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This article was first published by San Quentin News, a newspaper that reports on rehabilitative efforts to increase public safety and achieve social justice from inside San Quentin State Prison. Visit SQN’s website or follow them on Twitter. The article has been lightly edited to add clarity and conform with PJP style rules.

Women who have served decades in California’s state prisons are being given a second chance at life, after enduring some of the state’s harsher sentences.

The Drop LWOP (Life Without Parole) sentencing, compassionate release and other resentencing campaigns launched by the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) advocacy organization helped secure some of the women’s releases.

“(The) best part of coming home — I have been embraced with love,” said Yvette “Chocolate” Brown, in the organization’s newsletter.

“(The) worst part of coming home is leaving people behind and knowing they should have a chance to be free. Which is why I am already speaking out and advocating for people still in prison and always will.”

Brown served 22 years of a 35 years to life sentence for a third strike offense. She was represented by the Stanford Law School Three Strikes Project on a resentencing petition to the courts.

“It was a fluke that I applied,” said Brown. “I did not think I could prevail on such extraordinary release. The criteria sounded like I met them, but I did have write ups in the past, though I had been write-up free for eight years.”

CCWP welcomed Chocolate home with smiles and hugs. As CCWP continues to advocate for more releases, their core principle of Caring Collectively provides much needed support for the women still incarcerated.

“I’m allowed to be open and honest about my life without judgment,” said incarcerated person Kelly Vaughn, about CCWP visits to her prison.

“They’ve been there when I needed help contacting my family, they’ve helped me with some legal situations, they help keep me focused by sending me educational books and keeping in contact with me through mail.

“The CCWP organization really is a huge part of my life. They give me hope for justice and faith for freedom,” Vaughn added.

CCWP has members both inside and out who are peer health facilitators, lead peer support groups and provide services to jailhouse lawyers.

“They (CCWP) push limits and rearrange boundaries for a population that was once forgotten behind these walls,” said Tamara Hinkle.

“The fact that strangers with lives of their own care enough to invest time, money and busy schedules to people they’ve never met — whose cause was deemed ‘lost’ — is priceless,” she added.

CCWP leaves no stone unturned as they fight for women prisoners’ rights. They have established the Survived and Punished coalition, a group committed to survivors of domestic violence.

They recently launched the Reproductive Justice Program, a project to combat coerced sterilization of women prisoners.

They co-sponsored Assembly Bill 1007 legislation for the third year in a row to compensate survivors of forced sterilization, according to the organization’s publication The Fire Inside. The advocacy group was instrumental in the passage of California’s Racial Justice Act (AB 2542) that prohibits the state from seeking or obtaining a criminal conviction, or imposing a sentence based upon race.

At least six women recently released from CDCR were welcomed home by CCWP. Combined, they had served a total of 123 years, noted The Fire Inside.

Shyrl Lamar, formerly sentenced to LWOP, was released in December. She served 34 years and is happy at home with her son and family.

Velma Henderson served 38 years on an LWOP sentence before being freed in February.

Zyaire (Aakifah) Smith served 29 years before being released from the California Institution for Women (CIW). The women credit the core principle of CCWP — Caring Collectively — for providing hope and support while they worked through their trauma, low self-esteem and shame to become social advocates.

“Caring collectively means that no one is left out, left behind or forgotten about,” said the incarcerated Vaughn.

Linette Gallindo, who was released under SB 1437 (felony murder rule), said, “I just want to tell the women and men who are still inside to hold on because I never thought my day would come, but look at me now!”

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Nathan McKinney

Nathan McKinney is the managing editor of San Quentin News, a prison newspaper that reports on rehabilitative efforts to increase public safety and achieve social justice from inside San Quentin State Prison.