Diana Zuniga, statewide coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), speaks with TRNN Correspondent Eddie Conway
EDDIE CONWAY, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News. This is the Light Behind Bars segment. Thank you for joining me for Part 2. Our guest today is Diana Zuniga. Diana is the statewide coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget. What is the significance of gender and its relationship to incarceration? And what is the situation for women in the California prisons and jail system? DIANA ZUNIGA, STATEWIDE ORGANIZER, CALIFORNIANS UNITED FOR A RESPONSIBLE BUDGET: You know, just to talk about gender a little bit, I think that a lot of times gender is really lost in our conversation about prisons. And just looking at historically what has happened to, in the guise of really helping people in women’s prisons, has been really scary. In about 2007 there was this huge push to promote gender-responsive prisons. And there were about a handful of gender-responsive prisons that were built. What we ended up finding out last year, what really came to the public eye last year, was that there–in these prisons there were about 214 women that were sterilized without their permission. So a lot of times we don’t hear about the medical neglect and medical issues and human rights issues that are happening in prisons as far as when it has to do with gender. And a lot of times this is because there are less women inside women’s prisons than the male population. What we’ve really been working to do is to expand programs for women specifically. Many of our member organizations have been doing this for years, and that resulted in a program that was passed in 2011 called the Alternative Custody Program. In 2011 this program was passed and it was basically meant to help women that were primary caregivers come back to their communities. A lot of times it was women with lower-level offenses, and instead of serving their time in state prison they would be able to serve their time in a community-based organization or at home under electronic monitoring. The main focus was to reconnect them with their children and reconnect them with their families and their communities. When this policy passed, there were about 7,200 applications that were submitted. To date only 410 people in women’s prisons have been able to actually get the program. So CURB along with its member organizations Justice Now and California Coalition for Women Prisoners, and Legal Services for Prisoners with Children have been really shopping around an idea to really solidify and support this program from being expanded and really utilized in the way that we thought it was going to be utilized. Recently CURB and Justice Now were able to secure a bill, SB 219, that would actually help alleviate some of the issues that are happening with the Alternative Custody Program. Our bill would basically create a timeline for the application process. There’s no timeline right now, so a lot of times the applications will be just sitting there. Our bill creates a timeline and actually a way to appeal the decision if you are denied. Our bill also does not allow for women to be denied the program if they have any type of medical or mental health condition. In the past we have seen that women with diabetes or with any type of mental health condition, with dental issues, have actually been denied the program. And lastly, our bill would connect folks to be able to access medical coverage in order to answer some of the issues that they are actually facing when they come into the community and are given the Alternative Custody Program. We really think that this is a good step in the right direction and a way to bring people in women’s prisons back to their communities. CONWAY: And it sounds like a good program, the Alternative Custody Program. But I want you to step back a minute. Earlier you said two hundred and some women were sterilized without their consent. How did that happen? ZUNIGA: How did that happen. That is the huge question. There were a lot of issues–similar to why the Plata/Coleman case came about, there were a lot of issues with medical neglect that were happening inside of the state prisons. One of those things that came about, which was a separate issue from the Plata/Coleman case was this sterilization. Recently last year our member organization Justice Now was able to pass an anti-sterilization bill to make sure, or to create safeguards so that this won’t happen to women in the future. What we heard was that–you know, what we heard from many of the women that were sterilized was that they would go in to the healthcare facility with maybe some issues of cramps or any, any type of issue that they were experiencing. Many times they, some of them didn’t know that they had actually been sterilized until they were released from prison and were actually trying to have children and realized, when they went to the doctor again, or their medical practitioner, that they had been sterilized. There is documentation that Justice Now was able to get a hold of that was really able to be the fuel to focus this bill and really pass it unanimously. Right now Justice Now and I believe it’s the Board of State and Community Corrections are responsible for making sure that this doesn’t happen in the future. It’s a really unfortunate thing that happened to many women. I mean, 214, and those are the only ones that are documented. So who knows if it happened to additional women that the documentation got lost. We’re not too sure if it happened to more women than that. CONWAY: Okay. Diana, thank you for joining me, and thank you for participating in this segment of the Light Behind Bars. And hopefully you will join me again in the future to give us an update on what’s going on in the prison system. ZUNIGA: Definitely. CONWAY: Okay. And thank you for joining The Real News.