5C Prison Abolition Collective campaigns against ‘inhumane conditions’ at California Institution for Women

Three women wearing light blue prison uniforms stand single file in front of a brick wall.
(Bella Pettengill • The Student Life)

After receiving reports of water contamination and dangerous COVID-19 protocols at the California Institution for Women, the 5C Prison Abolition Collective helped organize a phone and social media campaign earlier this month to raise awareness and call for action.

The collective first learned about the conditions at CIW from the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, a grassroots statewide abolitionist organization.

CCWP first received reports about water contamination and a lack of heating in December. Due to these conditions, several inmates got sick as temperatures in prison cells dropped to as low as 40 degrees Fahrenheit, according to a CCWP member who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from institution authorities.

In the last six weeks, these issues have been compounded by CIW’s handling of a surge in COVID-19 cases among prisoners due to the Omicron variant.

CIW failed to adequately accommodate prisoners who had contracted COVID-19, according to the CCWP member; basic medication like Tylenol was not provided, nor were inmates properly quarantined. When inmates were quarantined, it was in an old building “where the windows [were] broken and there were rats, spiders, and feces in the toilets and showers,” they said.

In response, the CCWP launched an action campaign calling for a wave of phone calls to public officials as well as for social media posts to be shared Feb. 8-9. The “blitz” was meant to call attention to the CIW conditions and demand that the CIW provide prisoners with drinkable water, healthcare, adequate heating, sanitary quarantine areas and access to phone calls, among other points.

The 5C Prison Abolition Collective supported the campaign after receiving an action toolkit from CCWP via email, according to Alessia Milstein PZ ’22, the collective’s co-chair. The collective spread word about the campaign on social media and shared the CCWP toolkit online, which contained the phone numbers of officials, scripts for calls and templates for social media posts.

Milstein had previously been inside CIW through Pitzer College’s Inside-Out program and witnessed its “inhumane conditions” firsthand, she said.

As of Thursday, 138 tweets reaching around 140,000 users had been posted as part of CCWP’s campaign. Although the full impact of the February 8-9 campaign remains unclear, previous campaigning by CCWP and family members of CIW prisoners have already resulted in “minimal changes.” The prison was prevented from shutting off water for five days in one instance, and medically at-risk prisoners were put in single cells to decrease the risk of contracting COVID, according to the CCWP member.

CCWP’s campaign is part of their larger abolitionist mission, according to the campaign’s action toolkit. 

“We continue to believe in and advocate for decarceration as the only real solution to alleviating these untenable conditions; however, we cannot ignore the present dire situation and the need for immediate resolution to these conditions,” an excerpt from the toolkit reads.

CIW did not respond to a request for comment about CCWP’s allegations or demands.

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