This week the Crunk Feminist Collective is honored to bring you two pieces from women incarcerated in California prisons and jails. This is the second in the series. You can read the first, and get more background, here.
These stories are here for us to read because of the incredible advocacy work of Justice NOW, an organization that works with incarcerated women by providing legal services, supporting prisoner organizing efforts, working with prisoners and their families on political education and mobilization campaigns, training the next generation of activists and lawyers who want to help, and building coalitions to create safety for women without relying on the punishment system. Justice NOW interns and staff travel regularly to prisons to meet and work with women inside, and it is their effort that makes these posts possible for us to read.
This series stemmed from Justice NOW’s research that broke open a story last year, which we covered here at the CFC, that shed light on hundreds of documented cases of sterilization abuse in California’s prisons and jails. It also led to the passage of SB 1135, the Prison Anti-Sterilization bill, into law.
This victory is only the beginning. The fight to respect the human rights of black and brown incarcerated bodies is a long one. This week, we hope that you all will learn about the work of organizations like Justice NOW and listen to the voices of women on the inside. They give us a strong, clarion call to action – to first bear witness, to listen, to know their stories. And, of course, to act.
* Content Warning for descriptions of medical procedures and trauma at the hands of medical providers.
Breaking The Silence: The Cost of Cramps
By Pamela Baker
Pamela is a mother of two and is currently inside Central California Women’s Facility. Pamela is passionate about women’s rights and has been a point person for Justice Now’s Let Our Families Have a Future Campaign and speaking out against domestic violence. During her time in CCWF Pamela was sterilized, and because of this strongly supported the passage of SB1135 to ensure it doesn’t happen to any one else.
“Okay,” I said. All I could think about was being alive for my two children. I went to the hospital. The only time I saw the doctor who did the surgery was when I woke up from the anesthesia to sign some papers, still drowsy. I don’t know what I signed.
“He said they took everything, what does this mean?!” I wondered. The nurse gave me a shot of something and I went back to sleep.
In 2005 I entered the gates of Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla, California. I was a “newbie”—very scared and afraid of the unknown. My mom told me to just listen to authorities and stay out of trouble. To keep my mouth shut. My mouth has been shut for too long.
In 2008, I was experiencing pain in my abdomen and went to the doctors. They kept saying, “Nothing is wrong.” Tests came back negative. The pains were so bad. I could not stand it. In 2009, I transferred to Valley State Prison for Women from CCWF. I put in a request to see the doctor because my menstrual cycle was getting stronger and shorter, only lasting 3 days with heavier bleeding.
When I went to the gynecologist, the condition of the room was awful. I couldn’t believe it. The examination table still had used paper on it from the last patient, dirty gloves on the floor, tools splayed out on the metal table without a towel or paper towel under them, not wrapped. I looked at Dr. Heinrich while he was enjoying his sandwich. He told me to get undressed, hop up on the table as he ate and watched me. The nurse seemed in a hurry. This was a very embarrassing moment in my life. Especially not knowing what was going on. As the doctor took his last bite, still chewing, he said, “This is going to be cold.” He scooted his seat real close to my vagina and inserted an instrument in me. He did not explain what he was doing except, “you’re gonna feel a little tug.” It wasn’t little. He placed a probe in my stomach and said I had 8 large fibroid tumors, endometriosis so severe it was growing on my other organs, and a very high risk of cervical cancer. Not knowing much about reproductive health and being afraid of asking questions or seeming uncooperative, I didn’t know what to do. I was scared.
The doctor asked me how much time I was doing, I told him “20 years.” Being already in my thirties, he told me I would need a total hysterectomy to stop the growth of the tumors and endometriosis. Plus, the doctor claimed that it’d be too late to have kids by the time I got out of prison at age 50. I didn’t know what to do. He then glorified the hysterectomy, saying I wouldn’t have to worry about any more pain, bleeding, or the risk of cervical cancer. He told me I wouldn’t have any more monthly periods and wouldn’t have to worry about feminine sanitary products anymore. So I decided to have the surgery.
After the surgery, when they sewed me up, they sewed my stomach sideways. One side of my stomach is bigger than the other so it’s not even, and now I have to go through life with a deformity.
When I got back to prison, the nurse said, “You’ll be called in 2 to 3 days for them to remove the staples in your stomach.” They forgot about the staples in my stomach. Two weeks later I complained, put a co-pay (a request to be seen by a doctor) and finally got seen. The skin had grown over my staples so they had to remove some skin to get them out. The doctor continued to see me in a filthy office.
After being transferred back to Central California Women’s Facility, 4 years after the procedure I asked Dr. Graves, CCWF’s gynecologist, “can you see why I had this hysterectomy?” I asked if my medical records indicated that I had symptoms of cervical cancer, tumors or endometriosis. He informed me that he didn’t see any note of the diagnosis on my records. Dr. Graves told me that my records stated the reasoning for my hysterectomy was dysmenorrhea, which he said meant “severe cramps.” I started to cry.
I was given a hysterectomy for severe cramps?! “What’s wrong?” he said, I told him what the other doctor said, all he could offer was that he was sorry.
Since the procedure I’ve felt very lost, sensitive, and just so different. Everyday I have to fight with myself to feel like I used to feel and I will never get it back. He took a big part of me and I feel like I am not feminine. I have problems with my bladder and my emotional state has changed tremendously. I get depressed more easily now, and when that happens I have to reach for something that’s comforting. There is not comfort in prison except for food. I was less than 200 pounds before the hysterectomy, now I haven’t even been able to get back to that weight. The hormonal imbalance that I have makes it difficult to lose weight, but I am sure I can do it, I have been exercising and running. I don’t feel like I’m whole. I feel very empty inside because I would have loved to have another child.
People inside have no choice of gynecologist. Something needs to be done. Many women in prison, like myself, have been raped or abused in their lifetime and not given the option to request a female doctor, or to request a different doctor if they are uncomfortable with the first. These are rights of patients on the street, who are not in prison, and this should be our right too.
Additionally, people inside cannot request a second opinion of another doctor. This is a perfect example of prison doctors abusing their stations to aggressively prey on the vulnerable population in California’s women’s prisons, mimicking the state’s eugenics practices of the past. We must trust what the “one” doctor tells us, or fails to tell us. Inside prison, there is only one doctor available, so getting a second opinion inside is not an option and it’s nearly impossible to get a second opinion from a medical provider at a community based clinic or hospital. If and when this option is available, very few people inside can afford the costs that come with obtaining this second opinion, which includes correctional officer overtime, transportation and the medical bill costs.
In my own case, had I been able to request and receive a second opinion, I would likely have been given a different diagnosis and would not have had an unnecessary surgery. This unnecessary surgery and after care, costs the taxpayers money – and it cost me numerous irreparable losses. The doctor who talked me into the hysterectomy never told me about the after effects of having your reproductive organs taken out. I have not been the same. I worry about osteoporosis, heart attack, and breast cancer. I have developed high blood pressure, obesity, and depression–things that are far worse than “bad cramps.”
During my incarceration, my kids have become distant. They don’t write to me and I have no idea where they are. Being away this long has separated my children and me. I fight to stay strong, try to humble myself and give it to god, but it is absolutely the hardest thing to know that your kids have given up on you. If I hadn’t gotten this much time, I would be home being a mother, like God intended me to be. My kids mean the world to me. It is my opinion that the California Correctional Department has no intentions of bringing families back together. I have tried for ten years to get closer to my kids by applying to transfer to California Institute for Women (CIW) in Corona, California, but I keep getting denied. I believe it might be too late for me to reunite with my kids. It must be true, out of sight out of mind; I do not exist to my kids anymore.
I have 6 years left. I wonder: “Am I ever gonna be able to see my kids? Am I ever gonna be a mom again? Am I ever gonna feel right?”
Justice Now’s Let Our Families Have a Future Campaign, is focused on bringing light to and ending the many ways that people’s human rights to form a family is interrupted and destroyed by the prison system. This includes, but is not limited to: being imprisoned during reproductive and family formation years, sterilization during the birthing process, sterilization during other operations for birth control purposes, and very low quality or abusive reproductive health care.
Justice Now also sponsored SB 1135, the Defense Against Sterilization Abuse Bill [passed in September 2014]. The intent of this law was to prevent sterilization abuse of vulnerable populations, to ensure safeguards against sterilization abuse within coercive environment of prison and jail, and to positively affirm all people’s right to fully self-determine their reproductive lives free from coercion, violence or threat of force. To learn more about Justice Now’s organization and get involved follow them on Facebook and Twitter at @justicenoworg.