[Pnews] Erika Rocha's Suicide Underscores the Damage That Prison Is Wreaking on Youth

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Apr 28 15:55:14 EDT 2016


    Erika Rocha's Suicide Underscores the Damage That Prison Is Wreaking
    on Youth

28 April 2016 00:00 By Colby Lenz 

Erika Rocha was a 35-year-old Latina woman incarcerated at the 
California Institution for Women in Corona. She was found hanging in her 
cell on April 14, 2016, after 21 years of incarceration. Erika was only 
14 years old when she was charged and convicted as an adult in Los 
Angeles County.

I visited Erika in prison as a volunteer legal advocate with the 
California Coalition for Women Prisoners 
<http://womenprisoners.org/?cat=10>. She told me about the abuses she 
suffered at the hands of the State of California since she was 14. With 
no family by her side, Erika was intimidated by police and threatened by 
prosecutors with a double life sentence for attempted murder. This 
threatened sentence was far beyond the charge, but Erika was scared and 
confused. Police had interrogated her with no guardian present. She 
waived her Miranda rights, without understanding what that meant. The 
district attorney aggressively prosecuted Erika, who had grossly 
inadequate legal representation. Under pressure, she took the blame for 
the older kids involved and pled to a 19-to-life sentence. When it came 
time for her sentencing proceedings, Erika sat in court alone. The 
criminal legal system is intimidating for a well-resourced adult. 
Imagine what it was like for Erika.

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 
<http://www.campaignforyouthjustice.org/documents/Latino_Brief.pdf> that 
Erika would be prosecuted as an adult and 40 percent more likely 
<http://www.campaignforyouthjustice.org/documents/Latino_Brief.pdf> that 
she would be admitted to an adult prison compared to a white youth. As a 
poor youth in a foster care <http://kids-alliance.org/facts-stats/> 
group home, Erika faced a much higher chance of incarceration. Erika's 
mom died when she was young, and she had recently learned that her dad 
was not dead but incarcerated.

Erika was sent to a women's prison in Chowchilla at 16 years old 
<https://s3.amazonaws.com/static.nicic.gov/Library/031370.pdf>. Prison 
staff placed her in solitary confinement to "protect her" until she was 
17. At our first visit, she told me that guards said they put her in 
solitary to protect the prison because she was too young to be there. 
They put a neon sign on her cage door that read "Do Not Approach - 
Minor." This would be just one of Erika's four indefinite solitary terms.

Erika was in a mental health unit when I met her. She spoke openly about 
attempting suicide and about her extended time in this unit and 
on-and-off suicide watch. Erika suffered from dehumanizing treatment for 
mental health issues attributable to her incarceration as a youth 
Her trauma was worsened by the isolation of incarceration, added to by 
further isolation in solitary (including suicide watch). Formerly 
incarcerated leaders of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners who 
supported Erika as a teenager in prison have said she sought support for 
her trauma since the beginning of her incarceration. Since the moment I 
met Erika, I worried about her ability to stay alive, because of her 
notable and stated vulnerability and because of the prison system's 
proven ability to make her life impossible.

Erika was traumatized, but she also had a fighting spirit and a 
sweetness and a youthfulness that I will always remember. We made plans 
to fight for her release. She talked about wanting to tell the world 
what she survived. She wanted to fight for youth justice 
<http://www.youth4justice.org/>, and when she trusted me enough to start 
telling her story, she wouldn't stop talking.

This past weekend, Erika's sisters and stepmother (whom she met shortly 
before she was arrested) shared some of her writing with me from October 
1996. Erika was 15 and locked up in juvie when she wrote, "When I was 
very young people always left me. I felt that they didn't even love me 
... I care a lot about people but they don't care about me and it hurts 
me. I don't know, I'm just a confused kid just like everyone says."

Erika was more than confused -- she was neglected and abused. The child 
welfare system, the District Attorney's Office and the California 
Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation are all responsible for 
Erika's death. She took actions to end her life, but the criminal 
punishment system killed her. These institutions robbed her of any sense 
of her own future, even a day away from her youth parole hearing 

In the weeks leading up to her death, Erika was transferred to suicide 
watch at least three times. The day before her death, she was released 
from suicide watch and returned to a mental health unit. The California 
Institution for Women failed to save Erika's life the very next day.

Several of Erika's closest people are now on suicide watch. The suicide 
watch unit at the California Institution for Women is overcrowded and 
the prison has mental health crisis beds on "overflow" in the SHU 
("security housing unit"), further endangering 
people's lives. In 2015, the suicide rate at the California Institution 
for Women <http://bit.ly/SuicidesCIW> was more than eight times the 
national rate for people in women's prisons and more than five times the 
rate for people in California prisons. In January 2016, a court-ordered 
suicide prevention audit by suicide expert Lindsay Hayes concluded that 
the prison continues to be "a problematic institution" with "poor 
practices" that fail to prevent suicides.

This week the California Coalition for Women Prisoners launched a 
petition <http://bit.ly/InvestigateCIW> demanding an end to the epidemic 
of deaths and attempted suicides at the California Institution for 
Women. Impacted by the trauma of incarceration, people are speaking out 
and demanding an end to incarceration as a cause of death. In honor of 
Erika, the California Coalition for Women Prisoners also seeks support 
for the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act 
<http://www.safetyandrehabilitation.com> to eliminate the power of 
prosecutors to directly file youth under the age of 18 into adult court. 
We also support legislation <http://womenprisoners.org/?cat=10> to limit 
solitary confinement for youth and to ensure that youth cannot waive 
their Miranda rights. Since we helped start it, California should end 
the war on youth, with its race-, class- and gender-targeted mass 

Erika's death was preventable. She should have been loved, not caged.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission 
<mailto:editor at truthout.org>.

    Colby Lenz <http://www.truth-out.org/author/itemlist/user/52173>

Colby Lenz is a legal advocate with the California Coalition for Women 
Prisoners. Colby has been working with people imprisoned in California 
women's prisons for the past 14 years. This work includes survival and 
release support, building leadership power with currently and formerly 
imprisoned people, and developing community-based responses to violence 
that do not rely on or reinforce the prison-industrial complex. Colby 
organizes with the Survived And Punished project, a national organizing 
project to end the criminalization of survivors of sexual and domestic 
violence. Colby is a Ph.D. candidate in American studies and ethnicity 
at the University of Southern California where she studies 
criminalization, imprisonment and social movements against life and 
death sentencing. Colby is committed to collaborative scholarship 
focused on refining and strengthening social movement strategy.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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