Advocates and families of women who have allegedly undergone psychological and physical torture in prison will convene today at the California Institution for Women (CIW) in Corona to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of Shaylene “Light Blue” Graves, a 27-year-old prisoner found dead in her cell.
While prison authorities and a coroner’s report ruled the death a suicide by hanging, Graves’ body was not discovered hanging but reportedly did have abrasions on the neck. Since 2013, at least 15 women have died at the prison as a result of what the advocacy group California Coalition for Women Prisoners have claimed are a result of multiple forms of psychological torture perpetrated by prison staff against inmates. Among the complaints are ignored requests by prisoners for help, and the practice of isolating women into “suicide watch” confinement.
“There is a high rate of suicides at CIW and we have received many calls regarding ongoing medical neglect,” said Colby Lenz, spokesperson for the coalition. “I receive at least one call per week regarding an attempted suicide. We believe it is a prevalent practice at CIW of placing inmates in unsafe situations, and many of these cases go unreported by prison officials.. The facility will claim these women died as a result of suicide, but many other factors are involved which are not shared with family members.”
Sheri Graves, the mother of the deceased woman, has been working with advocates to bring more attention to what she calls a “human rights crisis” at the prison. She said the staff there has failed to protect not only her daughter, but many other prisoners who prior to their deaths had not shown any indication of mental illness or suicidal tendencies. At the time of her death, Graves was scheduled for release in the next six weeks.
“The fact that Shaylene’s death is part of an ongoing pattern of disregard for human life at CIW makes this loss all the more devastating,” Graves said. “Shaylene was an exceptional person with a big heart and so much promise. She was looking forward to her release and was working on her vision to begin a non-profit organization called Out of the Blue to support people coming out of prison. In memory of Shaylene and all of the people who have lost their lives at CIW, we demand full transparency, full accountability, and an end to these torture practices.”
Graves died shortly after the death of 35-year-old Erika Rocha who allegedly hanged herself at the prison in April 2016. Rocha was under suicide watch in solitary confinement. CIW reportedly has eight times the amount of suicides than any comparable prison facility in the nation.
The coalition is requesting that the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation make available public records on compliance with an August 2016 court order regarding mental health services and suicide prevention protocols. They also demand that those in confinement have full access to visits and calls from families and friends, and the immediate transfer of all medical and legal information to family members if their imprisoned loved ones are in life-threatening situations or have died while incarcerated at CIW.