[Pnews] Loved Ones Search for Answers in Shaylene Graves' Prison Death
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Aug 1 10:37:44 EDT 2016
Out of the Blue: Loved Ones Search for Answers in Shaylene Graves'
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
Graves' death is the latest to rock CIW, which is currently at 135
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
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
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
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
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
More information about the PPnews