prisoners) there is a light at the end of the tunnel.” —Charisse Shumate, Founding member, CCWP
California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) was founded in 1995 to offer grassroots sup- port to a class action lawsuit that women prisoners had initiated against the state of California demanding basic, humane standards of healthcare. CCWP members inside and outside began to strategize about how to break through the in- visibility of women and transgender prisoners. Filing the lawsuit was a critical first step, but women in prison recognized that they also needed an advocacy and activist arm, and so CCWP was born.
The class action suit filed in 1995 reached a settlement in 1997, but health- care challenges have continued. Today in 2019, compassionate and medical releas- es are rare and difficult to obtain. There has been a crisis in suicides and suicide attempts in California prisons. There has been challenges for gender nonconforming, gay and transgender people leading to a strengthened #MeToo Movement in prisons. A class action lawsuit was filed in 2017 to combat these issues.
Right from the start, transgender (trans) and gender nonconforming (gnc) people were involved in building CCWP and our work both inside the women’s prisons, and outside. The first four-page issue of CCWP’s newsletter, The Fire In- side, was printed in June 1996 (now it is 16 pages). As the only continuously published newsletter written by and for women prisoners in the United States, The Fire Inside has been on the front lines of exploring and contesting the multifaceted ways in which gender dis- crimination constructs the entire prison system. Many of the subjects it has opened up have subsequently been further investigated, documented and analyzed by advocates, academics, policy makers and authors across the U.S. Fire Inside has provided a forum for people in Calif. women’s prisons to debate, discuss and strategize about the key issues they are facing.
CCWP continues to address issues identified by members on both sides of the prison walls, working together through The Fire Inside and through campaigns, demonstrations at the prison gates and legislative work. These issues include: incarcerated survivors of domestic violence, mothers and children, the criminalization of youth, death row, lesbianism, solitary confinement, racism, immigrant prisoners, Native American prisoners and trans and gnc people; and healthcare, including the suicide crisis. Because the prisons exist in a glob- al and community-wide context, we have also engaged in the dialogue about the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the Palestinian occupied territories, the ravaging impact of Hurricane Ka- trina that led to the prosecution of young Black men in Jena, Louisiana. The prosecution and incarceration of four young Black lesbians in New York, and the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements. These are issues that affect us all, and have deeply impacted people in California women’s prisons. Our 2014 story project, “A Living Chance: Storytelling to End Life Without Parole” [alivingchance.com] has evolved into a powerful statewide campaign to Drop Life Without the Chance Of Parole (LWOP)!, working towards the commutation of all 5,200+ people serving Life Without Of the Possibility of Parole sentences in California and ultimately to remove it from the state’s penal code.
CCWP’s name also stands for “Caring Collectively for Women Prisoners.” We would be remiss if we did not name the women—some living and some dead— in the founding and the growth of our organization: Charisse Shumate, Sherri Chapman, Judi Ricci, Brenda Otto, Beverley Chopper Henry, Linda Fields, Mary Shields, Joanne Walker, Patty Contreras and Andrea Mims, amongst many others.
Those incarcerated in the state’s women’s prisons number 5,700 of the total 126,000+ California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation incarcerates. It is a significant and powerful part of our population. Recently commuted from an LWOP sentence in January 2018 and released in November 2018, CCWP member Kelly Savage writes:
“When standing on the tight wire of hope it’s hard to know which direction to lean. If you put yourself in a position of all-in, the spirit tends to suffer when the red tape of the system begins to slow- ly chip away at those hard won strug- gles. Every win is worth celebrating. Ev- ery win gets us closer to freedom. Don’t doubt that! It may be hard to keep fight- ing, given feelings about letting down our loved ones or facing the endless time. Whatever the feelings may be con- sider the alternative and start network- ing with others and know there are many people out here fighting for and with you.”
CCWP continues to stand with and fight for the civil and human rights of all those incarcerated in women’s prisons.