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20 Years Sees No Improvement in California Prison’s Mental Health Care; Suicide Results in $1.5 Million Settlement

by Kevin Bliss

In a wrongful death lawsuit filed by attorney Lori Rifkin on behalf of the family of Erika Rocha, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) agreed to pay $1.5 million to Rocha’s sisters, Geraldine and Freida, and her stepmother, Linda Reza.

The complaint claimed that Rocha’s death was “foreseeable and preventable” had the California Institute for Women (CIW) corrected deficiencies in mental health services already found in violation of the Constitution in a class-action case filed decades earlier.

Rocha was seven when her mother passed away, with her father still in prison. The wrongful death suit claimed that a long pattern of sexual and physical abuse began as Rocha was moved among extended family until the Department of Child Protective Services removed her from her grandfather’s home for acts of neglect and cruelty. At 14, she was placed in the International Home for Girls.

Her caseworker was trying to move her to her father’s friend and stepsisters’ mother, Reza, where she was adapting well. Yet before that could be accomplished, Rocha was arrested on February 12, 1996 for shooting the operator of the group home.

She pleaded guilty to attempted murder and was sentenced to 19 years. The CDCR was fully aware of Rocha’s mental illness when she first entered custody; she had experienced auditory hallucinations and suicidal ideation since she was a child, and attempted suicide at least eight times. She had been diagnosed with drug dependency, psychosis, anxiety, depression and other disorders, which ultimately placed her under psychiatric care at CIW.

CDCR and CIW were already under a court order in Coleman v. Wilson, a 1990 class-action suit to remediate inadequate mental health treatment in California prisons. Special attention was given to CIW, where suicides were more than eight times the national rate for women prisoners and five times the rate at all other state prisons.

Several audits over the next 20 years indicated that CIW was not adequately addressing the deficiencies found by the federal district court. Three years before Rocha’s suicide, the Coleman court issued another order finding CDCR and CIW guilty of ongoing constitutional violations.

During her stay at CIW, Rocha had attempted suicide twice and was admitted to the mental health crisis unit an additional seven times. Prior to her parole hearing scheduled on April 15, 2016, she reported feelings of anxiety and an inability to cope with her upcoming release.

Matthew Pulling, her clinician, recommended a calming Tibetan chant as treatment. She was once again placed in the crisis unit for observation, but was released the next day without any required “step down” protocol. On April 14, 2016, Rocha was found dead in her cell, hanging from a sheet. [See: PLN, July 2017, p.56].

In regard to the $1,501,500 settlement, which was reached in August 2019, Rifkin stated: “This is an acknowledgement that the system completely broke down when it came to providing the care she needed.... [They] had decades of notice that mental health treatment, especially at CIW, was below standard and they chose not to address it.” See: Rocha v. Calif. Dept. of Corr. and Rehab., U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.) Case No. 5:17-cv-00869-GW-FFM. 


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Related legal case

Rocha v. Calif. Dept. of Corr. and Rehab.