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 confinementMuch 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.



  1. This is exteremly alarming to me. I had no ideal this tto was going on with the females, which leads to my concern of the women being raped in these isolated housing situations, perhaps that should be a question to put to the Assemblywoman and the committes, because it is occurring. I would like to request to reblog this on my sites: http://www.CrimeDivas.com and CrimeDivas.wordpress.com

  2. It's sad to hear that as massive as the cdcr is and so much money is generated within this system, they are faced with a problem of this nature whereas rikers island has a women's section and a protective custody unit where people are not deprived of privileges simply because they have no where to put people who based on the fact these people haven't violated any prison rules or regulations.They put a strong emphasis on men in California but why not women?time to stop treating these people as second class citizens simple as that .Rikers island operates at maybe half of what California gets and can and has solved that problem years ago just another view of wasteful spending and giving male inmates priority over female inmates just plain wrong.

  3. Death at CIW is as common as a new bus load of inmates arriving.My girlfriend died there because they did not know the difference between a heart attack and a drug overdose. They didn't care! When she pounded on the door and walls for help they ignored her. She found her dead 2 1/2 hours later, when they decided to finally take a look! CDCR is responsible for their well being, but because we allow them to ignore people screaming out for help. we ourselves become responsible! Demand oversight! Why should this happen over and over again before we get it!

  4. Sad state of affairs we have here. All the talk and attention had been given to mens facilities and the overcrowding there, but the facts speak for themselves, CCWF and CIW are individually both extremely high and tension rise, violence and other problem surface and the quality of the healthcare suffers with population levels as they are. . But as a government decisions were and are being made to spend our tax dollars foolishly in the name of "political success" . As I said in the beginning, Sad state of affairs!!!

  5. Hi, Diane,
    I am a long time Advocate-Activist for the Release of Battered Women Survivors, I have volunteered my time for about 27 years. I am also a CA NOW Org member and Expert on Domestic Violence Homicide. I recently pushed Darrel Steinberg to oppose Jerry Brown for a speedy release program for incarcerated women. And recently, threatened Jerry Brown with an Recall by placing it on the ballot to become the Will and the Power of the People. I believe women will vote in reasonable term limits not subject to Politics. Sooner or later it does dawn on a few women that we as a gender really do not have equal right's to exercise our Self Defense Rights in America. Eventhough, it was Lyn Rosenthal, the President's Advisor's, prompting to begin pushing for the freedom of abuse and battered women survivors in prison and she is aware and so is Joe Biden….not much as been done to appoint a task force from the White House to begin Reviews of cases backed logged for decades….Women-Mothers robbed of their Self Defense Rights in the Courtroom. My suggestion is to have your girls write and send their personal stories to Lyn and Joe Biden. Send any documents or proof that was missed in the original court case. Sin By Silence Bills have been passed…..but, Jerry Brown is dragging his feet…..just the same.

  6. I Have Women from CCWf writing me about the women dieing and abuse going on there. I thought Cure International was working with me to get then help.But after 3 months of lip service I finally asked them “Are You People Ever Going To Help THese Prisoners”? Then I was told there is no Cure Org. For California! What the heck is wrong with these people? Hello! Get off my phone Line!

    It was finally CCWP that got right in there & I know of 2 girls they helped get out of as seg. I now tell the girls write to CCWP. But I believe they are scared off , It has been 2 months without word from either girl.
    Do you believe if we keep trying we will soon get them help, change? Humane Treatment. I am almost ready to give up* Gellybean.

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