At the age of 14, Rocha had been arrested for her involvement in the nonfatal shooting of her foster mother (there were two other minors involved; it's not clear who pulled the trigger). Tried as an adult, Rocha pled guilty to attempted murder and was sentenced to 19 years to life.
"Our friend Joey made her a Tinker Bell dress," Grumpy wrote. "Miriam made Erika some really nice wings. She also made wings for everyone that was invited. ... There was menudo, tacos, nachos and pasta salad. An hour before the party started we all went to Erika's room with her dress. ... She was so excited. I've never seen her this happy before."
"When it was time to start, everyone had their wings on waiting out back for Erika. When Erika came out with her wand and dress she had the biggest smile. It was awesome! She came right up to me and gave me a huge hug and whispered, 'Thank you, Grumpy. I've never had a big party.'"
This year, after 22 years of incarceration, Rocha finally was close to coming home. That's what she told her stepmom, Linda Reza (who'd been trying to get custody of Rocha at the time of the shooting), on the phone in early April, a few weeks before she was scheduled to appear before the parole board.
"She was all excited," Reza recalls. "She said, 'Yeah Mom, I'm coming home. I just want to get this over and done with.'"
On April 14, Rocha's body was discovered hanging in her 10-by-15-foot cell, in the psych ward at CIW, the noose around her neck fashioned from a bedsheet and tied around a heating vent. There was no suicide note.
Rocha's parole hearing had been scheduled for the next day.
"I don't understand," Reza says. "She just called me two weeks ago and said she's coming home. It doesn't make sense. It doesn't make sense at all."
Stories like Rocha's have become far too common at California Institution for Women, which has seen a surge in suicides and suicide attempts in the last few years. Six women have killed themselves at the prison since the start of 2013, and there have been 73 suicide attempts, according to the California Department of Corrections. Prisoner-rights advocates say the number of attempts is likely higher. Between 2006 and 2013, there was just one suicide at CIW, according to a Department of Corrections spokesperson.
The suicide rate at CIW, as reported by the Department of Corrections, is five times the state average, and four to five times the national average for all female inmates in state prisons.
"I've known a number of people who attempted suicide at CIW," says Cirese LaBerge, a former inmate at the prison. "I could walk down the yard — if you just look down at people's wrists, you see old wounds and scars."
State prison officials have not identified a reason for the increase in suicides and suicide attempts at CIW.
"Each suicide has different factors," says California Department of Corrections spokeswoman Vicky Waters. "We don't see any links in the suicides at this point that indicate our system is failing. But we do recognize we have challenges, and we do need to look at things closer."
Numerous lawyers, advocates and former and current inmates describe CIW as an institution lost in hopelessness.
Mara Plasencia is a current inmate at CIW; she too made the move from Valley State, where she knew Rocha.
"I don't know what happened to her down here," Plasencia says. "People, they were different up north. Not so quick to run to drugs. A lot of people are lost down here, and I don't know why. People changed. I don't know what it is about here."
In a letter to the California Coalition for Women Prisoners dated March 21, 2015, April Harris, a CIW inmate, wrote: "We have women dropping like flies. ... I have been down almost 20 years and I have never seen anything like this. Ever."
There were two suicides at the prison in 2015 and at least 23 suicide attempts
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