My name is Mari Gray. I am 60 years old and starting my life again in the Bay Area after serving 9 years in prison in Chowchilla for a non-violent crime. I was finally successful in making it out on the Alternative Custody Program (ACP) two months ago.

The ACP became law in 2011 as a result of legislation by Senator Carol Liu. It was written with the intent to release a significant number of women back into our communities to be with our children. It later expanded to include more classes of women, with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) estimating that 4,000 people in women’s prisons would be eligible for release under the program. That was years ago and I am one of less than 200 women who have since been released through this program.  

I never thought I would have to fight so hard for an early release program that seemed to be written just for me. Even though I already learned how insidiously corrupt the prison system is, it was worse than I thought. The state was ordered by the US Supreme Court to decrease the prison population, but I believe now that the state never intended to relieve overcrowding. They did a bait and switch by clearing out one women’s prison and shifting men around even more.

The state is warehousing people who could be released today. They are abusing their power by making up ridiculous rules and impossible standards that nobody can meet. For instance, the CDCR won’t consider anyone for ACP who has medical problems. This includes anyone on psych meds, including anti-depressants. Well, I’m not sure who wouldn’t be depressed in prison! One woman I know was denied because she has diabetes.

In order to qualify for the program, I had to get off all my medications and convince them that my high blood pressure, which is not even that high, did not make me a health risk.

If it hadn’t been for my son I would have never made it out. He had to call the Senator’s office and convince them the CDCR was being unreasonable. After denying me several times, they said that I could get out on an ankle monitor if I agreed to go to a recovery program.

The CDCR funds the program I was released to – it is an extension of prison. They want to keep me under their control. Still, I am so grateful for the freedoms I feel now that I fought so hard for. I give something everyday that I couldn’t give before.

So, now I am out and I am concerned about the people I left behind. Right now at the prison in Chowchilla, 8 people are crammed into each room. I’ve lived like this and it’s inhumane. You have no room to move and hardly enough space to shower. Overcrowding makes violence inside prison twice as bad, especially since the officers provoke it. There’s almost no access to medical care, jobs are harder to come by and there are no programs or rehabilitation to speak of.

People need to let the government, the CDCR and the people know that women should be coming home. I have been a member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners for 9 years inside California’s cages and now I am out and fighting for justice.

Please join us this Saturday, January 26th for the Chowchilla Freedom Rally. We will be marching from Valley State Prison to the Central California Women’s Facility at 3PM. Meet us there or email chowchilla.rally@gmail.com to get on the bus!

At the last big protest in 2007, we could hear the drums from inside. It was so powerful and moved us so much to know that people cared about us and were speaking out. For the most part when you’re stuck in prison, you just feel thrown away. Let's let them know we care. www.womenprisoners.org