In World’s Largest Female Prison, Inmates Organize For Health

Jul. 15, 2015 / By

CHOWCHILLA, Calif. — My heart begins to pound as I enter the gym at the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) on the outskirts of Chowchilla, about 20 miles south of Merced. Within moments memories of my own time behind bars flood my mind.

I can’t help but wonder at my own sense of being so at home after so many years.

I’m here as a volunteer for a health fair co-organized by an advocacy organization and a group of CCWF inmates. The facility is one of three female prisons in the state, and with an inmate population of 3,123 is the largest female-only prison in the world.

Opened in 1990, CCWF has 2,004 beds, and is currently at 155 percent capacity. Twenty inmates are currently on death row.

Niki Martinez, 38, has spent the past 20 years as at CCWF. Petite, her arms decorated with tattoos, she was sentenced as an adult for a crime she committed when she was only 17.

“I was young and I take responsibility for my crime,” said Martinez, who is serving a sentence of 45 years to life. “But [now] my goal is to help other girls avoid ending up in my situation.”

Martinez joined with fellow prisoner Elizabeth Lozano, 40, to form the Juvenile Offenders Committee (JOC) several years ago, which provides a support system for women at CCWF who were sentenced as adults when they were juveniles.

A 2010 study by the UCLA School of Law Juvenile Justice Project found that 66 percent of youth sentenced as adults develop mental illnesses. Forty-three percent were found to have three or more psychiatric disorders.

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Merced and its surrounding areas have always had a vibrant population of young people. Unfortunately, too often there is a disconnect between generations that can lead to misunderstandings and a lack of communication. WeCed's aim through its program and publication is to highlight and empower youth to tell their stories and that of their communities, while providing them with the guidance and skill-building necessary to foster the development of their strongest possible voice.