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Angel’s Tree: COVID Activism Inside a CA Women’s Prison

By Michele Rene Scott | Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF)

This is a brief story told in the words of people inside about how people at the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), the largest CA women’s prison located in Chowchilla, CA, fought for the dignity and care of someone who was dying of cancer during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On April 28th we, the Comfort Care workers at CCWF, reached out to the outside members of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) to join the advocacy we were doing for one beloved member of our CCWF community, Angel Marie Kozeak. Angel Marie had been in prison for over 40 years.  Angel Marie was tremendously loved and respected by this community. She also had long term health issues, including chronic, severe liver disease. That day she found out she had aggressive pancreatic cancer.  For 20 days, she’d been trying to get help from Medical. Angel Marie was feeling really sick, in a lot of pain, turning yellow, could not keep any food down, and losing weight like crazy.  It took 5 days after her request (April 8 – 13) before she got to see the doctor and get lab work done. They immediately sent her out to the hospital. The hospital told her she was terminal and there was nothing they could do.  Because of COVID, when Angel Marie was sent back to the prison, the prison placed her in quarantine — in the skilled nursing facility (SNF). Angel Marie had none of her personal property, including her approved email tablet, which had all of her outside family contacts. Angel Marie was too sick to remember phone numbers, and she needed to contact her family to let them know that she was dying and trying to get released under Compassionate Release for people at end of life.

We had been told that once Angel Marie was on vigil status we Comfort Care volunteers would be allowed to sit vigil. Supposedly. We were desperately hoping this would be the case. Then we were told because of COVID-19 concerns, Comfort Care volunteers could NOT sit vigil with Angel Marie. We were not letting this go without a fight!

The emotions in the unit with the Comfort Care women were off the charts. We were stomping at the bit to get to Angel Marie. We were holding onto the hope that her compassionate release would go through, but that it would not be overnight. Angel Marie was back in SNF alone, grasping that she was dying, and we wanted to be there for her in some way.

Angel initially was not given access to the phone. Thank goodness for an O.G. in SNF, Pops Jenkins. Pops went “Hollywood” and refused to lock in her room unless the nurses gave Angel Marie her phone call!  Pops made a huge fuss, yelling how she had known Angel Marie for decades and that she was supposed to get access to the phone. By all accounts that we heard, Pops pretty thoroughly cussed out the staff. Angel Marie got her phone call.

Our Inmate Advisory Council (IAC) Chair and Vice Chair approached the Warden and shared out-of-the-box approaches so that Comfort Care volunteers could have vigil with Angel Marie in SNF. We hit him with the “why do HFM (Health Facility Maintenance) inmates go into the SNF and not us??”  He said the issue was the lack of PPE materials, and that this institution shared some PPEs with other prisons that have higher numbers of active corona. The prison supposedly was taking careful note of their on-hand PPE supplies. Warden also stated that the primary concern was about not allowing too much traffic into the SNF and confirmed that they were looking into a limited number of Comfort Care volunteers should we go on vigil status with Angel Marie. We did not care who went, just that some of us would be there with her.

We asked if they would be willing to utilize Skype or Zoom via a computer monitor so we could have contact with Angel Marie. Warden gave the standard answer of “he will look into that,” but in my opinion, it resonated with him. Hey, we are trying here. Comfort Care workers Erica Olson, Tiffany Holmes and Rachel Mullenix kept to a persistent and hard tack, reviewing all info discussed and making sure that communication was going both ways.

We showed Warden “Angel’s Tree”- the Chinese Tallow tree in the front of the unit where she hung her homemade hummingbird feeder each summer. We repurposed that tree into an honoring for Angel Marie, with donated cards cut into tags hanging off the branches. Volunteers hung the finished tags on the branches all morning. The card tags contained prayers and words of love and respect from the 512 housing community. Women from other units walked by asking what it was for and wanting to take part in it. We sat in the Dayroom cutting out tags and stringing them together, sending them to all the units in the facility yards, so that our global prison community could participate. These activities elevated the mood inside the unit and out on the facility yard! I was given permission to go down the hallways to pick up finished cards. Some women who knew Angel Marie personally asked to hang their card tag themselves, and of course we said yes! So much healing and love.

Angel Marie Kozeak. 1954-5.5.2020

Angel Marie died early on the morning of May 5, 2020. Her death is hard for all of us. We tried so hard to get her out to her family. Our hospice group nurtured each other throughout the day. Support is so important; often it is merely a hug and a look into each other’s eyes, the tears come, we hold the silence.

We were asked to gather the big sign and all the notes/cards from Angel’s Tree. These will be given to Angel Marie’s family. A beautiful moment to be able to share the love and support our prison community had for Angel Marie and know that it will be in the hands of her family outside.

Michele Scott is a writer who gardens passionately, and is involved in many peer education, restorative justice, victim impact, and spiritual groups at the Central California Women’s Facility. She was commuted from a life without parole sentence in Dec. 2018 and is currently working to get release on parole.

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