[Pnews] Loved Ones Search for Answers in Shaylene Graves' Prison Death

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Aug 1 10:37:44 EDT 2016


  Out of the Blue: Loved Ones Search for Answers in Shaylene Graves'
  Prison Death

Victoria Law - July 31, 2016

Shaylene Graves and her mother, Sheri Graves, pose for a photo together 
at the California Institution for Women visiting room in March 2016. 
(Photo: Sheri Graves)

Wednesday, July 27, should have been the day that 27-year-old Shaylene 
Graves walked out of prison a free woman. After eight years in prison, 
Graves, known as Light Blue or simply Blue to her friends, was looking 
forward to her first meal out of prison and the welcome-home party her 
family was planning.

Her family never got to throw that party. At 6:30 am on June 1, Graves' 
mom Sheri was sitting in her car waiting for her oldest son Michael. As 
they did every weekday morning, the two were planning to drive from 
their home in Corona to Irvine where Sheri worked as a nurse and Michael 
as a barber. As she was backing the car out of the driveway, Sheri's 
cell phone rang. On the other line was an officer at the California 
Institution for Women (CIW), the prison where Shaylene was finishing her 
sentence. He told Sheri that her daughter was dead.

Michael grabbed the phone and asked how his sister had died. "He said, 
and you can quote me on this, 'We found her hanging. She hung herself,'" 
Michael told Truthout.

"You're saying my sister committed suicide a month before she was 
getting out of prison?" Michael asked. The voice on the other line 
paused before adding that Graves had had a cellmate, throwing doubt onto 
his initial statement that Graves had hung herself. He did not say 
anything more.

Graves' death is the latest to rock CIW, which is currently at 135 
percent capacity 
1,886 women in a prison designed for 1,398. Overcrowding isn't new; even 
before California completed its conversion of Valley State Prison for 
Women to a men's prison 
transferring approximately 1,000 women to two other prisons, CIW was 
operating at capacities ranging from 125 
185 percent 

CIW had one suicide 
this past April and, as of May 31, nine unsuccessful attempts. Between 
2013 and 2015, the prison had 65 suicide attempts and five suicides. 
CIW's suicide rate is five times the rate for all other California 
prisons and eight times the rate 
for women's prisons nationwide. In January 2016, Lindsay Hayes, project 
director at the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives (NCIA), 
who audited suicide prevention policies at all California prisons in 
2013 and re-audited several in 2015, noted that CIW continued to exhibit 
poor suicide prevention practices.

Even those not prone to suicidal ideation find it difficult to maintain 
hope at CIW. The overcrowding has led to a widespread inability to 
access programs, as well as delays and inadequate medical and mental 
health care. Several women at the prison have stated that the drug trade 
is thriving -- and that even those not involved are negatively impacted.

No one is sure what happened to Shaylene. Since that early morning phone 
call, her family has been searching for answers -- and coming up 

*"I'm Here for My Sister"*

That morning, after the call, Michael took his shocked mother into the 
house, then he and his younger brother L.G. drove the 15 minutes to CIW 
to find out what had happened to their older sister.

At the CIW visitors' entrance, two uniformed officers were standing on 
the walkway, seemingly in conversation. When they noticed the brothers, 
Michael said, they placed their hands on their guns. "I put my hands up 
and said, 'I'm here for my sister.'" In response, the officers, keeping 
their hands on their guns, stepped in front of the brothers. Several 
other guards joined them.

Michael asked if there was surveillance footage of Shaylene's death. He 
also asked to see his sister. The answer to both questions was, no. He 
was told that the death was under investigation and prison officials 
could not tell him anything. Frustrated, the brothers left.

They came back at noon with their mother, aunt and uncles. This time, 
the family made it through the front door. They identified themselves 
and asked to speak with the warden. In response, both Sheri and Michael 
say, prison staff called the local police. Two officers showed up -- one 
waited outside while the other remained inside the lobby as Sheri asked 
first to speak with the warden, then for the record of what had happened 
to her daughter and the prison's protocol around death in custody. 
Though CDCR's operations manual 
including its policy for when a person dies in custody, is available 
online, staff told her that it was an internal policy that could not be 
shared. No one could tell them when they would be able to retrieve 
Graves' belongings. The coroner's office told Sheri that it would mail 
her a report in six to eight months.

According to Rosie Thomas, the prison's public information officer, CDCR 
is investigating Graves' death and cannot disclose information about the 
circumstances. When asked about interactions between Graves' family and 
prison staff that morning, she wrote in an email that "such information 
cannot be disclosed to protect the integrity of the investigation" and 
would only confirm that personnel in a position of authority spoke with 
family members. According to several women at CIW, Graves' cellmate was 
initially sent to suicide watch and then to administrative segregation, 
a form of isolation, as the investigation continues.

*"She Always Had a Smile on Her Face"*

17-year-old Shaylene Graves travels to Sacramento to watch a state 
championship basketball game. (Photo: Sheri Graves)Janelle Chambers met 
Graves in 2008 while incarcerated at the Central California Women's 
Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla. Three years later, the two became 
roommates. Though they shared a cell with six other women, the two 
connected and quickly became good friends. "She always had a smile on 
her face," Chambers told Truthout. "You could be having the crappiest 
day, but as soon as you saw Blue, you felt better." As she walked 
through the prison, Graves greeted each person she passed. "She'd make 
you wanna come out of being mad. Her smile -- and her saying 'What's up? 
How you doing?' -- instantly made you feel her energy, her good vibe."

Mianta McKnight agrees. McKnight, who spent 18 years and one day in 
prison, still remembers her first day at CCWF's auto body detailing 
program. "I wanted to know everything," she told Truthout. Graves, who 
was also a student, took the time to explain each tool and make sure 
that McKnight understood how to use it. She remembers Graves singing 
along to the music played in their classroom -- and that she always 
brought a snack to share. "She was a happy person," she recalled.

Chambers was paroled in 2012. The night before her release date, she, 
Graves and a third roommate pulled their mattresses off their bunk bed 
frames and placed them on the floor for a sleepover. "We listened to 
music all night, we talked, laughed, had pillow fights," she recalled. 
The next morning, the two women walked Chambers as far as they could. 
Though she was ecstatic to leave prison, Chambers was sad to leave 
Graves. "We kept hugging while they [prison staff] repeatedly called my 
name over the loudspeaker," Chambers said. "I heard someone say, 'Who 
the heck is late to parole?'" Thinking back on that morning, Chambers 
said, "Somebody who had a friend like Blue. I didn't want to leave her 
in that ugliness."

Chambers and Graves stayed in contact for the next four years, writing 
letters and talking on the phone three to four times a week. As Graves' 
release date drew closer, they began making plans. "We talked about all 
the food she was going to eat," remembered Chambers, who lives near a 
casino and planned to bring Graves there. "She had never been anywhere 
where she could order a mixed drink," she said, noting that Graves was 
19 years old when arrested.

*"There's Nothing Like This at Chowchilla"*

Shaylene Graves' son visits her at the women's prison in Chowchilla in 
2012. (Photo: Sheri Graves)In April 2015, Graves was transferred from 
Chowchilla to CIW to be closer to her family, particularly her 76- and 
77-year-old grandparents for whom the 300-mile drive was becoming more 
difficult. "It was much easier for us to visit," Sheri told Truthout. 
"We had no idea of the conditions of the place." But once Graves arrived 
at CIW, she began describing the prison's overcrowding and associated 
high levels of drug use and mental health problems, during her 
near-daily phone calls. Though she only had one roommate, rather than 
seven, she described the prison as "out of control."

"There's so much drugs here," she told her mother more than once. 
"There's nothing like this in Chowchilla."

Chambers, who had never spent time at CIW, said that Graves described 
the prison as "drug-infested" with people owing debts for drugs and "so 
many zombie-like people, people getting ready for the next hit, fighting 
all the time because of the [drug] debts."

Between May 2015 and May 2016, CIW had 48 incidents involving a 
controlled substance 
<http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/COMPSTAT/docs/DAI/2016_05/2016_05_DAI%20Female%20Offenders.pdf>. By 
comparison, CCWF, which is at 140 percent capacity 
with 2,803 women, had 29. At CIW, 31 of the incidents involved 
methamphetamine; CCWF had less than half that number.

"Jackie," currently incarcerated at CIW, blames the overcrowding for 
what she calls "an extreme increase in the internal drug trade in the 
prison system and all the associated fights, lockdowns and increased 
restrictions." Writing from prison, she stated, "It is a generally 
impossible environment to survive in, much less access any real 
rehabilitation." In another letter, she noted that a prison 
administrator told her that CIW had 11 suicide attempts in October 2015 
alone. (CDCR records put the number at 12 
"The internal drug trade is alive and well and no one seems to be able 
to stop it. That is, in my opinion, where most of the suicide attempts 
come from -- unpaid drug debts, hopelessness and oppression."

Despite the environment, however, Graves remained hopeful. According to 
her mother, she was participating in a women's empowerment program. 
Seeing the number of women whose low self-esteem plummeted even further 
while in prison, she began making plans for Out of the Blue, an 
organization to help people upon their release. "Within the last month 
or two, she was really gung-ho about it," Sheri recalled, remembering 
the numerous times that she had had to hand the phone to her boyfriend, 
an accountant, to answer Graves' questions about starting a nonprofit 

While she never said anything to her family, in the days before her 
death, Graves told Chambers that she was having problems with her new 
roommate. "She's always trying to fight," Chambers recalled Graves 
telling her. But staff refused to move either woman.

According to Colby Lenz, a volunteer legal advocate with the California 
Coalition for Women Prisoners <http://womenprisoners.org/>(CCWP),others 
incarcerated at CIW have confirmed that Graves had repeatedly begged 
prison staff to be moved out of her cell, a practice known as a "bed 
move." Staff ignored her requests.

This is not the first time that women's complaints about cellmates have 
been ignored. In a January 2016 letter, "Misty" described approaching an 
officer and requesting that her new cellmate, who had stuck her with a 
hypodermic needle, be moved. "She had physically overstepped my 
boundaries and would not move out when I asked her to," Misty explained. 
Instead of moving Misty or her cellmate, the officer told two other 
women, one of whom was actively using drugs, that Misty had informed him 
that her cellmate had drugs in their cell, thus identifying her as a 
snitch. The women told others in the housing unit, some of whom, says 
Misty, were also involved in drug use and distribution. "I'm being faced 
with theft, violence and made-up stories to feed to the police so that I 
cannot get any assistance," Misty wrote.

In April 2016, Kathy Auclair, who lived in the same housing unit as 
Graves, attempted to commit suicide. Like Graves, she had repeatedly 
asked for a bed move. Despite having a seizure disorder, she had been 
assigned to an upper bunk. In addition, her locker in the cell was 
broken and her belongings, including photos of and letters from her 
children, had already been stolen once. Afraid of losing even more, 
Auclair could not sleep. In January, she began experiencing throbbing 
headaches and intense pain in her neck, spine and throat. By March, even 
breathing was painful. But medical staff dismissed her symptoms as 
merely a cold. As the pain worsened and her requests for a bed move were 
ignored, Auclair gave up and tried to hang herself in the shower. 
Another woman found her, loosened the noose and called for help.

Auclair was taken to an outside hospital. There, she was diagnosed with 
valley fever 
an air-borne fungal infection that, if left untreated 
can cause severe pneumonia, ruptured lung nodules and meningitis. When 
she was returned to the prison, she was placed on suicide watch, then 
medical isolation. She was allowed the hospital-prescribed medications 
but not the supplemental nutritional drink the doctors ordered because 
of her valley fever-induced weight loss. Auclair lost 18 pounds in two 
weeks until, with the help of the CCWP, she was able to access the 

On Friday, July 8, within hours of each other, two women, both in the 
same unit as Graves, attempted suicide. According to reports made to the 
CCWP, the first was taken to the hospital in an ambulance; the second 
was sent to suicide watch.

On June 30, instead of making plans to welcome her home, Graves' family 
and friends gathered for her funeral. They still don't know what 
happened, but they want answers.

"The prison system failed to protect her life," Sheri wrote two days 
after her daughter's death. "She had to forfeit her right to freedom in 
order to pay her debt to society, but wasn't supposed to lose her right 
to life and protection while incarcerated."

"CDCR needs to be held accountable," said McKnight, who is now an 
advocate with Justice Now <https://www.facebook.com/JusticeNowOrg/>, an 
Oakland organization working with people in California's women's 
prisons. "We're held accountable for the wrong that we do -- both in 
society and inside the prison. That should apply to CDCR too. Just 
because they're bigger doesn't mean they're better."

What would this accountability look like? "It would be no more 
suicides," stated McKnight. "It would be people taken care of humanely 
instead of being ignored and treated like animals." But ideally, 
reflects McKnight, who was arrested at age 17 and incarcerated until she 
was 35, "it would be a world with no prisons. People aren't meant to be 
locked in cages."

Graves' brother Michael agrees. "Why are women being put in prison and 
being treated like animals? Where'd it all come from? That's the main 

The Graves family is still grieving, but they're determined to keep 
fighting for answers -- and for change. They may be facing an uphill 
battle. "There's a pattern of CIW and CDCR withholding information from 
family members grieving their loved ones and seeking answers," stated 
Lenz, who has worked with several families whose loved ones have died in 
prison. "Family members have faced disrespect and mistreatment. Prison 
officials are generally discouraging if family members ask for medical 
records and other documentation. A lot of families have given up and 
don't believe they'll ever get answers."

But Graves' family has vowed not to give up. "I'm not stopping until no 
family has to put up with what we went through," said Michael. "I loved 
her that much and that makes it easy for me to continue to fight, even 
if I'm in pain."

Shaylene Graves, 17, walks on Monterey Beach during a family vacation. 
(Photo: Sheri Graves)

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://freedomarchives.org/pipermail/ppnews_freedomarchives.org/attachments/20160801/f1f4041e/attachment.html>

More information about the PPnews mailing list