Groups set to protest crowding at Chowchilla women's prison

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 24, 2013 

— Hundreds of people led by more than a dozen advocacy groups plan to converge on Chowchilla on Saturday to protest overcrowding at the Central California Women's Facility.

At more than 180 percent of design capacity, the women's prison is the most crowed facility in California, according to data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

"It's gender discrimination," said Adrienne Roberts, campaign coordinator with California Coalition for Women Prisoners.

The coalition said it has received hundreds of letters from people inside the prison describing a lack of basic medical care, as well as limited access to job programs and legal resources.

"The system is not working," Roberts said. "People are living in the most inhumane and insufferable conditions."

The protest is scheduled for 3 p.m. in front of Valley State Prison outside Chowchilla.

Prison officials didn't return calls seeking comment by deadline.

Hundreds of female inmates were transferred to the prison after the formerly named Valley State Prison for Women was recently converted to a men's facility to ease prison crowding under a federal court order.

"It's a total paradox to be reducing the prison population in California and as a result CCWF is now the most overcrowded prison," Roberts said.

Organizers of the rally demand the state release prisoners, such as elderly, terminally ill and permanently incapacitated inmates, to ease Chowchilla's crammed women's facility.

A number of early-release programs designed by the state could be used to safely reduce the prison population, Roberts said.

"This is not something that we have not come up with. These are programs that the Department of Corrections is simply not implementing," Roberts said. "If they were, it's estimated that 4,000 people would be released."

Recently state officials tried unsuccessfully to convince a federal three-judge panel to allow the prison system to operate under its current conditions.

The governor and top prison officials argued that improvements to medical facilities and the reduction in inmate population had adequately addressed crowding concerns.

The judges have yet to rule on the issue, and are expected to make their decision in the next three months.

However, the judges maintained their stance that the state must reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of design capacity by June 26. The population cap does not refer to individual facilities, but to the system's 33 adult prisons collectively.

California's prison system stands at about 150 percent of design capacity, according to corrections officials.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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