Women in solitary: ‘Last night another girl hung herself’

by Diana Block and Misty Rojo, California Coalition for Women Prisoners

“Last night another girl hung herself, and as they drug her out of her cell and down the stairs and put her on the stretcher it occurred to me that it’s become so common, so common it hurts. I mean I woke up out of my sleep and got off my bunk, got a sip of water and looked out the window and there they were silently dragging her out no alarm, no sense of emergency or urgency. Just your run of the mill ordinarily scheduled suicide. Nothing special going on here, just all in a day’s work. I don’t know. I laid in bed, praying her spirit would fight for her life since she obviously didn’t have the strength to fight for it herself. By the time breakfast rolled around, her bed was already filled by a new inmate. Like rotating cattle.” – Excerpt from a recent letter from a woman in the Security Housing Unit (SHU, or solitary confinement) at the California Institution for Women (CIW)

Dear Assemblywoman Skinner*:

The California Coalition for Women Prisoners is a grassroots advocacy organization that works with women and transgender prisoners in California’s prisons and jails. Many of our members live in your district. We are also active in the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition, which deals with issues of solitary confinement in California prisons. Unfortunately, we were unable to attend the recent hearing on solitary confinement which was held on Oct. 9, but some of us were able to watch on CalChannel. We appreciate your focus at that hearing on information regarding solitary confinement in the women’s prisons.

Black-woman-in-solitary-confinement, Women in solitary: ‘Last night another girl hung herself’, Abolition Now! Much less is known about solitary in the women’s prisons than about conditions in male facilities. Over the past several months, CCWP has been trying to gather information and testimony about these conditions. One thing that has become clear is that the recent conversion of Valley State Prison for Women into a male facility (VSP) has led to a dramatic increase in the use of solitary confinement: Ad Seg at CCWF and the SHU at CIW. Concurrently, there have been several suicides in Ad Seg and the SHU in recent months, at least one from an alleged “overdose.” The excerpt from the letter quoted above is one of many that indicates how desperate the situation is.

We write to ask that your office initiate an investigation into women’s solitary confinement conditions. This could include on-site visits of the SHU and Ad Seg. Legislators did visit the SHU at VSPW in 2000 as part of Senator Polanco’s hearings about the women’s prisons in 2000. They were appalled by what they saw. In particular, they witnessed women who were held in cages being given “therapy” for their mental health issues. Those “therapy cages” are still being used today in both women’s and men’s isolation facilities.

We believe that several key factors have contributed to the increase in the use of solitary in the women’s prisons.

  • First is the use of the category “enemy concerns” to designate women and trans prisoners to Ad Seg and the SHU. “Enemy concerns” is a documented disagreement between inmates that may have led to threats or acts of violence. However, the documentation can be up to decades old in a person’s central file and the person may have been successfully programming in general population for years. When they are transferred to a new prison, they are put in segregated housing based on this documentation in their file, even when they don’t have any disciplinary issues.
  • The existence of “enemy concerns” tags for prisoners transferred from VSPW to CCWF or CIW has caused them to be placed in segregated housing indefinitely due to a lack of other alternatives. Even though women are being placed in isolation for their “protection,” they lose all privileges and are kept in solitary cells for 22-24 hours per day just like women who are there for disciplinary reasons.
  • Because there are no protective housing units for women, they can be kept indefinitely in segregated – solitary – housing if enemy issues are involved. Using the “enemy concerns” label to keep women in the SHU for indeterminate amounts of time is similar to the use of the “gang affiliation” label in the men’s prisons and is increasing the average amount of time that women spend in Ad Seg and the SHU.
  • The extreme overcrowding at CCWF – currently at 173.4 percent of capacity – has caused increased tensions and conflicts, which have led to fights and assaults resulting in more people being placed in Ad Seg or the SHU either through the “enemy concerns” designation or for disciplinary reasons.
  • The deteriorating conditions in the women’s prisons aggravate mental health issues which also have led to increased placements in Ad Seg and SHU.

We are hoping that your office can help further investigate the situation of women in solitary, which is largely invisible but is getting worse all the time. Some questions that we think should be answered include:

  1. How many women and trans prisoners are in Administrative Segregation at CCWF and the SHU at CIW?
  2. What is the average length of time that women are held in Ad Seg or the SHU? What is the longest amount of time that women are being kept in the SHU?
  3. Of the women and trans prisoners in Ad Seg and the SHU, how many are there for disciplinary reasons and how many for “enemy concerns?”
  4. Has there been a thorough investigation into recent suicides in Ad Seg and the SHU and if so what are the findings?
  5. What percent of women in Ad Seg and the SHU were receiving some form of mental health diagnosis and treatment before they were placed in solitary?

Again, we appreciate your concern for women in solitary and hope that your office can help shine a light on increased use of Ad Seg and the SHU for women and trans prisoners in this period. We also think it would be important to specifically include women and isolation at the next hearing on solitary confinement, which is scheduled to be held in Los Angeles. We would be happy to discuss this issue in more depth with you.

Thank you!

Diana Block and Misty Rojo work with the California Coalition of Women Prisoners (CCWP), (415) 255-7036, ext. 314, or info@womenprisoners.org.

*Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner represents the 15th District, the communities along the I-80 corridor from Hercules to Oakland. She chairs the Budget Committee and is a member of the Public Safety Committee, which is holding hearings on solitary confinement and other issues raised by the recent hunger strike, involving 30,000 California prisoners and lasting 60 days. She can be reached at State Capitol, P.O. Box 942849, Sacramento, CA 94249-0015, (916) 319-2015. Copies of this letter were sent to the chairs of the Assembly and Senate Public Safety Committees, Tom Ammiano and Loni Hancock. They can be reached as follows: Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, State Capitol, P.O. Box 942849, Sacramento, CA 94249-0017, (916) 319-2017; Sen. Loni Hancock, State Capitol, Room 2082, Sacramento, CA 95814, (916) 651-4009.