ALMOST 25 YEARS AGO, PRISONER CHARISSE SHUMATE FILED A LAWSUIT TO REFORM THE SUBSTANDARD MEDICAL TREATMENT OF WOMEN IN CALIFORNIA’S PRISONS.
IN 2019, PRISONERS CONTINUE TO FIGHT FOR DECENT HEALTHCARE.
ARTICLE AND PHOTOS COURTESY OF CALIFORNIA COALITION FOR WOMEN PRISONERS (CCWP).
I, Charisse Shumate, wish I could be there with you because, as you grow in numbers for us behind the walls…, the big cover up is going on inside. For those who ask why should they care or believe we are asking for “Cadillac care,” if we were allowed to have video cameras or tape recorders, the truth could be seen or heard about the junkyard care we receive. The sad part is why were we, who are mothers, daughters, sisters and grandmothers, compared to a car? Is it because they have forgotten we are human? If walls could talk we would not have to beg for help. Please, it could be your best friend that dies behind these walls.
The statement above was written by Charisse Shumate in Spring 1996. She was the lead plaintiff in Shumate v. Wilson, the first class action lawsuit filed by women prisoners in California. Shumate died from long-term medical complication on August 4, 2001. Where did her journey for justice start?
On April 4, 1995, 24 courageous women prisoners with grave illnesses— including cancer, heart disease, sickle cell anemia, AIDS and tuberculosis— joined with Shumate in filing suit in the Federal District Court in Sacramento against then Governor Pete Wilson and the California Department of Corrections (CDC) regarding the medical care provided to women at the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla and the California Institution for Women (CIW) in Frontera.
The medical care in prison was so bad that seriously ill women in pain were be- ing denied access to doctors and medication. The plaintiffs and their attorneys determined that the bad care amounted to a violation of the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, and filed the lawsuit on behalf of all women incarcerated by the CDC.
On January 12, 1996, the court de- fined a plaintiff class as including all persons who suffer from, or are at risk of developing, serious illness or injury, excluding mental disorders, who were or in the future would be confined at CCWF and CIW. The court also certified a sub- class defined as people at those facilities diagnosed as HIV-positive. The plain- tiffs were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, California Rural Legal Assistance, and private attorneys.
The conditions facing ill women prisoners more than 20 years ago were tor- turous, as crucial medical attention was delayed and denied. Some women suffered through the agony of AIDS or cancer, dying after having had pain medication no stronger than Motrin. Meanwhile, there was no HIV specialist for women prisoners, and access to HIV/ AIDS education materials were minimal even though the number of HIV-positive women in California prisons was rap- idly growing. Told that there was nothing wrong with them and turned away from the doctor, women in debilitating pain suffered intensely, getting sick- er and sicker, only to be diagnosed with life-threatening diseases like cancer after it was far too late for treatment to save them.
Brenda Otto, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, died at CCWF on April 28, 1996.
When members of the lawsuit team interviewed her on April 4, 1996, she stat- ed that she had a minor stroke in March which went untreated, because the doctor maintained there were no tests they could do to prove she had a stroke. She also had informed the doctor she was having chest pains and shortness of breath upon walking short distances, yet she was refused a stress EKG test. Sub- sequently, Brenda had another stroke, according to an ex-prisoner, and she was sent to an outside hospital, which wanted to keep her for observation. Nonetheless, she was returned to the cell where she was placed for a three-day lay-in and not the infirmary. Shortly thereafter, Brenda had a heart attack on her way to breakfast and died.
Other outrages included the removal of all egg crate mattresses, often used by women with disabilities in order to pre- vent bed sores. Additionally, all prisoners were required to pay $5 for each request to visit a doctor, even if they were not allowed to see the doctor. “There have been many times that I have not had the money to purchase necessary medical supplies because I have been forced to use my limited funds to pay $5 for each medical visit,” said Shumate, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Pregnant women who entered the Department of Corrections system after the lawsuit was filed were housed at Val- ley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla (converted to a men’s prison in 2013), which had no 24-hour infirmary and was not part of the lawsuit be- cause it opened after the lawsuit was filed. Women who were carrying twins or who had high-risk pregnancies in the past were not getting proper attention, and a number of babies being born died. Pregnant women with chronic diseases or those who developed life-threatening illnesses while in prison were not receiving proper healthcare, diet, or medication. Thus, a sentence of imprisonment for crime turned into a sentence of torture or even death for a woman or her child.
Marcia Bunney, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, gave this analysis: “What- ever one’s commitment offense, it is ab- horrent to allow treatment of the kind endured by the women prisoners of this state. The United States is quick to condemn other nations’ brutality and inhumanity while allowing special interest entities and their political figureheads to manipulate the spending of as many tax dollars to imprison people as we do to educate them. Californians look to Bosnia, China and Rwanda and re- coil in horror and disbelief; yet how many justify the lack of care of prison- ers by saying, ‘Prisoners shouldn’t have rights?’ How many denied, and ignored the ad hoc death sentences delivered by Athe state in the guise of medical care for those in its custody?”
A settlement agreement in the class action suit was reached in August of 1997. It was approved by the court, and the case was dismissed on December 22, 1997. The settlement included provisions for the screening of prisoners for contagious diseases, privacy of medical information, the institution of a system for prisoners to confidentially request medical services, the maintenance of emergency medical equipment, and licensing requirements. The defendants—Gov. Wilson and the CDC—agreed to implement chronic disease guidelines and a new medical records format. The settlement also included provisions for maintaining the confidentiality of prisoners who are HIV positive. The parties agreed to appoint an assessor and survey team to de- termine how well the defendants were complying with the agreements.
On December 29, 1999, the defendants—CDC—requested an unconditional dismissal, stating that they had complied with the terms of the settlement agreement. But on February 3, 2000, the court found that defendants were not in substantial compliance with the settlement, and the dismissal was denied. On August 22, 2000, the court finally dismissed the case with prejudice, noting that both plaintiffs and defendants had agreed to the dismissal.
In 2019, women and transgender people incarcerated in CDC’s women’s prisons are still petitioning for medical is- sues. Women needing assistive devices, such as canes, crutches, walkers and wheelchairs, are facing a daunting bureaucracy—just to obtain equipment necessary for their safety, well-being, and the ability to heal.
Shumate was living with sickle cell anemia, hepatitis C, and cancer when she died in 2001. Even in the last year of her life, she continued to struggle for the rights of all prisoners for decent healthcare. When she heard there may be a new class action suit filed, Shumate wrote an open letter to whom- ever would become the lead plaintiff: “Now please don’t give up. When times get rough, hold your head up and know that you may be free or dead if you have acute medical needs yourself before you see the change that we fight so hard for. But stay in peace with yourself that you are doing the right thing. It is not a me thing. It’s a we thing, and together with the dream team and the help of CCWP there is a light at the end of the tunnel. And yes, I would do it all over again. If we can save one life from the medical nightmare of the CDC Medical Department, then it’s well worth it.”