A female inmate at a women's prison with an unusually high suicide rate reportedly killed herself earlier this month — after requesting mental health services for at least two weeks and telling one correctional officer that she was suicidal, according to advocacy group the California Coalition for Women Prisoners.
A spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation confirmed that inmate Bong Chavez died on Nov. 10 at the California Institution for Women, or CIW, but said the Riverside coroner has yet to determine the cause of death.
If Chavez did in fact commit suicide, it would be, at minimum, the second suicide at CIW this year and the seventh since the start of 2013. As L.A. Weekly reported in July, the suicide rate at CIW, the smaller of California's two female-only prisons, located east of Los Angeles in the Chino Valley, is five times the suicide rate of all California prisons and four to five times that of the national average for all female inmates in state prisons.
In addition to the six documented suicides at CIW since the start of 2013, another inmate, Shaylene Graves, died in June. The cause of her death has yet to be determined. Between 2006 and 2013, there was just one suicide at CIW, according to the Department of Corrections.
"Make no mistake, CIW is directly responsible for Ms. Chavez’s death,” Colby Lenz, an advocate at the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, said in a press release. “People are committing suicide because of the inhumane conditions at CIW, including forcing people into solitary confinement when they are the most vulnerable. Guards are indifferent to these deaths and blatantly refuse to follow CIW’s suicide-prevention policy, with no repercussions.”
Chavez had been a prisoner at CIW since 2011, after pleading no contest to voluntary manslaughter for fatally stabbing her 10-year-old daughter. Her relatively light 12-year sentence was handed down due to "significant mental health issues," a deputy district attorney told the Daily Breeze. According to the paper, "After stabbing her daughter in the neck and wrists while she slept in bed, Chavez then began stabbing herself in the neck, police said at the time of the attack."
The California Coalition for Women Prisoners claims that, according to inmates they've spoken to, Chavez had been requesting mental health services for at least two weeks before she killed herself and had told one correctional officer that she was suicidal. According to their written statement:
Rather than follow policy, guards made her sit in an office for 45 minutes to “calm down.” They then forced her to return to her cell, where she hung herself using the ceiling vent. Ms. Chavez’s cellmate screamed for help once she found her hanging.
Elaine Leeon, who witnessed her friend’s death from a cell directly across the hall, said, "We were all yelling, ‘Hurry up! Hurry up!’ It took 10 whole minutes for the guards to respond. She was just hanging there. Then they took another 8 minutes to return with scissors. The cop shop is no more than a minute away.”
When the guard returned, he did not hold Ms. Chavez’s body when he cut her down. Witnesses saw her fall from the vent and her head slam to the ground and crack open. “They let her drop like she was nothing. There was a pool of blood on the floor," said Leeon. Eventually, Ms. Chavez was taken to Correctional Treatment Crisis, where she was pronounced dead.
Erika Rocha, a 35-year-old inmate who committed suicide in April, also used a heating vent to hang herself.
"We have been making concrete demands, including [that they] cover the vents," Lenz tells L.A. Weekly. "The culture of neglect and abuse at CIW is rampant and pervasive. It will take a total overhaul, and not just a change in top leadership."
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In August, the wardens at both of California's female prisons abruptly retired, in what appeared to be a housecleaning by prison officials to address a host of concerns about both facilities. At CIW, a former warden named Dawn Davison, who'd retired in 2009, was brought back as acting warden.
"She hit the ground running," Department of Corrections spokesperson Krissi Khokhobashvili says. "She has increased the training for staff on things like use of force and gender response strategies" – meaning correctional officers are being taught how to treat female inmates differently from male inmates. "Davison has been holding town halls with inmates around the prison, as well as doing one-on-ones with inmates and staff on a regular basis. She’s not a sit-behind-her-desk warden."
The new warden met with Lenz and some family members of recently deceased CIW inmates.
"They’re making the explicit move to, quote, engage the community and meet directly," says Lenz, who was impressed that the warden wanted to meet. "It’s very different for us to be in conversation with them. But it’s rare they’ll admit to failures."