Protesters’ vigil at CIW for women who took their own lives

By Marcus Henderson

Alarmed by high suicides rates and other alleged abuses at the California Institution for Women (CIW), about 80 people gathered in front of the prison to protest and remember loved ones who took their lives while incarcerated there.

Protesters came holding signs, some shaped like coffins, and wearing T-shirts proclaiming the memory of those who lost their lives while behind bars, according to an article in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin.

The group chanted for dignity, respect and no more isolation for inmates as they walked back and forth in front of the prison.

In attendance were family and friends of Erika Rocha and Shaylene Graves, who were both reportedly found hanging in their cells. Erika Rocha, 35, was found one day before her youth parole hearing was to be held on April 14, and Graves, 27, was found on June 1.

“I’m here to let them know I didn’t forget,” said Patrice Walker, an inmate at the prison from 2002 to 2015, and a friend of Graves. “We’ve seen the neglect; so we’re out here to support them,” the Daily Bulletin reported.

“I don’t want any other family to go through what my family has gone through,” said Freida Rocha, Erica Rocha’s sister. She added that her sister sought treatment for depression but didn’t receive it. “I hope they change the way prison is run and that they will treat their inmates like they’re human.”

Freida Rocha also expressed hope that the protest would highlight the need for improved mental health care within the correctional system.

State Sen. Connie M. Leyva, D-Chino, has called upon the state auditor to look into suicides at the institution, according to the Daily Bulletin.

The California Coalition for Women Prisoners organized the Oct.1 protest. The coalition stated that from 2014 to 2016 suicide rates at the facility were eight times that of all women’s prisons in the United States and five times that of all other California prisons.

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 and Rehabilitation. Yet between 2006 and 2012, there was just one suicide at CIW, according to an L.A. Weekly article.

Alicia Thompson, Shadae Schmidt, Shaylene Graves, Jessica (Nelson) Williams, Erika Rocha, Kyla Moore

“Each suicide has different factors,” CDCR Press Secretary Vicky Waters told L.A. Weekly. “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.”

L.A. Weekly also quoted Cirese LaBerge, a former inmate at CIW. “I could walk down the yard — if you just look down at people’s wrists, you see old wounds and scars,” LaBerge said.

“My daughter’s death will not go unanswered,” vowed Sheri Graves, Shaylene Graves’ mother. “We are here to make sure the world hears their cries. Their lives matter,” she said.

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