by Misty Rojo
On the surface, the recent “retirement” of the wardens from two of California’s women’s facilities appears to be a needed move in an effort to reform California’s violent correctional system. While many Californians are just beginning to agree that our Department of Corrections does more harm than good, many legal advocates and anti-prison activists have been fighting to make that very point from both inside and out of prison for years.
But these sudden “retirements” aren’t a move toward accountability and transformation. Instead, they’re an example of California Department of Corrections blaming individuals and scapegoating the issue.
Wardens Kimberly Hughes and Deborah Johnson left the two largest women’s prisons at a time when California Institution for Women (CIW) has a suicide rate eight times the national average and Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) is under scrutiny for a host of abuses including sexual and physical violence. However, these problems did not start with the tenure of these wardens.
In fact, these sudden “retirements” further reinforce the pillars that uphold structural racism and sexism by insinuating that two Black women are responsible for creating an illegal and immoral environment in California women’s prisons – never mind the state’s findings of racism and abuse at High Desert state men’s prison.
Many advocates, including those currently and formerly incarcerated, know that many of these “uncovered problems” of sexual, emotional and physical abuse, as well as failing to protect, inciting violence among peers and total neglect are actually deeply systemic problems that people in women’s prisons have been fighting for decades. These retirements are not likely to bring about the needed changes, but instead they allow CDCR to continue to turn a blind eye to the systemic culture of violence that has existed since the birth of the Prison Industrial Complex.
In a 2005 Alternet article titled, “What to the Prisoner is the Fourth of July,” Yvonne “Hakim” Anderson, currently incarcerated at CCWF, said: “In its jails and prisons, the government reproduces many of the dehumanizing conditions of slavery. It breaks up our families by taking us far away from our communities and loved ones, making it hard for them to come and visit. Like slavery, prisons create conditions where abuse and rape are commonplace. We are denied human affection, proper clothing, nutritional food, proper medical care – sometimes to the point of medical abuse – and education, despite a high demand and need for it.”
These sudden “retirements” aren’t a move toward accountability and transformation. Instead, they’re an example of California Department of Corrections blaming individuals and scapegoating the issue.
A perfect example of this continued culture is this: While the warden at CCWF may have been removed, a woman in CCWF’s solitary confinement is being forced to deal with the very staff member she filed a use of excessive force complaint against and is left to the mercy of an officer who has already abused her and not been held to account. Advocates at Justice Now and California Coalition for Women Prisoners supporting this woman, who have spent 20 years helping people in women’s prisons fight to expose this violent culture, know that this “discovery” is much like Columbus “discovering” the Americas, therefore the subsequent removal of these wardens won’t solve a problem that already existed.
Systemic gendered violence that people in women’s prisons have been enduring for years will surely continue if we accept this as accountability. You cannot remove the violence from a system that is built on the very idea of revenge and retribution.
Until we as a society learn that we can’t address harms with more harm in the form of prisons, we will continue to see deeply embedded systemic racial and gendered violence that will spit people out in a worse state than they went in. Justice should not be defined as the ability to make someone suffer, but instead is best served when we care for and heal the root causes of that harm.
Prisons have never and will never do that. Instead, we have a system that encourages abuse and violence and keeps it away from the public eye so it remains a palatable form of justice as an address to harms.
You cannot remove the violence from a system that is built on the very idea of revenge and retribution.
If the justice system really wants to reform how people are treated once they become entangled in that system, major deconstruction would have to happen, not just the blaming and removal of a few wardens. A first step would be to not only believe what people are saying happens in prison but to include them in formation of solutions to address their needs.
Also accountability and oversight are missing from our current structure. One way to address that would be for our legislature to make portions of CDCR’s budget outcome driven funding. In other words, they would have to provide positive outcomes, such as making the funding of drug programs contingent on CDCR showing fewer people using drugs and more people successfully returning to their communities from these programs.
Supporting formerly incarcerated people and believing and uplifting the stories of incarcerated people will continue to push the state to account for inhuman treatment and continue to create more community based solutions and acknowledge that law enforcement as a whole has been given such unbridled power that they have become feral dogs off leashes.
Misty Rojo is the communications and campaign director for Justice Now, which works with women and transgender people in prison and local communities to build a safe, compassionate world without prisons. She is also a member of California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP). They are both member organizations of Californians United for a Responsible Budget. Misty was named a 2016 Leading with Conviction Fellow through Just Leadership USA. She can be reached at 1322 Webster #210, Oakland CA 94612 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.