Over an 18-month period from 2014 to 2015, there were four suicides and at least 20 attempted suicides at a female-only prison in San Bernardino County. There had been a total of three suicides at the California Institution for Women (CIW) in the 14 years prior. Multiple groups, including the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), are demanding that CIW and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) take action to stem the epidemic.
A recent, galvanizing case is that of Erika Rocha, a 35-year-old inmate who hanged herself on April 14. A Guardian article explores how Rocha was tried as an adult for attempted murder at age 14 and sentenced to 19 years to life. She was put in solitary confinement at 16 and held there until she turned 18, and had just come off of suicide watch when she succeeded in killing herself.
Rocha's case lies at the intersection of several issues within the justice system. Her death came at the tail end of a long line of alleged abuses by law enforcement and CIW, starting with claims of a coercive police interrogation and going through, among other things, multiple stints in solitary confinement. Truthout says:
Erika's story highlights how the criminal legal system intimidates, coerces and traps people, especially low-income youth of color. As a Latina youth, it was 43 percent more likely that Erika would be prosecuted as an adult and 40 percent more likely that she would be admitted to an adult prison compared to a white youth. As a poor youth in a foster care group home, Erika faced a much higher chance of incarceration.
Of particular note in the case of Rocha and CIW is the use of solitary confinement (generally a method of punishment) for inmates on suicide watch (a matter of mental health care). “She needed help,” Rocha’s sister Geraldine told The Guardian. “She needed somebody there for her, not to say: ‘Here, go sit in a room by yourself and maybe it will go away.’”
According to CCWP, at least one other suicide has occurred at CIW since Rocha's, and a further 22 women have been put on suicide watch. CIW's suicide rate is currently eight times that of the national rate for female prisoners and five times that of all California prisoners.
CCWP has posted a petition to the governor on Change.org, demanding that CIW be investigated. As of the time of this writing, it has 6,490 signatures—1,010 away from its goal of 7,500.