Identity

'Death After Death': California Prison Under Scrutiny Following Rash of Suicides

The California Institution for Women is perhaps best known for housing two of the women involved in the Manson Family murders. But advocates say there's a far more appalling reason it should be notorious: its suicide rate, which is eight times the...
January 13, 2017, 3:00pm
Photo by Alejandro Moreno de Carlos via Stocksy

At a hearing last month, a California parole board delayed its decision on whether to release the state's longest-serving female prisoner after learning that she may have been a victim of abuse by Charles Manson or another person. Patricia Krenwinkel, the 69-year-old former Manson follower, was convicted of murder in 1971 and has been locked up behind bars ever since.

She and fellow Manson follower Leslie Van Houten, both of whom have been denied parole dozens of times combined, are arguably the most famous inmates at the California Institution for Women. But the crowded prison located about 40 miles east of Los Angeles is also home to nearly 2,000 other women whose names are not widely known and who have gone largely ignored while alleging inhumane conditions. Far too many of them have killed themselves while awaiting parole.

Read more: Trapped Without Hope: The Hidden Mental Health Crisis in Women's Prisons

"There's death after death, people are desperate, and the culture is just getting worse because people see that there's no response" either from prison officials or from the general public, says Colby Lenz, a legal advocate with the grassroots California Coalition for Women Prisoners. "[Prison officials] have policies of how they're supposed to respond and they just keep not doing it, so it seems to reveal a culture of just total disregard for whether these women live or die."

The San Francisco-based advocacy organization maintains close ties with current and former inmates and has spent years tracking down public records to shed light on the disproportionately high rate of suicide at this particular prison. The suicide rate at the California Institution for Women during an 18-month period in 2014 and 2015 was more than eight times the national rate for women prisoners and more than five times that of the whole state prison system, according to a 2015 report by the Associated Press. Advocates like Lenz say conditions have not gotten significantly better since then.

"We take every suicide seriously regardless of when it happened or how many have happened," Krissi Khokhobashvili, a spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections, told me. "We definitely recognize that suicides are a problem and that there is a problem at CIW and have been taking steps to address it." Those steps include implementing suicide prevention measures and data collection tools, holding regular town hall meetings between the staff and the prisoners, and increasing staff training, including teaching de-escalation techniques developed specifically for supervising women prisoners, she says.

There's death after death, people are desperate, and the culture is just getting worse because people see that there's no response.

This month, the California Institution for Women also appointed a new warden. (The former warden retired routinely; prison officials say the change is not related to the suicide epidemic.) But advocates are skeptical that the shift in leadership will bring any significant change in the way the prison addresses its mental health crisis. "The fact that they have not, in all of these deaths in two years, ever held a single prison guard or mental health worker responsible for failure to respond with their own policies," Lenz says, "seems to suggest it's a cultural problem as well."

The most recent alleged suicide death at the California Institution for Women was two months ago, when 56-year-old Bong Chavez apparently hung herself using a bed sheet tied to a ceiling vent, according to Lenz. The investigation into her death is ongoing, but Lenz faults the prison for continuing to allow the ceiling vents to be accessible by inmates—especially less than seven months after 35-year-old Erika Rocha allegedly killed herself using the same method. Rocha had spent more than half her life behind bars after being tried as an adult for an attempted murder she was convicted of at age 14.

Last September, another incarcerated woman, 27-year-old Shaylene Graves, was found dead in the same prison six weeks away from her release. The California Institution for Women has so far not recognized these three deaths as suicides; Khokhobashvili says the causes of death are still being reviewed by the coroner, though she acknowledges there were 21 total suicide attempts in the prison last year alone.

The California Institution for Women. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to outcry from the victims' families and the Coalition for Women Prisoners, the women's deaths drew headlines and began to receive the kind of attention that Lenz hopes will eventually spur a more comprehensive investigation into the prison itself. Lenz also turned to the state capital for help and found an ally in California State Senator Connie Leyva, whose district includes the California Institution for Women. In August, Leyva launched an audit to compare suicide rates across California prisons and evaluate the effectiveness and consistency of their policies for addressing mental health issues among prisoners. Her office expects to receive the results and decide how to respond by next summer.

This isn't the first time advocates have called for massive reform at the state's oldest women's prison. Throughout the 1980s, the California Institution for Women was repeatedly hit with lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and other human rights groups. Among the complaints were allegations that it had unfairly denied to provide a prisoner an abortion, failed to provide adequate gynecological care for pregnant women and new mothers, treated inmates in "tough lockup units" improperly, and discriminated against prisoners with AIDS by housing them separately under inhumane conditions, according to the LA Times.

One of the biggest indictments of the state prison system came in 2013, when the Center for Investigative Reporting found that at least 148 women were sterilized without state approval within a span of four years at two different state prisons, including the California Institution for Women. The prisoners who received the surgery said they were often pressured to do so by medical staff. The surgeons denied any wrongdoing—instead, they felt they were providing the prisoners with a service.

But the California Institution for Women didn't always have this kind of reputation. In fact, when it was founded in 1932, it looked more like a whimsical women's summer camp than the walled fortress where Krenwinkel and her fellow Manson family members would be imprisoned decades later. Known as Tehachapi and named for the mountain range where it was then located, "it was designed to be a kinder, gentler sort of prison" complete with medical and dental treatment, community workshops, flower gardens, and spacious cottages rather than tiny prison cells, according to historian Kathleen A. Cairns's 2009 book Hard Time at Tehachapi: California's First Women's Prison.

It seems to reveal a culture of just total disregard for whether these women live or die.

The state's only prison to exclusively house female inmates at the time, Tehachapi was the result of lobbying from women's groups and Progressive-era politicians who believed they could reform troubled women by offering them the chance to learn practical skills in an idyllic setting, Cairns wrote. It was often described euphemistically as a campus, a farm, or a reformatory.

"All work in the prison is volunteer—non compulsory—and each inmate is given an opportunity to do the work she likes best," the L.A.-based reporter Agness Underwood wrote in her column about the prison in 1935. "Many of them prefer garden work, many laundry, many cooking and table serving, many secretarial and some even beauty work."

But by the 1940s, all traces of that once-quaint campus had vanished. Female prisoners were transferred over from San Quentin State Prison, which housed both men and women up until complaints of sexual abuse ended the practice, and suddenly Tehachapi contained a population more than double its intended capacity. Prisoners who once enjoyed their own private rooms now shared cots and bunk beds within the same space, according to Cairns's book.

In 1952, more than 400 women were transferred to a much larger, newly constructed facility around the same time that a massive earthquake nearly leveled Tehachapi. In her book, Cairns suggests sexism could have played a part in explaining why no one dug through rubble to retrieve records, which "left a gaping hole for future generations of scholars."

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The new facility opened its doors—or rather, locked them—under the name "Frontera," which was intended to suggest new frontiers or fresh beginnings, Cairns wrote. The prison was later renamed the California Institution for Women at Corona—the city where it's currently located—but after residents objected to the use of the name, it was re-branded yet again as the California Institution for Women at Frontera, and later, shortened to simply California Institution for Women.

Today, women have become the fastest-growing segment of the prison population—their numbers have increased at almost double the rate of men since 1985, according to the ACLU—and prisons have struggled to accommodate them. The California Institution for Women is at more than 136 percent capacity, and the Central California Women's Facility is at 147 percent capacity, according to the most recent state records.

Lenz acknowledges that lack of space may play a role in the California Institution for Women's suicide epidemic, but adds that it's nearly impossible to name any one factor as the cause. "There are so many compounding issues in terms of conditions and overcrowding and harassment by guards and intimidation," Lenz says. Although the lack of attention paid to the issue has been discouraging, she says, there are small signs of progress: "We have a senator, we have more families involved—which is unfortunate, but they've been amazing advocates—and I think people in the mental health units are also becoming even more vocal about what they need."

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