VIDEO: Hundreds of prison protestors rally outside of Chowchilla

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 26, 2013 

Roughly 400 people organized by multiple advocacy groups met in Chowchilla Saturday to protest overcrowding at the Central California Women’s Facility.

The California Highway Patrol oversaw the nonviolent demonstration, which included a marching band and large banners. No arrests were made.

As of January, the prison inmate population was at 187 percent of design capacity, and was the most crowded facility in California, according to corrections data.

"I'm not surprised that so many people are coming out because the system is so messed up and the issues have been building and building and building," said Adrienne Roberts, campaign coordinators with California Coalition for Women Prisoners.

Protesters came from different parts of the state to voice a wide variety of concerns, but the main demand was to improve conditions inside the women's prison.

Jess Heaney, volunteer with Critical Resistance, traveled from Oakland for the event. "The women inside are experiencing intense overcrowding," she said. "The state has a major crisis with the prison population and putting people inside prisons and jails instead of solving real economic and social problems."

Debbie Reyes, a lead organizer with the California Prison Moratorium Project, drove from Fresno to protest conditions at CCWF.

"What we know is going on is that people are not getting proper medical attention," she said. "This is happening in the Central Valley. This is the place where we live."

This rally is about helping to give a voice to those on the inside, Roberts said, who also traveled from the Bay Area.

"This rally and all the action was started by our members inside," she said. "They know we’re going to be here. Hopefully they’ll be able to hear us."

Prison officials denied claims of overcrowding inside CCWF, and said the prison’s population will decrease over coming months.

"Even where it is now we’re not seeing the kind of condition that the advocates are describing," said Dana Simas, a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman.

"There are still women that are single celled, and no one is being housed in gyms or day rooms," she added. "If we were housing people in places not designed for housing that would be over crowding, but we're not."

Under a federal court order, 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, rather, to the system's 33 adult prisons collectively.

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

As of January, California housed 3,608 female inmates at the CCWF and 2050 women prisoners the California Institution for Women in Chino, according to corrections officials.

Folsom Women's Facility, a recently opened 403-bed prison located next to Folsom State Prison, is expected to be at capacity by spring.

Former women's prison Valley State Prison has been fully converted to a men’s facility, a move corrections officials said was necessary to help meet the federal court order.

There are roughly 119,000 inmates housed in the California prison system. To meet the federal requirement, the state must reduce its prison population to about 110,000 inmates.

The state has shrunk its prison population by 25,000 inmates since realignment went into effect in October of 2011, according to corrections officials.

Gov. Jerry Brown has asked the federal court to lift the restrictions of prison population. The court has yet to decide.

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