In the California Institution for Women, women are STILL dropping like flies!

What happened to Shaylene Graves? She was “found” hanging in her cell at California Institution for Women, or CIW. Given the situation at CIW, what happened to Shaylene Graves is nothing out of the ordinary. Last July, California Department of Corrections officials “discovered” a crisis. In the previous eighteen months, four women prisoners at the California Institution for Women, or CIW, in Chino killed themselves … or were killed by willful neglect: 31-year-old Alicia Thompson, 23-year-old Margarita Murguia, 73-year-old Gui Fei Zhang, and 34-year-old Stephanie Feliz. After Feliz’s death, fellow CIW resident April Harris wrote, “We have women dropping like flies, and not one person has been questioned as to why … I have been down almost 20 years and I have never seen anything like this. Ever.” The suicide rate at CIW is only exceeded by the rates of attempted suicide and self harm. What happened to Shaylene Graves? Just another death in the hellhole California Institution for Women.

According to Victoria Law, “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.” Shaylene Graves’ mother, Sheri Graves, wrote an open letter to the public concerning her daughter. The letter ends: “I got a call, `your daughter has died in custody.’ They said she was found hanging. My son said, `Shaylene would not hang herself. The officer said, `I know.’ The prison system failed my daughter. The prison system failed her son, Artistlee. The prison system failed our family, her friends and everyone she would have blessed with her vision for her organization. Most of all, the prison system had failed to protect her life. She lost her right to freedom in order to pay her debt to society. But, she wasn’t supposed to lose her right to life and protection while incarcerated.”

Shaylene Graves was a month from being released from CIW. According to all reports, she was a vivacious, engaged, sociable, charming, funny young woman. She was preparing to leave CIW, and to start an organization to help other women in their transition out of prison. She cared about her son, her family, her community. She cared about her sister prisoners, at CIW and elsewhere. Those who knew her are shocked by her death and deeply doubtful of the initial report of suicide.

Many are shocked, but the death of Shaylene Graves did not rock the Institution, no more than the prison system failed. The prison system did far worse than fail. It refused, and in so doing killed Shaylene Graves. Whatever “facts” or “details” emerge concerning the specifics of Shaylene Graves’ last hours on earth, the facts are that if it hadn’t been her, it would have been some other woman at CIW. The numbers bear that out. There is no surprise when an institution fails to address a suicide rate eight times that of the national rate for people in women’s prisons, when “suicide prevention” in the institution is consistently rated as “problematic”, when the answer to an overcrowded suicide watch unit is to shunt the “overflow” into solitary confinement.

The California Institution for Women is overcrowded, but so are the Central California Women’s Facility and the women’s section of Folsom State Prison. The overcrowding is worse at Central California, but the women there are not dropping like flies. Shaylene Graves requested to be moved from Central California to CIW, so as to be closer to her family. And now … she’s closer to her god, and her family grieves and rages and demands answers and, even more, demands justice. So should we all. We have had enough reports asking why are so many women attempting suicide at the California Institution for Women. We have had too many “discoveries” to claim any sort of innocence. Women are dropping like flies in the California Institution for Women because pushing women to drop like flies is more convenient than treating women as full human beings, more convenient than treating prisoners as full human beings, and a whole lot more convenient than treating women prisoners at all.

Women prisoners and supporters, such as the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, long ago identified the crisis. They have continually, loudly denounced the conditions and called for a thorough overhaul, beginning with releasing most of the prisoners. Three years ago, when women in the California Institution for Women participated in California’s statewide hunger strike, they called attention to the State assault on their bodies, minds and souls. They identified a crisis, and the State looked away, and instructed all good citizens to do the same. That was three years ago. It is September 2016, and the assembly line of women prisoner deaths is not slowing down. It’s time to smash the machinery once and for all. Do it in the memory of Shaylene Graves.

 

(Image Credit: San Francisco Bay View / California Coalition for Women Prisoners)

In the California Institution for Women, women are still dropping like flies

Stephanie Feliz

We received a letter this week from someone at the California Institution for Women (CIW), which reads, in part: “I am … at CIW and I was told tonight that there were two more women who attempted suicide at CIW this past week. Three weeks ago, a woman … broke into tears because she walked into her room and her roommate was hanging from her sheets, but she was able to intervene. That is 3 more attempts in the past 3 weeks alone, and I wonder how many more attempts have occurred. The number 4 is an official tally, but attempts happen much more frequently. It is November…things don’t seem to be slowing down.”

Four months ago, California Department of Corrections officials “discovered” a crisis. In the previous eighteen months, four women prisoners at the California Institution for Women, or CIW, in Chino killed themselves … or were killed by willful neglect: 73-year-old Gui Fei Zhang, 34-year-old Stephanie Feliz, 31-year-old Alicia Thompson, and 23-year-old Margarita Murguia.

April Harris, a sister prisoner in CIW, explained Margarita Murguia’s death, “She was there for her own protection, not because she did something. Apparently her mom was dying of cancer and they refused to let her see her mom. She tried to kill herself with every denied request. She finally did it.” She finally did it. A woman hanged herself that night? No, a woman was hanged.

After Stephanie Feliz’s death, April Harris, a CIW prisoner, wrote, “We have women dropping like flies, and not one person has been questioned as to why … I have been down almost 20 years and I have never seen anything like this. Ever.” Why are so many women committing suicide in California’s women’s prisons, and in particular in the California Institution for Women? How the State count women prisoner suicide? What is California’s policy? When, if ever, does the State listen to women prisoners’ accounts of death in prison?

According to the California Department of Corrections most recent tally, from September 2014 to September 2015, at CIW, twenty women have attempted suicide and two have succeeded. Since the “great discovery” of the crisis in late July, four women have attempted suicide. Indeed, things don’t seem to be slowing down, and, apart from the usual suspects, nobody cares.

There are so many explanations for these suicides, and you know them all: mental illness, overcrowding, lack of resources, and poor staff training. The academy is as guilty as the prison house. How many times must we read a research article that begins “To date, there have been few studies of suicidal behaviour among female prisoners” before we finally understand? How often can one claim to be surprised by “Evidence shows that women prisoners are more likely to self-harm and commit suicide than male prisoners, while this is the opposite in the community” or “Alarmingly high rates of mental health problems are reported, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and a tendency to self-harm and suicide”?

Women are dropping like flies in the California Institution for Women because dropping like flies is more convenient than treating women as full human beings, more convenient than treating prisoners as full human beings, and a whole more convenient than treating women prisoners at all.

Women prisoners and supporters, such as the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, know how to count, and they have been doing so out loud. They have continually and loudly denounced the conditions and called for a thorough overhaul, beginning with releasing most of the prisoners. When women in the California Institution for Women participated in last July’s statewide hunger strike, they called attention to the State assault on their bodies, minds and souls. They identified a crisis, and the State looked away, and instructed all good citizens to do the same. It is November and the assembly line of women prisoner deaths is not slowing down. It’s time to smash the machinery once and for all.

 

(Photo Credit: Al Jazeera / California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation / AP)

In the California Institution for Women, women are dropping like flies

 

Stephanie Feliz

Last week, California Department of Corrections officials “discovered” a crisis. In the past eighteen months, four women prisoners at the California Institution for Women, or CIW, in Chino killed themselves … or were killed by willful neglect. On February 17, 2015, 73-year-old Gui Fei Zhang killed herself a day after being released from suicide watch. Weeks later, on March 6, 2015, 34-year-old Stephanie Feliz hanged herself. Feliz had attempted suicide before and had sought emergency mental health the day she died, according to sister inmates and the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. A year earlier, on February 24, 2014, 31-year-old Alicia Thompson killed herself, and a few months later, on July 30, 23-year-old Margarita Murguia hanged herself. April Harris, a sister prisoner in CIW, explained Margarita Murguia’s death, “She was there for her own protection, not because she did something. Apparently her mom was dying of cancer and they refused to let her see her mom. She tried to kill herself with every denied request. She finally did it.”

She finally did it. A woman hanged herself that night? No, a woman was hanged. When does the count of women prisoner suicide reach crisis? What is California’s policy?

After Stephanie Feliz’s death, April Harris, a CIW prisoner, wrote, “We have women dropping like flies, and not one person has been questioned as to why … I have been down almost 20 years and I have never seen anything like this. Ever.”

California has touted its California Institution for Women as a model, because once, over a year ago, it received a passing grade for its mental health care provision. But that was, or may have been, then, and this is now. Now, CIW is overcrowded. Designed for 1398 prisoners, CIW houses 1833 women. According to the California Department of Corrections, CIW is at 131.1% capacity, down from a peak, in May, of 131.7% capacity. Its suicide rate is more than eight times the national rate for women prisoners and more than five times the rate for the entire California prison system.

Mental illness “haunts” women’s prisons, nationally as well as locally. According to some estimates, 60 to 70 percent of women prisoners, against 30 percent of men prisoners, have recently experienced mental illness. Prisons report that around 30 percent of women prisoners have been diagnosed with severe mental illness, and 30 to 60 percent are living with drug addictions. One third of women prisoners “experience recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal impulses, and to have made prior suicide attempts.” How do states respond to women’s high and higher levels of complex mental illness and suicidal impulses and attempts: “Women are less likely than men to receive psychiatric treatment in correctional settings, despite their high incidence of mental illnesses.”

Women prisoners and supporters, such as the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, know these numbers in their bones, and they have not been silent. They have continually and loudly denounced the conditions and called for a thorough overhaul, beginning with releasing most of the prisoners. When the women of the California Institution for Women participated in last July’s statewide hunger strike, they called attention, with their bodies, to the State assault on their bodies, minds and souls. They identified a crisis of health care and a crisis of caring in Chino, and the State looked the other way. How many women have died in State custody and how many more will die before the `crisis’ is `resolved’?

(Photo Credit: California Department of Corrections / AP)