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Epidemic of Suicides in California Women’s Prison

by Christopher Zoukis

Suicides at the California Institution for Women (CIW) in Chino have surged to alarming levels. Six prisoners have killed themselves within the past three years, according to Krissi Khokhobashvili, spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). In the same period, she added, there were 71 suicide attempts at CIW, one of two women’s prisons in the state.

In one recent case, Bong Sook Chavez, 56, committed suicide at CIW in November 2016. The San Pedro woman, who pleaded no contest to a voluntary manslaughter charge in the fatal stabbing of her 10-year-old daughter, was serving a 12-year sentence.

At the time of her sentencing the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office said she suffered from “significant mental health issues.” In addition to being suicidal, she was depressed and had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. The San Bernardino County Coroner’s Office reported she was found in her cell with a sheet around her neck.

According to the CDCR, there was just one suicide at CIW in the six-year period between 2006 and 2013. In fact, Matthew A. Lopes, a special master appointed by U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Karlton, reported in May 2014 that CIW ran the only inpatient prison mental health program statewide that was providing proper care. Since then, however, the suicide rate at CIW has jumped to five times the state average and eight times the national average for female prisoners. Chavez’s suicide was CIW’s third during 2016 alone; another four prisoners killed themselves over an 18-month period from 2014 to 2015.

On April 14, 2016, Erika Rocha, 35, climbed onto a toilet, wrapped a bed sheet around her neck, tied it to a heating vent and stepped off. Shaylene Graves, 27, was also found dead after hanging herself in June 2016.

Rocha was serving 19-years-to-life for attempted murder; her stepmother, Linda Reza, said Rocha sought treatment for depression in prison but her requests were denied. Reza was hoping to welcome her step-daughter home if her parole hearing went well, but Rocha – who had spent time both on suicide watch and in solitary confinement – committed suicide the day before the hearing.

Graves, who was sentenced in 2008 for her role as the driver in a 24-hour series of convenience store robberies, was scheduled to be released in just six weeks. Her mother, Sheri Graves, joined a group of more than 100 people who gathered outside CIW in October 2016 to protest the poor mental healthcare and lack of supervision they believed were significant contributing factors in the suicides at the facility.

“We as families can never get timely and accurate information about what happened to our loved ones who died in custody,” Sheri said in a statement that also demanded full transparency and accountability.

“We have women dropping like flies,” CIW prisoner April Harris wrote to the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) on March 21, 2015. “I have been down almost 20 years and I have never seen anything like this. Ever.”

State prison officials have not identified a reason for the spike in suicides among female prisoners.

“Each suicide has different factors,” said CDCR spokeswoman Vicky Waters. “We don’t see any links in the suicides at this point that indicate our system is failing.”

But Lindsay M. Hayes, an expert in suicide prevention in prisons and jails who was appointed by a federal court in 2013 to monitor the CDCR’s suicide prevention protocols, reported in January 2016 that “CIW continued to be a problematic institution that exhibited numerous poor practices in the area of suicide prevention.”

“There is clearly something wrong” at CIW, said Angie Junck, supervising attorney for CCWP. “There’s a greater sense of despair there that I haven’t seen in other prisons.”

Staff shortages and lack of training on suicide prevention practices were also reportedly part of the problem.

“Staffing vacancies are a constant struggle, and turnover is a constant struggle,” noted Krista Stone-Manista, an attorney who sued California officials in 2001 over the treatment of mentally ill prisoners. “Retraining staff is a very difficult thing for [the CDCR] 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 a prisoner] to make progress and hard for staff to respond to a crisis.”

That is an especially important issue for female prisoners. According to a 2005 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics report, 73 percent of incarcerated women have a diagnosed mental health problem. And according to The Guardian, 85 to 90 percent of women sentenced to life have been physically or sexually abused. The statistics at the California Institution for Women are equally disturbing.

“At CIW, you have a group of women, at least 90 percent [of whom] have had traumatic experiences in childhood,” said Dr. Stephanie Covington, co-director of the Center for Gender and Justice. “Many have lost children, families, their physical health, their physical attractiveness.”

The United States has the dubious distinction of incarcerating nearly a third of all female prisoners in the world, according to a 2015 report by the International Centre for Prison Studies. Moreover, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the female population in U.S. prisons is growing faster than the male population.

In July 2016, both CDCR facilities that house women prisoners lost their wardens – Kimberly Hughes at CIW and Deborah “DK” Johnson at the Central California Women’s Facility. Although officially they retired, news reports indicated the changes in administration were actually forced retirements intended to address a variety of concerns at both prisons, including the suicides at CIW. [See: PLN, Dec. 2016, p.55].

Former warden Dawn Davison came out of retirement to serve as acting warden at CIW.

“She hit the ground running,” said CDCR spokesperson Krissi Khokhobashvili. “She has increased the training for staff on things like use of force and gender response strategies” – the latter to teach guards how to treat female prisoners differently from male prisoners. “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.”

Davison also met with Colby Lenz, legal advocate for the CCWP, and family members of recently-deceased CIW prisoners. While Lenz was impressed with the new warden, she remained skeptical about mental health treatment at the facility.

“You could have mental health care, but the culture of prison is so dehumanizing,” she explained. “I don’t think you can ever remedy that problem without changing the way we deal with crime and violence. But in the meantime, we want to help people survive.”

At the very least, Lenz said, that means covering the cell vents that Bong Sook Chavez – like Erika Rocha and Shaylene Graves – used to hang herself. But she also noted that CCWP had received reports from several other prisoners that Chavez repeatedly requested mental health services for weeks before she committed suicide, to no avail.

“Make no mistake,” Lenz said, “CIW is directly responsible for [her] death.”

In August 2016, California state Rep. Connie M. Leyva led a group of state lawmakers who ordered an audit into the causes of the increase in suicides at CIW. A report is expected by mid-2017, she stated, adding that she is prepared to introduce legislation to address whatever problems are uncovered.

“It is absolutely a crisis,” Leyva said. “I am very anxious to see what the audit finds so that we can get to the bottom of this and stop this.” 



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