Why Are So Many Inmates Attempting Suicide at the California Institution for Women?
Illustration by Chris Whetzel
Erika Rocha spent her 35th birthday — her last birthday — at California Institution for Women (CIW), the smaller of the state's two female-only prisons. In the yard of the Chino Valley facility, about an hour east of downtown L.A., her friends threw her a Tinker Bell party.
"For two weeks Erika was asking what kind of party she was having," one of her friends, nicknamed Grumpy, would later write in a booklet distributed at Rocha's memorial service. "Everyone kept telling her, 'You're just having a private little dinner with your honey.' She came up to [another friend] Dreamer and was all, 'I know you can't hold water, so what are you guys doing for my B-Day?' [Dreamer] can't keep those kinds of secrets so [she] just smiled and was like, 'You're having a little dinner like you wanted.'"
At the age of 14, Rocha had been arrested for her involvement in the nonfatal shooting of her foster mother (there were two other minors involved; it's not clear who pulled the trigger). Tried as an adult, Rocha pled guilty to attempted murder and was sentenced to 19 years to life.
"Our friend Joey made her a Tinker Bell dress," Grumpy wrote. "Miriam made Erika some really nice wings. She also made wings for everyone that was invited. ... There was menudo, tacos, nachos and pasta salad. An hour before the party started we all went to Erika's room with her dress. ... She was so excited. I've never seen her this happy before."
Rocha spent her first year in prison, at the age of 16, in solitary confinement, ostensibly for her own protection. A sign on her cell door read, "Minor, Do Not Approach." At 17, she entered general population at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, in the heart of the Central Valley. She was transferred to CIW in 2011.
"When it was time to start, everyone had their wings on waiting out back for Erika. When Erika came out with her wand and dress she had the biggest smile. It was awesome! She came right up to me and gave me a huge hug and whispered, 'Thank you, Grumpy. I've never had a big party.'"
This year, after 22 years of incarceration, Rocha finally was close to coming home. That's what she told her stepmom, Linda Reza (who'd been trying to get custody of Rocha at the time of the shooting), on the phone in early April, a few weeks before she was scheduled to appear before the parole board.
"She was all excited," Reza recalls. "She said, 'Yeah Mom, I'm coming home. I just want to get this over and done with.'"
Linda Reza says of her stepdaughter: “I don’t understand. [She’d] just called me and said she’s coming home.”
On April 14, Rocha's body was discovered hanging in her 10-by-15-foot cell, in the psych ward at CIW, the noose around her neck fashioned from a bedsheet and tied around a heating vent. There was no suicide note.
Rocha's parole hearing had been scheduled for the next day.
"I don't understand," Reza says. "She just called me two weeks ago and said she's coming home. It doesn't make sense. It doesn't make sense at all."
Stories like Rocha's have become far too common at California Institution for Women, which has seen a surge in suicides and suicide attempts in the last few years. Six women have killed themselves at the prison since the start of 2013, and there have been 73 suicide attempts, according to the California Department of Corrections. Prisoner-rights advocates say the number of attempts is likely higher. Between 2006 and 2013, there was just one suicide at CIW, according to a Department of Corrections spokesperson.
The suicide rate at CIW, as reported by the Department of Corrections, is five times the state average, and four to five times the national average for all female inmates in state prisons.
"I've known a number of people who attempted suicide at CIW," says Cirese LaBerge, a former inmate at the prison. "I could walk down the yard — if you just look down at people's wrists, you see old wounds and scars."
State prison officials have not identified a reason for the increase in suicides and suicide attempts at CIW.
"Each suicide has different factors," says California Department of Corrections spokeswoman Vicky Waters. "We don't see any links in the suicides at this point that indicate our system is failing. But we do recognize we have challenges, and we do need to look at things closer."
Numerous lawyers, advocates and former and current inmates describe CIW as an institution lost in hopelessness.
"There is clearly something wrong," says Angie Junck, supervising attorney for the California Coalition of Women Prisoners. "There's a greater sense of despair there that I haven't seen in other prisons."
Mara Plasencia is a current inmate at CIW; she too made the move from Valley State, where she knew Rocha.
"I don't know what happened to her down here," Plasencia says. "People, they were different up north. Not so quick to run to drugs. A lot of people are lost down here, and I don't know why. People changed. I don't know what it is about here."
In a letter to the California Coalition for Women Prisoners dated March 21, 2015, April Harris, a CIW inmate, wrote: "We have women dropping like flies. ... I have been down almost 20 years and I have never seen anything like this. Ever."
There were two suicides at the prison in 2015 and at least 23 suicide attempts.
A month after writing the letter, Harris sent another: "I went to borrow scissors from the [guards] last week, and I was told that they don't lend out scissors anymore because they have special industrial scissors now for cutting down bodies. He showed them to me. That's how normal it is."
According to Krista Stone-Manista, an attorney with the law firm that sued the state in 2001 over its treatment of the mentally ill in prison: "There's a term used by mental health professionals called suicide contagion. You see this in high schools and small towns and prisons, that suicides can very often come in clusters."
In 2013, a federal judge appointed Lindsay M. Hayes, an expert in suicide prevention in jails, prisons and juvenile facilities, to monitor the Department of Corrections' suicide-prevention practices. In an audit, published the next year, Hayes wrote, "Perhaps the most surprising finding from this audit was how strikingly obvious many of the deficiencies in suicide-prevention practices were."
Hayes called CIW "a problematic institution that exhibited numerous poor practices in the area of suicide prevention." In a follow-up audit published in January of this year, his assessment was much the same.
Gui Fei Zhang, a 73-year-old Chinese inmate at CIW, was sentenced in 2005 to 15 years to life for killing her 84-year-old father-in-law a year after she'd moved to the United States. After the killing, she slit her wrist. She was found by her husband, and she later pled guilty to second-degree murder.
Zhang spoke little English and had little interaction with CIW inmates or staff. She had numerous medical problems, including diabetes and chronic pain. Her cellmate would later tell an interviewer for the Hayes audit that Zhang "had been crying periodically during the last few weeks of her life and suggested that she had simply given up any hope that her chronic pain would lessen." (Hayes' reports don't use inmates' names, but they do use ages and dates of suicides, which can be cross-checked with autopsy reports and other records to determine which inmate he's writing about.)
On Feb. 15, according to the report, "Nursing staff began to believe that 'something else was going on' and initiated a mental health referral." Two days later, before she had a chance to see a mental health clinician, Zhang hanged herself, using as a noose three white shoelaces tied together.
At CIW, if an inmate requests mental health services, it's at the correctional officer's discretion whether the inmate gets help. Often officers suspect inmates of manipulating or lying.
The 2014 Hayes audit cites one case where "staff at CIW was split into two camps — those that believed that the inmate was crippled by severe personality pathology that included some psychotic features (implanted chip, [auditory hallucinations]), and others who focused instead on her blatant manipulations (pressuring other inmates to clean her cell or rub her back) and label her symptom complaints as malingering. Staff splits like those seen in this case can have a deleterious effect on clinical care."
Inmates who request mental health care — but don't go so far as to say that they want to kill themselves — often wait a week or two before seeing a professional. There is a shortage of beds for inpatient care and a shortage of psychologists and social workers.
"Staffing vacancies are a constant struggle, and turnover is a constant struggle," Stone-Manista says. "Retaining staff is a very difficult thing for [the Department of Corrections] to do. Even if someone has a psychiatrist they like this year, odds are that person won't be there next year. It's hard for them to develop stable relationships with clinicians, which means it's hard [for an inmate] to make progress and hard for staff to respond to a crisis."
Stephanie Feliz's life before prison was harrowing — and in many ways typical for a woman who ends up at CIW. Her first psychiatric hospitalization was at age 13. According to the Hayes report, she came from a "dysfunctional family environment that included both physical and sexual abuse, as well as substance abuse." She married, twice, and gave birth to five children. One of these children committed suicide in 2011, while Feliz was in prison. She had been sentenced in 2008 to eight years for petty theft, burglary, forgery and other charges. In 2015, her second husband filed for divorce and moved out of state with their remaining children.
"At CIW, you have a group of women, at least 90 percent [of whom] have had traumatic experiences in childhood," says Dr. Stephanie Covington, co-director of the Center for Gender and Justice. "Many have lost children, families, their physical health, their physical attractiveness."
Before she entered prison, according to the Hayes report, Feliz had tried to kill herself at least five different times, once by overdose, once by shooting herself and once by hanging. When she was incarcerated in 2008, Feliz was diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder and "polysubstance dependence." In July 2014, according to the Hayes report, Feliz tried to kill herself by overdosing on heroin, methamphetamine and a psychotropic medication she'd been hoarding.
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Yet Feliz was only intermittently listed as a high suicide risk. As Hayes would later write, "Multiple clinicians fail[ed] to identify warning signs and risk factors."
Feliz saw a mental health clinician on March 5. According to her progress report, she said, "I feel exhausted, I've hardly slept since I've been back from court. Plus, I've been more depressed." She denied any suicidal ideation.
She returned to her cell, where she was alone; her roommate had moved out the day before. The next day, Feliz was found dead, hanging from the light fixture by a sheet in her cell.
In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in a 5-to-4 decision, that California was in violation of the Eighth Amendment — that its prison system constituted cruel and unusual punishment by virtue of being grossly overcrowded. The court ordered California to cut its prison population by nearly 40,000 inmates, mandating that the entire system could only be at 137.5 percent of design capacity.
The case, 20 years in the making, originated with a lawsuit over the state's treatment of mentally ill prisoners. In his dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia predicted that most of the prisoners released by California "will not be prisoners with medical conditions or severe mental illness." He was right.
"The prison population has decreased dramatically in the last few years," Stone-Manista says. "But the numbers of people with serious mental illness in prison have not. So the ratio of people with serious mental illness is growing and growing."
The push to alleviate overcrowding sent shockwaves through the prison system. Valley State Prison, a women's prison in Chowchilla, was converted into a men's prison in 2013. Some of the women were sent across the street to Central California Women's Facility. The others — including Erika Rocha and Mara Plasencia — were sent down south to CIW.
For Rocha, the move should have been a godsend. Valley State was in the middle of nowhere. CIW was a short drive from Rocha's family, meaning they could visit her every weekend.
When her stepmother visited her, Rocha seemed happier. "To be with us was her escape from being in prison," Reza says. But something wasn't right: "She said she was going through some stuff, she was in the psych ward, in and out of suicide watch."
Erika Rocha’s stepmother, Linda Reza, center, holding Erika’s ashes, is flanked by Erika’s sisters Geraldine Rocha, left, and Freida Rocha.
Some of the differences between the two prisons were basic. Cells at Valley State, called dorms, held eight women on four bunk beds; each dorm had its own bathroom and own shower. At CIW, two inmates share a smaller cell with a toilet and no shower. At CIW, there is simply more opportunity for an inmate to be alone.
Inmates also say drugs are cheaper and more readily available at CIW.
"There was more drugs and contraband inside of CIW, even though it's much smaller, than I ever saw at the larger prison," says former CIW inmate LaBerge. "It was scary the amount of drugs I saw in that facility."
According to CompStat, there have been 30 inmate incidents involving methamphetamine at CIW in the last 13 months, compared with 14 at Central California Women's Facility, which has 1,000 more inmates than CIW's 1,843.
"People are bad here," Plasencia says. "They're on that methamphetamine. They can't think straight. I just talked to somebody, she said, 'Drugs don't make me want to kill myself. But methamphetamine changes you.'"
Plasencia recalls that on April 21, a week after Rocha's suicide, she was in the shower when she looked down and saw a pair of feet flapping. Plasencia thought another inmate was having a seizure. She says she quickly wrapped herself in a towel, rushed to the next stall and saw the woman, Kathy Auclair, with a noose around her neck.
"A cop was already there, but it was so quiet," Plasencia says. "I was like in a trance. I turned the water off. I loosened the noose around her neck. It was really tight. Everything happened so fast. The girl was purple.
"Then the cops came. She was getting oxygen to her. She stopped convulsing. I remember a sergeant saying, 'All this for a bed move?'"
According to Plasencia, Auclair's roommate had been bullying her and stealing her things. Auclair had asked correctional officers for a bed move, according to Colby Lenz, a legal advocate with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. The request wasn't taken seriously. At one point, according to Lenz, Auclair was made to spend the night in a cage in the program office, which is typically used to temporarily detain a prisoner and doesn't have a bed.
A correctional officer even told Auclair's roommate about the request, Plasencia says. "It creates conflict, animosity," she says. "They like it. It's entertainment to them."
On June 1, another inmate, Shaylene Graves, turned up dead. Exact details of her death aren't clear; autopsies in San Bernardino County take up to six months to be completed. According to Lenz, Graves — like Auclair — had been asking for a bed move.
"Shaylene was asking for help," Lenz says. "They said, 'Just wait, you're fine.' The last time, [Shaylene] said, 'If you don't move me, I'm not gonna make it.'"
Plasencia says that honoring requests for bed moves "would eliminate a lot of problems."
"Kathy Auclair, they said she cried out for help," she says. "She told everyone she was gonna kill herself. She wanted a bed move. They made her sleep in the cage."
Nearly a third of all female prisoners in the world are incarcerated in the United States, according to a 2014 report by the International Center for Prison Studies. And according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the female population in U.S. prisons is growing at a faster rate than the male population.
When CIW first opened 65 years ago, the 400 or so women there wore Sunday dresses, were referred to as "residents" and walked freely through a campuslike setting. Times have changed, and prisons have become fortresses. Seen from the outside (L.A. Weekly's requests to tour CIW were denied, citing scheduling conflicts, despite the requests being made months in advance), CIW looks like any men's prison, ringed with two sets of chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, and armed guards minding tall white towers made to look like military barracks.
"Prisons worldwide are built and operated by and for men," says Joan Swart, a forensic psychologist. "Women tend to have different coping styles that may be less prone to antisocial and violent behavior but cause other difficulties."
Women are less likely to try to escape and less likely to murder or physically harm another inmate or guard, according to Swart. Studies show women prisoners are far more likely to have experienced physical and sexual abuse growing up — meaning they're more likely to have mood disorders and personality disorders, and are more prone to depression and anxiety.
"Over the years, we've had more and more women go into prison with mental health issues," says Covington, of the Center for Gender and Justice. "And prison was never designed to treat mental health issues."
An excerpt from the memorial booklet for Erika Rocha, made by her fellow inmates
Prisoners with mental illnesses often are misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all. They'll act out, be issued rules violations and be sent to solitary confinement as punishment, where their condition worsens.
Isolation — being cut off from friends, family and especially their own children (a majority of female inmates are mothers) — has a greater impact on female prisoners than male ones, as does being placed in "administrative segregation," or solitary confinement.
"In my opinion, women struggle more dealing with segregation and isolation," Swart says, "which are reportedly used quite extensively by CIW and is definitely not the answer to mental health problems in prison."
Correctional officers often treat female inmates the same way they would a male inmate, using fear and intimidation.
"Just to have this large, looming male authority yelling, I became fearful," LaBerge says. "How am I supposed to address that? It's a secondary trauma that happens. If there's a man who yells at a woman who's [been a victim of] domestic violence, that's very terrifying."
"The guards are very disrespectful," says Jayda Rasberry, who spent six years at Valley State Prison and is now an organizer for Dignity and Power Now. "They talk about your hair, tell you, 'You ain't nothing.' They read your personal files, read your mail.
"Because they can. Because they feel like they have the power, they're in control. They dictate everything."
For years, the California Coalition of Women Prisoners has been asking California lawmakers to open an independent investigation into suicides at CIW.
"I think the problem is so deep," Lenz says. "You could have better mental health care, but the culture of prison is so dehumanizing. I don't think you can ever remedy the problem without changing the way we deal with crime and violence. But in the meantime, we want to help people survive."
Following Erika Rocha's death, which has received a small amount of media attention, their requests are gaining traction.
State senator Connie Leyva, whose district includes CIW, says she's going to call for "an audit," in August to "find out exactly what's going on." Leyva credits correctional officers with bringing the suicide rate to her attention.
"Clearly there is a problem," Leyva says. "No one seems to be able to put their finger on what's happening. We need to make sure that officers are receiving adequate training, making sure policies there are being adequately followed."
She says she's spoken to CIW's warden, Kimberly Hughes. "I want to keep our discussion private," Leyva says, "but we're moving forward."
Department of Corrections spokespeople declined L.A. Weekly's request for an interview with Hughes.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Kristina Khokhobashvili points out that CIW is the only women's prison in California with a psychiatric inpatient program. "Those inmates that require that advanced level of care, they will leave CCWF and be housed at CIW, because that facility is set up for that," Khokhobashvili says.
Inmates also are eager to point out that CIW offers self-help groups and opportunities to get an education. Plasencia, for instance, is working to get her master's degree.
"There's amazing opportunities," says former inmate LaBerge. "It's just kind of self-generated. If you're not motivated, you probably won't find them."
Junck, of the California Coalition of Women Prisoners, has been visiting a 39-year-old woman at CIW who's been incarcerated since she was 15.
"This is all she's ever known," Junck says. At one point, the woman had gone years without seeing a child. "She said, 'I don't even know what a child looks like.'"
Junck says the woman's deterioration haunts her.
"She was a dancer. She had so much life to her. I saw her recently. She's gained 100 pounds, she's depressed, she won't get out of bed. She's on suicide watch."
Rocha's death, according to Junck, has accelerated the woman's worsening condition.
"She was friends with Erika," Junck says. "She should be having her [parole] hearing now. She could care less about that hearing, because she's so depressed."
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