Last updated: 8 months ago
On November 10, 2016, Bong Chavez, an incarcerated woman at the California Institution for Women (CIW), tragically died in the mental health unit where she was housed. She was 56. CIW is now responsible for six suicides in two years. Despite new leadership after the warden’s forced retirement in August 2016, CIW has repeatedly failed to follow their own mental health crisis policies and procedures. To date, no correctional officers have lost their jobs because of systematic, neglectful failures that led to six deaths. Advocates demand that CIW fire the correctional officers who failed to save Ms. Chavez’ life.
According to witnesses, Ms. Chavez requested increased mental health services for at least two weeks and reported to a correctional officer that she was suicidal the night that she died. Rather than follow policy, guards made her sit in an office for 45 minutes to “calm down.” They then forced her to return to her cell, where she hung herself using the ceiling vent. Ms. Chavez’s cellmate screamed for help once she found her hanging. Elaine Leeon, who witnessed her friend’s death from a cell directly across the hall said, "We were all yelling, ‘Hurry up! Hurry up!’ It took 10 whole minutes for the guards to respond. She was just hanging there. Then they took another 8 minutes to return with scissors. The cop shop is no more than a minute away.” When the guard returned, he did not hold Ms. Chavez’s body when he cut her down. Witnesses saw her fall from the vent and her head slam to the ground and crack open. “They let her drop like she was nothing. There was a pool of blood on the floor," said Leeon. Eventually, Ms. Chavez was taken to Correctional Treatment Crisis where she was pronounced dead.
“Make no mistake, CIW is directly responsible for Ms. Chavez’s death,” said Colby Lenz, an advocate at the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. “People are committing suicide because of the inhumane conditions at CIW, including forcing people into solitary confinement when they are the most vulnerable. Guards are indifferent to these deaths and blatantly refuse to follow CIW’s suicide prevention policy with no repercussions.”
Witnesses report that this is the second person in just over 6 months to commit suicide using the vents in these mental health unit cells. The first was 35-year-old Erika Rocha who hung herself in April 2016, after time in suicide watch solitary confinement. “We as families can never get timely and accurate information about what happened to our loved ones who died in custody,” said Sheri Graves, whose daughter Shaylene died at CIW in June 2016. “We demand full transparency and full accountability,” said Graves.