The Fire Inside

First published in 1996, The Fire Inside was a women’s prison zine created by the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) – an organisation formed by incarcerated and recently liberated women – as an attempt to challenge the invisibility of women prisoners in California.

This decision came as a response to the Shumate v. Wilson lawsuit, filed a year earlier, which inspired the creation of the CCWP. The class-action lawsuit, demanding better access to and standards of health care for women in prison, was filed by a group of incarcerated women from the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla and the California Institute for Women in Frontera against the state of California.[1] These women’s actions motivated the creation of the CCWP and inspired the zine’s title:

[The Fire Inside] got its name from a former prisoner who identified the passion, determination, strength and bravery of the women who were willing to put their names publically on the class action lawsuit Shumate v. Wilson demanding that the CDCR treat all prisoners as human beings and provide adequate medical care. It was the fire from inside the prison walls that gave CCWP its start and sustains the work today.[2]

Publication History

The first edition totalled only four pages, and included features on Shumate v. Wilson and healthcare abuses more generally. Since then, the zine has grown to 16, A4 pages released approximately four times a year with a circulation of over 2,800.[3] It includes work from incarcerated women, formerly incarcerated women, and allies on the outside, providing a ‘space for women, transgender & gender non-conforming prisoners and their supporters to communicate with each other and the public about the issues and experiences they face through articles, art and poetry.’[4]

Each edition includes the CCWP’s mission statement which reads:

CCWP is a grassroots social justice organisation, with members inside and outside of prison, that challenges the institutional violence imposed on women, transgender people and communities of color by the prison industrial complex (PIC). We see the struggle for racial and gender justice as central to dismantling the PIC, and we prioritize the leadership of the people, families and communities most impacted in building this movement.[5]

Since Spring 2012, PDF documents of the zine have been available on the CCWP’s website, and prior to that, blog-like posts were given for articles from each edition.

The Fire Inside is the first women’s prison zine available in digital and hard copy. This is arguably because the CCWP has received funding from numerous sources over the years from organisations such as Left Tilt Fund and The Criminal Justice Initiative, some of which goes towards the creation of the zine. CCWP requests funding from readers as well, but asks for donations rather than payment per issue, as the money raised goes towards the whole organisation rather than specific printing and distribution costs.

Content

Nevertheless, despite the digitisation and funding differences, The Fire Inside resembles most other women’s prison zines and is made up of articles, artwork, poems and testimonies from incarcerated women. The Fire Inside also frequently includes photographs of the organisation’s activities as well, such as the Occupy 4 Prisoners protest, and of members both within prison and outside. Indeed, the zine goes one step further by occasionally including photographs of the women to accompany their work, identifying them by image as well as name. As figure 2 demonstrates, the photographs generally show the women smiling, wearing normal clothes and are sometimes from before the women were incarcerated. They act as a visual tool to dispel ideas of orange jumpsuits, shackles and aggressive mug shots that dominate the imagery surrounding prisoners, and emphasise the woman behind the piece of artwork/writing, giving a name and a face to what would otherwise be anonymous.

The Fire Inside photos
Figure 1: Example front cover of ‘The Fire Inside’, Issue 52, Fall 2015.

 

Since Issue 19 in 2001, each issue of The Fire Inside contains at least one article (normally the editorial) translated into Spanish, acknowledging the disproportionate incarceration rates of Latina women in the US and attempting to make the zine more accessible to them.[6] But moreover, CCWP sees the Spanish translations as a modern-day necessity owing to the number of Spanish-speaking immigrant women who are incarcerated in Californian prisons and jails.

As an externally edited zine that is created by an active organisation, much of The Fire Inside is made up of informative, practical articles beyond updates of protests and legal proceedings, many of which are aimed to keep women in prison safe and alive. Issue 53 contains a two-page feature on suicide and includes information on ‘Understanding Suicide’, ‘Signs to Look For’ and ‘Suicide Prevention’ which aim to educate and encourage understanding, with a myth buster section correcting false ideas of suicide such as ‘anyone who tries to kill themselves is crazy or weak.’[7]

Since issue 5 in 1997, the editors decided to dedicate each edition of The Fire Inside to a particular topic. Beginning with domestic abuse, they have covered subjects ranging from motherhood and lesbianism, to race and death row. Suicide and death are shockingly common within prisons and jails in America, with on average a dozen inmate deaths occurring daily.[8] Since 2000, the leading cause of death in jails has been suicide and the overall rates for female deaths increased by 22% between 2013 and 2014 alone.[9] Owing to the severity and pervasiveness of this problem, death and suicide appear frequently as topics within the zine through personal accounts and poetry.

In one poem by a woman identified only by the name ‘Shadoe’, she describes her experiences of witnessing an unnamed friend’s death in solitary confinement. She writes ‘My screams are drowning with everything not said./Can’t you hear my voice? Speaking with my pen?’ and concludes ‘So I use my greatest weapon of defence,/My painted words fight fiercely,/The pen moves on victorious in battle,/And as it writes its last word,/This war has been won/For now.’[10]

Issue 49 focuses on the use of solitary confinement in prisons and includes an article titled ‘Surviving Solitary’. It closes with the author Laura Whitehorn explaining ‘the hardest part for me was feeling that no one in the world knew – and that people who did, the guards, didn’t care. To know that SOMEONE knows what is happening to you is crucial.’[11] This emphasises the most significant role of The Fire Inside for the women in CCWP, as it acts as the primary source of communication between incarcerated women and with those outside.

Impact

Over the years the zine has acted as a mediator between the women as the contributors have documented their experiences of prison in their own words, legitimising their writing and experiences:

FI [The Fire Inside] 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 women, it is easier for many to recognise that they also are capable of expressing in one or two sentences what is important to them about a national of a world event and that their opinion is valuable.[12]

The fiftieth issue of The Fire Inside included short testimonies from the women about the role and importance of the zine. AnnaBell Chapa, for instance, wrote ‘thank you Fire Inside, for being the voice outside prison walls for the ones that have no voice inside’[13] and Urszula Wislanka described how ‘The Fire Inside has been an indispensable organising tool for activists inside and out.’[14]

Yet The Fire Inside seemingly goes beyond just printing the women’s work. Indeed there is much evidence of tangible, physical action taken by non-incarcerated members of CCWP on behalf of the women inside. For instance, in Issue 50 the editors include a letter template campaigning against the proposed opening of a private prison costing 9 million dollars, rather than implementing release programs to combat overcrowding. The letter is prefaced by an instruction telling readers to ‘please sign this letter and send it back to CCWP. We will present all letters to legislators.’[15] Here the women on the outside perform the actions on behalf of the women inside who would otherwise be limited in their abilities to organise and resist.

San Quentin 1
Figure 2: “Occupy 4 Prisoners: A Bold Beginning” from Spring/Summer 2012 edition of ‘The Fire Inside’

Similarly, in that same issue an article documents the events at an Occupy 4 Prisoners protest attended by members of CCWP in San Quentin. It mentions how ‘CCWP participants ensured that incarcerated women’s voices and issues were an important part of that day. Statements and poetry by women in the San Francisco County Jail were read, as well as a statement by Jane Dorotik at the California Institute for Women, detailing the high cost to society of imprisoning women.’[16] In this respect, it is not just the presence of CCWP members at these events nor their petitioning that is important, but rather their role as mediator and representative of the women’s absent voices. In this regard, the zine becomes a literal voice to the outside for incarcerated women.

What next?

The Fire Inside is still being produced and you can subscribe on the organisation’s website (see below). Since the zine’s conception, it has become an intermediary for the women inside, dispelling stereotypes and articulating their thoughts, concerns and experiences and challenging their invisibility. And through the zine itself and the community established around it, the CCWP  pledges to ‘carry forward across the walls ’Til all the prisons fall! ’Til all the prisons fall!’[17]

For more information on ‘The Fire Inside’ and The California Coalition for Women Prisoners, see their website: http://womenprisoners.org/wp/

© COPYRIGHT: Olivia Wright

[1] CCWP, ‘History of CCWP & Charisse Shumate: Fighting for Our Lives Film | California Coalition for Women Prisoners’, accessed 6 February 2017, http://womenprisoners.org/?p=54.

[2] ‘Fifty Issues of “The Fire Inside”, Reflections inside and out’, The Fire Inside, Summer 2014.

[3] CCWP, ‘What We Do | California Coalition for Women Prisoners’, accessed 6 February 2017, http://womenprisoners.org/?p=57.

[4] Ibid.

[5] ‘CCWP Mission’, The Fire Inside, n.d.

[6] According to the Sentencing Project, in 2014 Latina women were incarcerated at 1.2 times the rate of white women, see ‘Incarcerated Women and Girls’.

[7] ‘Understanding Suicide’, The Fire Inside, February 2016, 13.

[8] ‘How Often Do Prisoners Die behind Bars?’, Washington Post, accessed 13 February 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2015/07/23/how-often-do-prisoners-die-behind-bars/.

[9] Margaret E. Noonan, ‘Mortality in Local Jails, 2000-2014 – Statistical Tables’, Bureau of Justice Statistics (U.S. Department of Justice, December 2016).

[10] Shadoe, ‘Attention: She Didn’t Survive’, The Fire Inside, Summer 2014, 5.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Diana Block et al., ‘The Fire Inside: Newsletter of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners’, NWSA Journal 20, no. 2 (2008): 48–70, 49.

[13] AnnaBell Chapa, ‘Reflections on “The Fire Inside” Issue Number 50’, The Fire Inside, Summer 2014, 1.

[14] Urszula Wislanka, ‘Reflections on “The Fire Inside” Issue Number 50’, The Fire Inside, Summer 2014, 1.

[15] ‘Stop the McFarland GEO Women’s Prison!’, The Fire Inside, Summer 2014, 14.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Diana Block et al., ‘The Fire Inside’, 49.

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