- The Fire Inside: Newsletter of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners
I, Charisse Shumate, wish I could be there with you because as you grow in numbers, for us behind the walls of CCWF, the big cover up is going on inside . . . Is it because they have forgot we are human? If walls could talk, we would not have to beg help.(The Fire Inside (FI) #1, June 1996)
In June 1996, the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) began to publish The Fire Inside,1 a project embarked upon by women prisoners inside California state prisons in collaboration with former prisoners and advocates on the outside. CCWP was formed as an organization in 1995 to offer grassroots support for a class-action lawsuit that women prisoners had initiated against the state of California to demand basic, humane standards of health care. As CCWP members inside and outside prison walls began to strategize about how to break through the invisibility of the women prisoners, the idea of a newsletter was born. The idea was to give voice to prisoners’ experiences through a printed forum, allowing them to report to the public and each other what was really going on. Via the pages of a newsletter, the walls could talk.
We quickly put together a four-page edition featuring articles about health care abuse written by CCWP founding members Charisse Shumate and Linda Fields. We wrote a summary analysis of the Shumate v. Wilson lawsuit and the conditions that caused the women to sue. The first issue was dedicated to Joann Walker, an HIV-positive prisoner activist who had fought tirelessly against medical discrimination and neglect before dying in 1994, two months after winning compassionate release.
Shortly before we were ready to go to press, we were searching for a fitting name for the newsletter when Dana, a former prisoner, suggested The Fire Inside. It clicked with all of us. The newsletter would not only be a vehicle for popular education,2 raising the consciousness of those engaged in writing and reading it, but it would also nurture the fire of creativity and resistance of women prisoners, which has to be sustained in order to confront the prison industrial complex (PIC).
Since that first four-page issue, The Fire Inside (FI) has evolved in many ways while it has remained true to its original purposes. Now up to sixteen pages, and still the only continuously published newsletter written by and for women prisoners in the United States, FI has been on the frontlines of exploring and contesting the multifaceted ways in which gender discrimination constructs the entire prison system. Many of the subjects it has opened up have subsequently been further investigated, documented [End Page 48] and analyzed by advocates, academics, policymakers and authors across the United States.
Beginning with Issue 5 in September 1997, which focused on incarcerated survivors of domestic violence, we developed a theme for most of the issues. Mothers and children, the criminalization of youth, death row, lesbianism, solitary confinement, racism, immigrant prisoners, and transgender experiences are some of the many themes we have explored. Since Issue 19 in the Fall 2001, a portion of each newsletter has been translated into Spanish, recognizing that many prisoners do not speak or read English. Because the PIC exists in a global context, we have also engaged in dialogue about the torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the ravaging impact of Hurricane Katrina, the racist legacy leading to the unjust prosecution of young black men in Jena, Louisiana, and now the racist prosecution and incarceration of four young black lesbians in New York State.
Each newsletter allows a conversation to occur among people who otherwise would have great difficulty connecting with each other within and between different prisons, as well as across the walls. FI has provided an opportunity for people who might not think of themselves as “writers” to see their own words and thoughts in print, whether as a full article, an interview, or a collage of many short statements woven together. When FI has a variety of short statements from different...