Erika Rocha was a 35-year-old Latina woman incarcerated at the California Institution for Women in Corona. She was found hanging in her cell on April 14, 2016, after 21 years of incarceration. Erika was only 14 years old when she was charged and convicted as an adult in Los Angeles County.
Erika’s story highlights how the criminal legal system intimidates, coerces and traps people, especially low-income youth of color. As a Latina youth, it was 43 percent more likely that Erika would be prosecuted as an adult and 40 percent more likelythat she would be admitted to an adult prison compared to a white youth. As a poor youth in a foster care group home, Erika faced a much higher chance of incarceration. Erika’s mom died when she was young, and she had recently learned that her dad was not dead but incarcerated.
Erika was in a mental health unit when I met her. She spoke openly about attempting suicide and about her extended time in this unit and on-and-off suicide watch. Erika suffered from dehumanizing treatment for mental health issues attributable to her incarceration as a youth. Her trauma was worsened by the isolation of incarceration, added to by further isolation in solitary (including suicide watch). Formerly incarcerated leaders of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners who supported Erika as a teenager in prison have said she sought support for her trauma since the beginning of her incarceration. Since the moment I met Erika, I worried about her ability to stay alive, because of her notable and stated vulnerability and because of the prison system’s proven ability to make her life impossible.
Erika’s death was preventable. She should have been loved, not caged.
Colby Lenz is a legal advocate with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. Colby has been working with people imprisoned in California women’s prisons for the past 14 years. This work includes survival and release support, building leadership power with currently and formerly imprisoned people, and developing community-based responses to violence that do not rely on or reinforce the prison-industrial complex. Colby organizes with the Survived And Punished project, a national organizing project to end the criminalization of survivors of sexual and domestic violence. Colby is a Ph.D. candidate in American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California where she studies criminalization, imprisonment and social movements against life and death sentencing. Colby is committed to collaborative scholarship focused on refining and strengthening social movement strategy.
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