Yet another young woman of color died at the California Institution for Women (CIW) two weeks ago today. Her name is Shaylene Graves and she was 27 years old and 6 weeks away from returning home to her loving son, family and friends. CCWP is working with Shaylene’s family to hold the CA Department of Corrections (CDCR) and CIW responsible for her death. In the wake of Shaylene’s death, the prison continues to mistreat her grieving family and friends and to evade responsibility for failing to save lives.
We are writing to ask for your continued support in demanding an end to the dehumanization, abuse & preventable deaths at CIW.
Help us demand an investigation into the preventable deaths at CIW, including the ongoing suicide crisis. We encourage connecting this push to mobilizations to #SayHerName (gathering tomorrow in Detroit), #BlackLivesMatter, and the #StateOfWomen summit in DC this week (last one for the stretch).
Also, if you have personal connections with members of the CA Senate Rules Committee, the Assembly Speaker, and/or the Governor — please also make a call in honor of Shaylene Graves, Erika Rocha, as well as the many people who have attempted suicide at CIW this year alone, and ask them to support our demand for an investigation. (These 3 gov’t bodies are now the only authorized to order a state prison investigation.)
Thank you so much for your support,
California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP)
Petition for CIW investigation: bit.ly/InvestigateCIW
Petition update re Shaylene: bit.ly/ShayleneGraves
CCWP Calls Attention to Abuses and Escalating Suicide Crisis in California Women’s Prison!
Erika Rocha was 35 years old and one day away from her Youth Parole Hearing when she committed suicide on April 14, 2016 at the California Institution for Women (CIW) in Corona. Since her death, the suicide crisis at CIW has only worsened. Erika was 14 years old when she was charged as an adult in LA County. As a Latina youth, she was 43% more likely to be tried as an adult. Interrogated by police and prosecutors and threatened with a double life sentence for attempted murder, she pled to 19 to Life. Erika was 16 years old when she was sent to state prison in Chowchilla. Prison staff placed her in solitary to “protect her” until she was 17, but she told CCWP that guards admitted they kept her there to protect the prison because she was too young to legally be there.
At the time of her death, Erika was serving her 21st year of incarceration. She suffered from deplorable treatment for mental health issues attributable to her incarceration as a youth, including at least four indefinite terms of 2-3 years each in solitary confinement. Erika sought support for her mental health and trauma throughout her incarceration. CCWP continues to gather information, but we know that in the weeks before her death, Erika was transferred to suicide watch at least three times. The day before her death, she was released from suicide watch and placed in a mental health unit.
In 2015, the suicide rate at CIW was more than eight times the national rate for people in women’s prisons and more than five times the rate for all California prisons. In January 2016, a court-ordered suicide prevention audit concluded that CIW “continued to be a problematic institution that exhibited numerous poor practices in the area of suicide prevention.”
We are very concerned about the conditions that led to Erika’s death, as well as its impacts on the escalating crisis at CIW. In the week since Erika’s death, another suicide was reported and at least 22 more people transferred to suicide watch. The suicide watch unit is overcrowded and CIW is placing people on “overflow” in the SHU (“Security Housing Unit”). Given extensive documentation of the harmful impacts of solitary confinement on mental health, CIW’s decision to place people in crisis in solitary shows a continued failure to properly address its extremely high suicide rates. People experiencing mental health crisis in prison need intensive support, but CIW is instead endangering their lives further by placing them in solitary confinement.
CCWP Program Coordinator, Windy Click, who met Erika in prison when she was 19, said, “Erika was always seeking help, she was lost inside an adult facility not knowing what the future held. When she asked for help they didn’t bother to help her.” Upon hearing the news of Erika’s suicide, a friend of Erika’s who was also sent to state prison at 16, said “Erika’s death is a painful example of how the criminal justice system is broken and therefore breaks people. They did this to her. She obviously couldn’t see any future for herself.”
We hold the State of California, the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation (CDCR) and the California Institution for Women (CIW) responsible for Erika’s death. Erika had a devastating story to tell about the abuses she suffered in the custody of the State of California. She hoped to be involved in youth justice work once she was released.
Despite decades of lawsuits to remedy prison health care and court orders to reduce prison overcrowding, the ongoing inhumane conditions lead to tragic and untimely deaths. To reverse the crisis at CIW, CCWP calls for the following immediate actions:
Conduct a full investigation into the ongoing crisis and high suicide rate at CIW. We ask the California Governor and Legislature to order the Office of the Inspector General to take action immediately.
Increase oversight by the court-ordered Special Master on the CDCR’s ongoing failure to improve conditions for people receiving mental health treatment at CIW.
End CIW policies and practices that deny people access to lifesaving support on suicide watch. Provide people safe access to mail, phone calls, legal visits, social visits, and the Compassionate Companions peer support team. Isolating people in mental health crisis and denying them access to available support increases their chance of death.
In honor of Erika, we ask that supporters of youth justice:
Donate to help Erika’s family raise money for her services: http://bit.ly/ErikaRocha
Sign the petition to demand investigation into suicide epidemic at CIW Women’s Prison in California: http://bit.ly/InvestigateCIW
Sign & circulate The Public Safety & Rehabilitation Act of 2016 ballot initiative eliminating the power of prosecutors to direct file youth under the age of 18 into adult court.
Support SB 1052 (Lara) requiring that youth under 18 have legal access before interrogation and ensures that youth cannot waive their Miranda rights.
Support SB 1143 (Leno) to severely limit youth solitary, including room confinement.
As President Barack Obama wrote earlier this year about Kalief Browder’s suicide post-incarceration, “How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people?”
We are devastated and enraged that we did not get the opportunity to welcome Erika Rocha back into our communities. We demand justice for Erika and an end to the suicide epidemic CIW has created for its most vulnerable people inside.
This week the California Board of Parole Hearings denied Rickie Blue-Sky parole for the 5th time. We come together outraged by how the State of California continues to punish Blue-Sky for maintaining his innocence and criminalize him for existing as a Native American transgender elder. Blue-Sky told us that they used his “refusal to admit the crime” and his “unstable childhood” to argue that he lacks insight and is therefore a threat to public safety. He said that when the board assessed him under the “Elderly Parole Program” they found that even though he is 70 years old, “he looks so young” and therefore is still a public safety risk.
Thanks to your support with Blue-Sky’s petition, the DA did not use transphobic arguments against him. However, Blue-Sky is still caught in a system designed to keep people endlessly caged.
We ask for your continued solidarity with imprisoned trans people. Please stay in touch with our coalition of legal advocacy & organizing groups listed below for updates on how to keep showing up for the survival and freedom of Blue-Sky and other imprisoned trans people in California and beyond.
From Blue-Sky: “I wish to thank everyone who supported me by signing the petition, and a special thanks to all those who wrote personal letters of support. I hope you will continue to support me.”
TGI Justice Project, http://www.tgijp.org
California Coalition for Women Prisoners, http://womenprisoners.org
National Lawyers Guild, Prisoner Advocacy Network, http://www.nlgsf.org/prisoner-advocacy-network
Justice Now, http://www.jnow.org
Transgender Law Center, http://transgenderlawcenter.org
On November 11th, five imprisoned people at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) endured extreme violence at the hands of prison guards. They immediately filed grievances against the officers and called for an independent investigation, but so far none of their requests have been met. They have now developed a more comprehensive set of demands listed in the letter below.
Family members and a coalition of organizations – the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Justice Now, the Family Unity Network, and the TGI Justice Project – are asking your help. in pressuring the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the Senate Public Safety Committee to respond to their demands.
Please click on the link below to TAKE ACTION to pressure the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the Senate Public Safety Committee to respond to their demands. And let these officials know that their is widespread public concern about this incident!
Please help spread the word on your email lists and through social media.
As part of CCWP’s 20th Anniversary celebrations, we are counting down some of the ways that we have spoken truth to power over the years. Thank you to all who have helped create a movement through these actions. We invite you all to celebrate with us on November 7th at the Women’s Building in San Francisco. Go to Brown Paper Tickets to get your tickets now! http://www.brownpapertickets.