Join CCWP for the Drop LWOP Town Hall

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In the past six months six women have had their Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentences commuted by the Governor. At the end of January 2018 two of these women were found suitable for parole and will soon be free. This victory illustrates how the Drop LWOP Campaign and A Living Chance project are creating a foundation for the commutation of all people sentenced to LWOP and the  elimination of LWOP  from the penal code altogether.

At the Drop LWOP Town Hall  you will

  • learn updates about the Drop LWOP campaign
  • hear audio from A Living Chance Storytelling to End Life Without Parole
  • engage with a panel of formerly incarcerated women, including survivors of the life without parole sentence
  • learn how you can get involved

When: Saturday, March 24 from 5-8pm
Where: Red Bay Coffee Roastery, Bar & Garden, 3098 E 10th St, Oakland (Near Fruitvale Bart)

Featuring food from Mamacitas Cafe, a raffle and items for sale made by people living inside women’s prisons.

Donations Requested: $5-20. No one turned away for lack of funds.

info@womenprisoners.org, 415-255-7036 x 4

Lawsuit Filed Denouncing Assaults on Trans & Queer Prisoners at CCWF

Transgender, Gender Non-Conforming and Queer Prisoners say “me too”: Lawsuit Filed Denouncing Assaults at The Central California Women’s Facility

On November 9, 2017 four people of color – a transgender man, a gender non-conforming person and two queer female prisoners – who were all at one time incarcerated at the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), filed a lawsuit against the State of California and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).  The lawsuit denounces two vicious assaults where correctional officers beat up, sexually harassed, hurled homophobic and transphobic insults at, and tormented the plaintiffs.  The plaintiffs were then denied medical treatment for their injuries and were prevented from filing grievances about the assaults they had experienced.  The assaults are particularly reprehensible because the plaintiffs are all survivors of sexual trauma and violence and were assaulted while advocating for their basic human rights.

The assaults originally took place on November 11, 2015, when Stacy Rojas, a gender non-conforming former prisoner was brutally attacked by correctional officers after warning that they intended to complain to the prison’s internal investigation unit about repeated harassment by guards regarding their gender.  Rojas’ cell mates were subsequently attacked when they indicated that they would report the use of excessive force against Rojas.  All three were then confined for nearly twelve hours in small programming cages and subject to sexually humiliating and abusive treatment.  This included having their clothing cut off of their bodies, having their breasts and chests stomped on by guard boots, and being told that male guards could “show them what a real man is” while making reference to the size of their penises.  They were then put in solitary confinement without cause and without receiving medical treatment for their injuries or being allowed to use the restroom.

When all three plaintiffs attempted to use the internal system of accountability designed to report abuses inside prisons, they were obstructed. Their original complaints were claimed to have been lost and then mentioned in response to future complaints as a reason to not investigate follow-up reports. Furthermore, they were never informed by the CDCR of conclusive results of any investigation into the incidents. The legal complaint submitted by the law offices of Siegel and Yee seeks the creation of a system of true accountability for excessive use of force, sexualized violence, and targeting of transgender, gender non-conforming and queer prisoners by guards against prisoners as well as freedom from retaliation for reporting such violations.

Released in January 2017, Rojas is now part of the legal advocacy team working on the case, they are committed to making a difference for those still in prison: “Most of us are inside because of the histories of violence and abuse that we experienced and then got caught up in.  Just because we are in prison doesn’t mean that we should not have our basic human rights protected.  I do not want anyone else to go through what I did.  My fellow inmates use to tell me that I was singled out because of my gender and because I advocated for myself and others.  We have a right to stand up for ourselves and to take care of each other.”

On January 5, 2017, Isaac Medina, a transgender prisoner at CCWF, was denied access to his medication.  When he asked why he was being denied, he was then attacked violently by multiple guards.  At the time of the attack, Medina was in a wheelchair and during the incident he was also denied the accommodations he was entitled to under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).  During the course of the attack he endured physical brutality and sexually humiliating treatment, such as having his pants pulled down to his ankles throughout the attack and having his head smashed against a brick wall.  Medina, was also placed in a programming cage and not allowed to use the bathroom after the attack.  Further, he was denied medical treatment for his injuries.

According to Sara Kershnar of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, “These incidents are part of a pattern of abuse at CCWF, part of a climate of increasing violence employed by correctional officers at CCWF against transgender, gender non-conforming and queer women prisoners.  They represent a backlash against hard-won legal rights for trans people in prison, such as the right to access hormone therapy.  They reflect officer resentment about changing cultural norms regarding gender identity.  They also re-traumatize people who have suffered sexual violence and homophobia and transphobia before they were incarcerated.”

This is a moment of exploding social awareness in this country about the pervasiveness of sexual  harassment and violence by those in power against vulnerable people.  This case shines a light on predatory practices by correctional officers that target people who are marginalized within women’s prisons based upon their gender identification and sexuality.  The plaintiffs’ demand systemic policy changes in the prisons to prevent such types of abuse and prejudice in the future.




Dear CCWP Community,

2017 has been a hard year for all people who seek justice in the world.  At the same time, it has been a year when we have all pushed our limits to resist a system that is ramping up white supremacy, anti-immigrant fever, misogyny, transphobia, xenophobia and hate of all kinds. CCWP has responded by intensifying our work on behalf of people living in California’s women prisons – rejuvenating and expanding our visiting teams, pushing forward with campaign to DROP LWOP sentencing, and building a new CCWP chapter in Los Angeles.

One of CCWP’s major highlights of 2017 was our statewide retreat in September. There, we reaffirmed our collective commitment to nurture creative forms of radical sanctuary inside and outside of prison and prioritize mutual aid and grassroots advocacy.

At the retreat, we welcomed members of our new CCWP chapter based in Los Angeles, a major step forward in building our capacity across the state.  Our growing L.A. chapter reflects the tremendous amount of dedicated work that has been done with people at CIW and their loved ones over the past couple of years in response to the suicide and in-custody death crisis there.

In 2017 CCWP worked inside and outside of prisons to accomplish many things:

  • Launched the Drop LWOP campaign!  We sent thousands of signed postcards to the Governor urging him to commute LWOP sentences.  This year, he has started to grant commutations for the first time, including two women we work with, Sue Russo and Liz Stroder. Almost 30 other people at CCWF and CIW who filed petitions for commutations have now been interviewed. We also partnered with people at CIW to hold a powerful LWOP town hall inside the prison! Over 100 people participated, building strength and community for the 36 people at CIW serving LWOP
  • Pressured the California State Auditor to release a highly critical report of CDCR suicide prevention and response policies, focusing on CIW. The report confirmed everything CCWP had been saying for years – but its proposals for change didn’t go far enough.
  • Filed a lawsuit, working with Siegel & Yee law firm, against the CDCR for egregious incidents of excessive force used by correctional officers at CCWF against gender non-conforming and trans survivors of sexual trauma and violence.
  • Stepped up to support immigrant women in detention by demonstrating at the Contra Costa West County Detention Facility on International Women’s Day, offering solidarity to hunger strikers protesting horrendous conditions at Northwest and Adelanto detention centers, and supporting CCWP member Ny Nourn who was recently released on bail!
  • Began the Share the Fire reading circle with members inside and outside of women’s prisons. All members read the same materials focused on race, gender and prisons and exchange reflections about these thought provoking pieces.
  • Supported the passage of many propositions and legislative bills, including SCR 48 (the Felony Murder Rule Change); SB 394 (the Youth LWOP bill); AB 1008 (expanding Ban the Box); and SB 310 (The Name and Dignity Act for Incarcerated Trans People).
  • Initiated FireStorm, a new educational project to build international solidarity with women and trans people targeted by the U.S.-led Prison Industrial Complex around the world.
  • Continued building our visiting teams, parole support, Fired Up empowerment group in the San Francisco jail, and The Fire Inside newsletter (now in its 21st year of publication!)

All of this crucial work requires resources of many different sorts. Your donation will help us strengthen these efforts in 2018:

  • Support the salaries and stipends for our staff members.
  • Sponsor expenses for prison visits including car rentals, gas and food for the people we visit.
  • Provide stipends for the formerly incarcerated members of our Speakers’ Bureau.
  • Contribute printing and mailing costs for The Fire Inside.

We cannot do this without you, our community! Please accept an invitation to be part of this work by:

  • Becoming a monthly sustainer
  • Making a generous one-time contribution
  • Planning a legacy gift through a bequest, a living trust or a beneficiary designation


For 22 years, CCWP has been challenging the impact of state, racist and gendered violence in prisons and on the streets.  There has never been a more important time to come together to dismantle the systems that promote violence and hate and build community based on justice and love. Thank you for supporting us in these efforts!



Dear Friends and Colleagues:

We are writing to ask you to join with California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) in our statewide campaign to DROP LWOP and secure sentence commutations for all those serving Life Without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP). LWOP is an inhumane sentence which denies people the possibility to rehabilitate and change.

We are asking Governor Brown to use his executive powers to commute the almost 5,000 people serving LWOP sentences — including nearly 200 women and transgender people in CA women’s prisons — to parole-eligible sentences. Because CCWP has advocated for the civil and human rights of people in CA women’s prisons for 22 years, we focus on the impact of life without parole sentencing on the 200 people serving LWOP in women’s prisons.

Will you join us? We are looking for organizations and individuals to sign on to the letter below as a first step in expressing support for this campaign.  Please feel free to contact info@womenprisoners.org or (415) 255-7036 x 4 with any comments, questions, or concerns.

Thank you,

California Coalition for Women Prisoners

 Dear Governor Brown,

As grassroots, advocacy, and social justice organizations, we are writing to urge you to commute the sentences of all people serving Life Without Parole (LWOP) in California’s prisons to parole-eligible sentences.

Life Without Parole sentencing is increasingly being challenged and limited across the United States. We believe that life without parole is inhumane. It denies that people have the capacity to change, grow and be rehabilitated, and thus is known as “the other death penalty” by those serving it and by their families.

As you know, many states, including California, are legislating against sentencing youth to Life Without Parole.[i] Now it is time to take action to mitigate the impact for all people sentenced to die in prison due to this endless punishment. While commuting a sentence does not guarantee release from prison, it does guarantee that each person will have the right to see the parole board in their lifetime, rather than being sentenced to a “living death.”

People of color are disproportionately sentenced to LWOP, revealing prosecutorial bias and racial discrimination.[ii] Of the nearly 200 people serving LWOP in CA women’s prisons, the overwhelming majority are survivors of abuse, including intimate partner battering, childhood abuse, sexual violence and sex trafficking. [iii] Additionally, the majority are first-time “offenders,” and had no record prior to being sentenced to Life Without Parole.

All 5,000 people serving LWOP in CA prisons are subjected to institutional discrimination, such as:

  • They are barred from rehabilitation programs, including the majority of state-run self-help programs because of their sentences.
  • Though they are required to pay restitution, they are only eligible for jobs that pay the lowest hourly wage, currently only eight cents per hour. Because they are barred from access to higher wage opportunities, they often cannot pay restitution, and this economic burden falls on their families.
  • They are ineligible for Elder Parole and Compassionate Release when aging and terminally ill.

We urge you to take a bold stance against Life Without Parole sentencing and let California serve as a model for the rest of our nation. Please continue to take leadership on this issue and commute all those sentenced to LWOP to parole-eligible sentences, initiate a process to eliminate life without parole from the California penal code, and provide people sentenced to LWOP with opportunities for rehabilitation and redemption.





[i] Senate Bill 9: Fair Sentencing for Youth. http://fairsentencingforyouth.org/legislation/senate-bill-9-california-fair-sentencing-for-youth/

[ii] “Racial Disparities in Sentencing,” American Civil Liberties Union, Hearing on Reports of Racism in the Justice System of the United States, Submitted to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, 153rd Session, October 27, 2014.

[iii] Data gathered by CCWP members incarcerated at Central California Women’s Facility and California Institution for Women. This data reflects national statistics reported by the ACLU that nearly 60% of people in women’s prisons nationwide are survivors of physical or sexual abuse, and that survivors make up 94% of the population in some women’s prisons. “Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003,” American Civil Liberties Union. https://www.aclu.org/other/prison-rape-elimination-act-2003-prea?redirect=prisoners-rights-womens-rights/prison-rape-elimination-act-2003-prea




CIW June 1 Vigil Highlights

DrummingThank you to the families of #ShayleneGraves, #ErikaRocha & everyone who came out and supported our Vigil on June 1 at CIW women’s prison.

Together we honored Shaylene “Light Blue” Graves on the one-year anniversary of her death in custody, linking her preventable death to at least 15 more preventable deaths in the past 3 years at CIW. Together we continued the fight to end state-sanctioned death & abuse at CIW, demanding #CareNotCages. We connected directly with incarcerated people across the barbed wire before they were locked down, chanting “We see you, we miss you, we love you, we got you!” They cheered and chanted back “Shut down CIW!”

We thanked supporters for adding community pressure which helped our legal team visit with incarcerated people on “Suicide Watch” that same day – access routinely denied by prison staff. Special thanks to Sheri Michael Keara Robert Linda Freida Victoria Geraldine Jayda Melina Lisa Romarilyn Amber Rose Taylor Alisa Vishal Rachel Willy Nolasco Chisa Stephanie Colby Krystal Ren Elliot Emily Grace Brian James Sam Grace Daniel Michael, Moore & Alex. Thanks to our powerful drummers: Oscar, Timothy Reyes & Lawson Bush! Thanks to our coalition support: Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), Black Lives Matter – Los Angeles Black Lives Matter IE, Critical Resistance Los Angeles, Dignity and Power Now Survived and Punished & Think Outside the Cage @Photos@ Chisa Hughes.

ShayleneShine YOur light across the wallsPowerful line


CIW Vigil 2For Immediate Release – May 30, 2017


Colby Lenz, California Coalition for Women Prisoners
Sheri Graves, mother of Shaylene Graves


Psychological Torture Continues at Women’s Prison

Families, Advocates Demand End to Neglect & “Suicide Watch” Confinement

WHEN: Thursday, June 1, 2017, 7:00-8:30pm

WHERE: California Institution for Women (CIW), 16756 Chino Corona Rd, Corona, CA 92880


On June 1, 2017, advocates and families will convene a vigil and rally at the prison, California Institution for Women (CIW), marking one year since the devastating death of 27-year-old African American, Shaylene “Light Blue” Graves.  Graves was imprisoned at CIW at the time of her death and was only six weeks away from release.  For days, Graves begged guards to move her to a different cell when she felt endangered, but CIW staff ignored her.  Since 2013, at least 15 women have died at CIW as a result of multiple forms of abusive practices which amount to psychological torture.  These practices include ignoring desperate pleas for help by imprisoned people in mental health and medical crisis.  Despite changes in CIW’s top administration in 2016, reports of ongoing psychological torture at CIW continue.

Sheri Graves, mother of Shaylene, has been working with advocates at the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) to bring more attention to the human rights crisis at CIW.  “CIW staff failed to protect my daughter’s life,” she stated.  “The fact that Shaylene’s death is part of an ongoing pattern of disregard for human life at CIW makes this loss all the more devastating.  Shaylene was an exceptional person with a big heart and so much promise. She was looking forward to her release and was working on her vision to begin a non-profit organization called Out of the Blue to support people coming out of prison. In memory of Shaylene and all of the people who have lost their lives at CIW, we demand full transparency, full accountability, and an end to these torture practices.”

CIW’s suicide rate is more than 8 times the national rate for people in women’s prisons, and more than 5 times the rate for all California prisons.  “Shaylene’s death is part of a pattern of neglect and psychological torture at CIW,” said Colby Lenz, an advocate at CCWP.  “CIW uses “suicide watch” confinement as another form of solitary confinement, which has been identified as a form of psychological torture by incarcerated people, human rights experts, and legal advocates.  As part of this torture, CIW punishes people in “suicide watch” confinement with intensive isolation that blocks them from visits and calls from families and friends.  CIW also regularly fails to notify families about the status of their endangered loved ones, including blocking access to their legal and medical files even after death.  Currently, “suicide watch” is overcrowded and we continue to receive weekly reports of suicide attempts at CIW.”

Shaylene Graves died shortly after 35-year-old Erika Rocha hung herself at CIW in April 2016 after being forced in “suicide watch” solitary confinement.  “I don’t want any other family to go through what my family has gone through,” stated Rocha’s sister, Freida Rocha.  Advocates and families demand the end of all forms of psychological torture within CIW, including the end of “suicide watch” confinement practices.  As part of fulfilling the demand for transparency and accountability, the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation (CDCR) should make available public reports on compliance with the August 2016 Coleman settlement court order regarding mental health services and suicide prevention protocols.  They also demand that those in confinement have full access to visits and calls from families and friends, and the immediate transfer of all medical and legal information to family members if their imprisoned loved ones are in life-threatening situations or have died while incarcerated at CIW.



CCWP welcomes Governor Brown’s granting of 72 pardons and seven commutations on April 15, 2017 (See more information)  We are especially glad that he commuted the LWOP sentence of Kenneth Hartman who has long led the fight against LWOP as “the other death penalty,” and the LWOP sentence of Sue Russo, a survivor of domestic violence, who CCWP works with and has served almost twenty-three years at CCWF.  Our hearts go out to all the other people with LWOP sentences who were hoping for commutations at this time.  We are committed to moving forward CCWP’s campaign to win Commutations for All people with LWOP and to put an end to this cruel but far too usual sentence completely.






CCWP 2016 Highlights- Please donate today!

When I faced the hardest situation of my life, CCWP was there for me. The very day I received the tragic news of the death of my daughter, Shaylene Graves, in a California state women’s prison, CCWP reached out to me and my family. Through CCWP’s tireless efforts, my family has been given the strength to ?ght for justice and seek answers in Shaylene’s death. Through CCWP, I have been introduced to other families that share my grief and struggle. All of our families have been given a voice through CCWP’s incredible organization and dedication. – Sheri Graves

Dear CCWP Community,

SHOUT THEIR NAMES! NO MORE DEATHS! BRING OUR LOVED ONES HOME ALIVE!  These calls of grief and rage reverberated through a Town Hall in Oakland this past July and two months later at a vigil directly in front of the California Institution Women (CIW).  CCWP organized these events working closely with family members of people who have died at CIW due to overcrowding, solitary confinement, lack of mental health services and racist neglect.  After three years of insisting that the epidemic of suicide and death at CIW could not be ignored by the prison authorities or the California legislature, we finally succeeded in winning an independent investigation of CIW by the State Auditor, one step towards needed change. Our continued pressure also helped push the dysfunctional wardens at CIW and CCWF into early retirement.

We raised our demands to prison officials and the legislature through media, hearings, vigils, and town halls.  At the same time, we expanded our visits to the people inside, encouraging their courageous efforts to support each other.  We partnered with the women at CIW to respond to the traumatic impact of repeated losses.  We let family members and loved ones know that they did not have to deal with this crisis alone.  We were able to sustain this struggle against the callous disregard of the prison authorities and the lawmakers because we built community at the same time as we advocated for systemic policy changes.

Other major highlights of 2016 include:

  • A Living Chance multi-media storytelling project was included as part of a major exhibit at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. A Living Chance uses storytelling and art to educate about the injustice of Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentencing.
  • Participation in the national Survived & Punished network which helped to publicize and mobilize people to support Bresha Meadows, a young Black woman who was arrested for defending herself and her family from her father who had a long history of abusing them.
  • Participation in the Trans Advocacy Group, a collaborative of organizations working to support incarcerated transgender people in California. CCWP helps the group coordinate more consistent support for trans men held in women’s prisons, and advocates for trans women in CA prisons.
  • Participation in the SF No More Jails coalition which defeated a proposed SF county jail rebuild in December 2015.Participation in the city’s working group for alternatives to incarceration.
  • Continuation of our Fired Up! empowerment group in the SF County jail, our Spitfire Speakers’ Bureau and The Fire Inside Newsletter, now in its twenty-first year of publication.
  • Sustaining five visiting teams that provide legal advocacy and support at all the women’s state prisons on a bi-monthly basis and expanding out L.A. team to respond to the CIW crisis.

We cannot do this without you, our community!  Please donate today.

  • Support CCWP’s work in 2017 on a foundational level by becoming a monthly sustainer.
  • If you can’t commit to a monthly donation, please make a generous one-time contribution.
  • Please also consider planning a legacy gift for the future through a bequest, a living trust or a beneficiary designation.

Your contribution will support:

  • Salaries for our two dedicated part-time staff members.
  • Expenses for prison visits including car rentals, gas and food for the people we visit.
  • Stipends for the formerly incarcerated members of our Speakers’ Bureau.
  • Printing and mailing costs for The Fire Inside newsletter.

Please donate today.

In this grim political moment, we join with people across the country in preparing to resist escalating racist, sexist and economic attacks from a new ultra right-wing administration.  Heightened criminalization and imprisonment of immigrants is one of the many planned assaults that we intend to fight. Together, collectively, we will stand firm on our core principles of justice and love.
Hafsah Al-Amin & Windy Click
Program Coordinators


Shaylene GravesDear community,

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

Sample tweets:

  • #SayHerName #ShayleneGraves #BlackLivesMatter #ShutDownCIW #CareNotCages bit.ly/ShayleneGraves [Upload Image]
  • Hold CDCR responsible for #ShayleneGraves death #SayHerName #BlackLivesMatter #ShutDownCIW bit.ly/ShayleneGraves [Upload image]
  • “The prison system failed to protect her life” – #ShayleneGraves’ mom @Shaysfight #BlackLivesMatter #SayHerName [Upload image w/quote]
  • Crisis continues at CIW w/more preventable deaths #ShayleneGraves #ErikaRocha #ShutDownCIW bit.ly/InvestigateCIW [Upload image]
  • #ShayleneGraves #ErikaRocha End the dehumanization, abuse & deaths NOW #ShutDownCIW #BringOurFamilyHomeALIVE [Upload image]
  • Shaylene was planning to start an org to support ppl coming home from prison, follow @Shaysfight support her dream [Upload image]
@Shaysfight @womenprisoners


Advocates Demand Justice for Erika Rocha!


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:

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.