A mother's fight for justice
The children of Donald Swisher, who died
while incarcerated in CMF, participate in a
news conference announcing a lawsuit.
(Reporter file photo)
U.N.I.O.N.'s founder, B. Cayenne Bird, has become an
outspoken advocate for inmate rights and a vocal critic of the state's
penal institutions. Her son's incarceration opened her eyes to a system
she says is rife with misconduct, disrespect and disregard for the inmates
and their families. (Reporter file photo)
When B. Cayenne Bird's son landed himself in prison - beyond the pain and suffering - it opened Bird's eyes.
"I had no idea how terrible it was in there," Bird said.
Now Bird, the director of prison reform group United for No Injustice, Oppression or Neglect, fights on behalf of others she feels are mistreated in prison.
One of those is Donald Swisher, who died at the age of 34 while serving time at California Medical Facility in 2004. Bird says Swisher, who was incarcerated on a parole violation, was sick with pneumonia but didn't receive the medical care he needed.
CMF correctional officers dispute the claim. As a result, U.N.I.O.N. filed a lawsuit against the California Department of Corrections, Warden Teresa Schwartz and a host of officers.
The case is still in the air, and U.N.I.O.N. has filed several other suits around the state, charging mistreatment at other institutions, as well. Bird said she does it out of outrage over the way she believes inmates are treated.
"I was so outraged that this was being done with my tax dollars," she said. "And there's no resource in the state for these families to go to."
Bird, a self-proclaimed human rights journalist for 30 years, formed U.N.I.O.N. in 1998. She said part of the goal is to get families of prisoners together in a voting block so that the state's prisons can be reformed.
"There's enough there to create a voting group," she said.
Scores of U.N.I.O.N. members join Bird at rallies at the State Capitol, where the group is a visible protester. The organization also frequently pickets at prisons where it feels an inmate has suffered a preventable death.
U.N.I.O.N. has also filed suit in two other local cases - the death of Anthony Shumake, a 41-year-old prisoner who died in June 2004 after being transported from California State Prison-Solano, to Doctors Hospital in Manteca with a dental infection; and 50-year-old Ersel Ware, a CSP-Solano inmate who died of a heart attack in August 2004 during a game of handball.
While none of the cases have resulted in judgments against the prisons, Bird said her "watchdogging" has helped.
"I think we've made some impact, opened people's eyes," she said.
Bird has been a controversial figure throughout it all, inciting angry letters from officers, active and retired. Some have said her lawsuits serve only to further deplete money from state coffers, inhibiting further care in the overcrowded and stressed prison system.
But Bird said she won't quit.
"The amount of death and pain I've seen has nearly killed me," Bird said. "But I'm still trying to make an impact."
Tom Hall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org