In the California Institution for Women, women are still dropping like flies

Stephanie Feliz

We received a letter this week from someone at the California Institution for Women (CIW), which reads, in part: “I am … at CIW and I was told tonight that there were two more women who attempted suicide at CIW this past week. Three weeks ago, a woman … broke into tears because she walked into her room and her roommate was hanging from her sheets, but she was able to intervene. That is 3 more attempts in the past 3 weeks alone, and I wonder how many more attempts have occurred. The number 4 is an official tally, but attempts happen much more frequently. It is November…things don’t seem to be slowing down.”

Four months ago, California Department of Corrections officials “discovered” a crisis. In the previous eighteen months, four women prisoners at the California Institution for Women, or CIW, in Chino killed themselves … or were killed by willful neglect: 73-year-old Gui Fei Zhang, 34-year-old Stephanie Feliz, 31-year-old Alicia Thompson, and 23-year-old Margarita Murguia.

April Harris, a sister prisoner in CIW, explained Margarita Murguia’s death, “She was there for her own protection, not because she did something. Apparently her mom was dying of cancer and they refused to let her see her mom. She tried to kill herself with every denied request. She finally did it.” She finally did it. A woman hanged herself that night? No, a woman was hanged.

After Stephanie Feliz’s death, April Harris, a CIW prisoner, wrote, “We have women dropping like flies, and not one person has been questioned as to why … I have been down almost 20 years and I have never seen anything like this. Ever.” Why are so many women committing suicide in California’s women’s prisons, and in particular in the California Institution for Women? How the State count women prisoner suicide? What is California’s policy? When, if ever, does the State listen to women prisoners’ accounts of death in prison?

According to the California Department of Corrections most recent tally, from September 2014 to September 2015, at CIW, twenty women have attempted suicide and two have succeeded. Since the “great discovery” of the crisis in late July, four women have attempted suicide. Indeed, things don’t seem to be slowing down, and, apart from the usual suspects, nobody cares.

There are so many explanations for these suicides, and you know them all: mental illness, overcrowding, lack of resources, and poor staff training. The academy is as guilty as the prison house. How many times must we read a research article that begins “To date, there have been few studies of suicidal behaviour among female prisoners” before we finally understand? How often can one claim to be surprised by “Evidence shows that women prisoners are more likely to self-harm and commit suicide than male prisoners, while this is the opposite in the community” or “Alarmingly high rates of mental health problems are reported, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and a tendency to self-harm and suicide”?

Women are dropping like flies in the California Institution for Women because dropping like flies is more convenient than treating women as full human beings, more convenient than treating prisoners as full human beings, and a whole lot more convenient than treating women prisoners at all.

Women prisoners and supporters, such as the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, know how to count, and they have been doing so out loud. They have continually and loudly denounced the conditions and called for a thorough overhaul, beginning with releasing most of the prisoners. When women in the California Institution for Women participated in last July’s statewide hunger strike, they called attention to the State assault on their bodies, minds and souls. They identified a crisis, and the State looked away, and instructed all good citizens to do the same. It is November and the assembly line of women prisoner deaths is not slowing down. It’s time to smash the machinery once and for all.

(Photo Credit: Al Jazeera / California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation / AP)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.