By Raymond R. Beltrán
Logan Heights resident Tina Camarillo doesn’t deny her past and exclaims that she has no shame about her teenage years when she was engaged in a life of drugs and violence, something she attributes to a neglected childhood. She lived la vida loca as a recidivist, her youth tangled in the web of “county time” since she was seventeen years old. In 1997, she was sentenced to a four-year stretch in Central California’s Womens Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla, California for possession of methamphetamines and two firearms.
It’s been five years since Camarillo has been clean, and even more, since she’s spent time inside of prison, an experience never forgotten. The now 37-year-old Camarillo remembers a time when she used to witness guards selling cigarette lighters for sexual favors and prison physicians performing pap smears for every inmate’s illness.
“Of course you have to put on the face,” she remembers. “But I was crying inside, asking myself, ‘What did I get into this time?’ You’re treated like an animal. They give you a number and that’s what you are, like a herd of cows.”
Since her release, Camarillo has been involved with the Chicano Mexicano Prison Project (CMPP), a community based organization designed to educate barrio residents, as well as inmates, about the prison industry complex and the Chicanos and Mexicanos who serve time in it.
This past Saturday, May 29, the CMPP held its Eighth Annual Conference on Raza Prisoners and Colonialism, titled The Rich Get Richer, The Poor Get Prison.
The topics pertained to the growing Chicano, Mexicano and black prison population and their experiences, many of which Camarillo experienced while serving time in the world’s largest women’s prison. Guest speakers who attended highlighted the hypocrisy behind American human rights organizations who are currently crying out for Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib but say nothing about inhumane treatments of prisoners here in their own backyard.
While reminiscing on her prison experience, Camarillo says she was lucky to serve only half of her sentence because she enrolled in an auto mechanics program where she learned a trade that would help her gain work skills outside of prison, but within her sentence, she remembers incidents such as receiving meal trays with rodent feces mixed in with her food.
CCFW, where Camarillo served, is a place that just last year gained attention for several deaths related to the lack of medical assistance for female prisoners with hepatitis and HIV/AIDS. Among what she’s seen, she says the prisoners would frequently be subject to pap smears from the facility’s doctors when complaining of sicknesses that didn’t require them to be performed. The women were also asked to pay $5 co-payments, and Camarillo remembers that most of the incidents were voluntary due to the prisoner’s lack of knowledge about their rights as inmates.
Although she says prison physicians sexually abuse women by exceeding their authority in their practice, Camarillo surprisingly admits that rape is not a prevalent incident where she stayed. According to her, guards often take the opportunistic route when encountering female inmates who are serving extremely long sentences.
“It’s sad that so many women are happy to be there. Nothing is really forced on you like in the men’s prison. You either become a better criminal or you use the time to change yourself. It’s like a big party in there,” she says
Francisco Soto, a former resident of Shelltown, San Diego, spent a childhood outside of irrelevant classrooms and became involved in la vida loca, or “the crazy life” mixed with drugs and alcohol. While practically growing up sentenced to California’s Youth Authority, he learned about two things: no snitching and the Security Housing Unit, lessons he would take with him to a state prison in Tracy, California, or “Gladiator School” to the inmates who were set up, by guards, to fight their enemies.
“The militia mentality certainly exists,” says Soto. “They call you beaner, greaser, stupid Mexican, and they would instigate stuff by putting the blacks against the Mexicans and the Mexicans against the blacks. Then, they would lock you down if they decided there was a problem … They had me in the hole for three months.”
The Security Housing Unit, or the SHU pronounced like “shoe,” is a 6’ x 8’ solitary confinement cell for 22 to 23.5 hours per day, where CMPP information states that prisoners are subject to taser guns, pepper spray, maces and menacles. Francisco Soto remembers it not taking much to get thrown in there and inmates need only be labeled a gang member without a chance to defend the accusations.
The Bureau of Justice’s Prison Statistics for 2003 states that there are “1,778 Hispanic male inmates per 100,000 Hispanic males.” This number falls behind the leading black prison population and comes before the “681 white male prisoners per 100,000 white males” count.
Other statistics by the San Diego County Probation Department reveal that Hispanics make up 44% of an 8,296 inmate population in juvenile wards, followed by 25% whites and 23% of black youth. With the categories of rape, homicide and robbery declining somewhat dramatically over the years, robbery still seems to be the most prevalent crime among the three for underage criminals.
Through newsletters called Las Calles y La Torcida, which circulates in and out of prisons, the CMPP is able to communicate with pintos (convicts) and ex-pintos.
The backbone of the CMPP’s arguments is that Mexican people living in the U.S. are a colonized people in México Ocupado, or Occupied Mexico. According to them, this is the reason why Chicanos and Mexicanos never have a just trial of their peers, who would be other low income Latinos.
The CMPP endeavors are to create a united front of various coalitions to work toward prisoner rights and to someday create a commission of working class Mexicanos to act as an investigative tool, with a significant amount of jurisdiction, behind issues of racism in the prison system.
“Attorney’s don’t come out and speak on these issues. We want to work with people who are the most [qualified], but they don’t share their resources,” says CMPP Coordinator Cathy Espitia. “The great majority of our families are affected by the prison system … We’re just surviving day to day, but we’re trying to get people to relate to these issues and trying to get these ideas out there.”
Since their release, Camarillo and Soto have been involved in the Prison Project, and Camarillo still has pen pals in prison, something she said she never had but is very much needed for prisoners soon to be released.