The Latin American and Caribbean Women’s Health Network (LACWHN or Red de Salud in Spanish) is calling for solidarity in support of a 21-year-old Baja California (Mexico) woman sentenced to 23 years in prison for losing her baby. Red de Salud is a regional network of women’s health and rights organizations in existence since the mid-eighties.
In what Red de Salud calls “a serious case of discrimination and violence against women,” the young woman was sentenced to serve a prison sentence of 23 years for the crime of aggravated homicide (specifically, parricide) for what the accused says was a miscarriage in 2008.
This is the direct result of laws that claim to “protect life from the moment of conception,” or “personhood laws” as they are known in the United States. These laws establish rights of personhood for fertilized eggs that trump the health and rights of women.
On December 26, 2008, amendments to the Constitution of the State of Baja California were adopted to protect life from the moment of conception, similar to reforms promoted in 15 states throughout the Republic. Thanks to such acts of dogmatism and ignorance, contrary to the principle of equality and fundamental rights in general, authorities from three states so far have sought to imprison women who have made decisions with regard to their bodies, exercising their rights to equality and freedom from discrimination and their sexual and reproductive rights.
The case has inspired “an urgent national, regional and international campaign in solidarity.”
According to Red de Salud, “many organizations and individuals committed to equality and women’s citizenship are demanding that the Governor of Baja California, José Guadalupe Osuna Millán, authorize the immediate release of the woman, who was sentenced as a murderer and condemned serve a 23-year prison sentence.”
They are also urging the State Congress of Baja California and the president of this legislative body, Nancy Sánchez Arredondo, to observe and enforce regulations protecting women’s human rights, demanding that the State Government respect the separation of Church and State and ensure respect for women’s human rights.
And finally, they are calling on the Human Rights Ombudsman of Baja California protect the rights and legal status of women in that state in order to ensure the effective protection of individual rights, strictly in accordance with the Constitution.
Red is asking for signatures in support of these demands, which can be sent to the following addresses, with a subject line marked: In solidarity, Baja Calfornia.
firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com
Erika Rocha's was the first suicide of the year at Corona's California Institution for Women (CIW), which is currently at 130 percent capacity. CIW's suicide rate, however, is more than eight times the national rate for women behind bars.
On April 14, 2016, one day before her parole hearing, Erika Rocha committed suicide. The 35-year-old had spent 21 years behind bars. But what should have been a day of hope for Rocha, her family, and her friends instead became a day of mourning.
Rocha’s was the first suicide of the year to rock Corona’s California Institution for Women (CIW), which is currently at 130 percent capacity. CIW’s suicide rate, however, is more than eight times the national rate for women behind bars. The prison had four suicides and 16 attempts in 2014. In 2015, it had two suicides and 35 attempts. And in the first two months of 2016, CIW had four additional suicide attempts.
These numbers, advocates say, display the consequences of the lack of mental health resources for women in prison, some of whom have been behind bars for decades.
The need for comprehensive mental health care has long plagued California prisons. In 1990, advocates filed Coleman vs. Wilson, a class-action civil rights lawsuit alleging unconstitutional medical care by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). In 1995, a U.S. District Court ruled in Colemanthat mental health-care access in the state prisons violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment; the following year, it appointed a special master to review California’s prisons and to monitor mental health care. That special master is still monitoring CDCR’s mental health care.
In 2013, Lindsay Hayes, a suicide prevention expert, audited all of the state’s prisons for their suicide prevention plans. In 2015, he re-audited 18 of those prisons. In the report he released in January 2016, he noted that, while some prisons had made progress on the issue, “CIW continued to be a problematic institution that exhibited numerous poor practices in the area of suicide prevention.” These poor practices, Hayes wrote, included low completion of suicide risk evaluations, inadequate treatment planning, low compliance rates for annual suicide prevention training, and multiple suicides during the calendar year.
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No one will ever know what pushed Rocha over the edge. But others at CIW say that those who need mental health treatment there, both before and after their suicides, face a lack of preventive treatment, including counseling, and almost no follow-up.
Amber, who asked to be referred to by a pseudonym, noted that the prison lacks available mental health programming. She had already spent 14 years at another prison when she was transferred to CIW. There, she found that nearly every self-help and support group had a long waiting list.
In addition, mental health treatment was sparse. “I would only see mental health [staff] every 90 days, and that was only about five minutes,” she recalled in an interview with Rewire. “As time went on and I became more and more frustrated by the lack of anything to take my mind off my emptiness, I got more lonely and hopeless.” She stopped talking to her friends, stopped eating, lost interest in her appearance, and began losing weight. No one noticed these red flags. She told mental health staff that she wanted to stop taking medication. No one, she said, questioned her decision.
In July 2014, Amber and her friend Mindy (also a pseudonym) decided to end their lives together. Once they made their decision, Amber remembered feeling a sense of relief: “I was happy. I knew my misery and pain were ending. … This seemed to be the only way.” The two slit their throats, losing consciousness. But someone found them, alerted staff and they were transported to the hospital. How they were treated next, they said, didn’t make them feel any more hopeful about life.
After being released from the hospital, both women were placed in a mental health crisis bed, commonly referred to as “suicide watch” among people in prison. Amber described suicide watch as a place “where they strip you naked and put a hard gown on you, basically a life jacket. They give you a blanket made of the same material and have a bright light on with a nurse watching and recording [on paper] your every move. … You are not allowed anything for the first week. Then you can ‘earn’ a book. And maybe a muumuu gown if you are calm and cooperative. You aren’t even allowed a roll of toilet paper. When you need to use the toilet [in your cell], they hand you a tiny bit and watch you use it.”
Mindy spent 11 days in suicide watch; Amber was there for two weeks. Both were then placed in the prison’s specialty care unit, where they were able to have human interactions and access to group programming, which Amber described as 14 hours a week of coloring, watching movies, singing karaoke, and walking.
However, suicide watch is frequently full. In those cases, people are placed in an “overflow unit” in the prison’s Security Housing Unit (SHU), an isolation unit where people are locked in their cells for 23 to 24 hours each day. This kind of isolation can cause myriad mental health issues, including anxiety, panic, depression, agoraphobia, paranoia, aggression, and even neurological damage.
Krista Stone-Manista is an attorney with San Francisco-based Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld, which co-litigated the Coleman case. She is also part of the team now monitoring compliance. She notes that, when a person reports feeling suicidal, she is supposed to be moved to a mental health crisis bed. But, because there aren’t enough mental health crisis beds, California prisons utilize what’s known as “alternative housing,” which might include isolation until a bed opens up. “What we’re seeing is that people are repudiating their suicidal ideation to get out of alternative housing,” she told Rewire. That means that they don’t receive counseling or any other type of mental health treatment.
But even when they are placed on suicide watch, the special master, in his 2015 review of CIW, found that “patients were discharged from the mental health crisis bed as soon as they reported they were no longer suicidal, with little effort to determine the underlying causes of their initial reports of suicidality.”
People incarcerated at CIW report that its environment has not improved in the two years since Amber and Mindy attempted to take their lives. In March 2015, Stephanie Feliz hung herself. Mindy, who was in the mental health unit at the time, said that Feliz walked in and requested services for a mental health crisis. Despite having a history of suicide attempts and self-mutilation, Mindy said staff told her that she had already been seen the day before. According to Mindy, Felix returned to her cell, where she was found dead two hours later. This treatment is not unusual, Mindy noted, writing to Rewire in a letter that she too has requested mental health services only to encounter delays and, at times, outright dismissal.
But no matter what changes the institution makes, Stone-Manista pointed out, “There’s only so much CIW can do for someone who is chronically suicidal. They’re not a hospital.”
CDCR did not respond to queries about the numbers of suicides and suicide attempts at CIW or about its suicide prevention practices.
Rocha’s Years in Prison
When Rocha was 14 years old, she and several older teens were arrested for an accidental shooting. Rocha was charged as an adult and, without a parent or guardian present, questioned by police and, according to advocates, pressured to plead guilty by the prosecutor. She did and was sentenced to 19 years to life. Rocha was initially sent to a juvenile prison, where she spent two years. At age 16, she was transferred to the adult Valley State Prison in Chowchilla. There, prison officials placed her in solitary, ostensibly for her own protection due to her age. She stayed in isolation for one year.
Windy Click is now program coordinator for the advocacy group California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP). She was imprisoned at Valley State when Rocha arrived and met the girl shortly after she had turned 19. Rocha was looking for something positive to do and asked how to get to the prison library. While Click, then in her 30s, and Rocha never became close friends, each time Rocha was released from solitary, she sought the older woman out.
“She was a funny girl,” Click recalled in an interview with Rewire. “She liked to joke and be light-hearted.” One of the topics that Rocha frequently joked about was growing old in prison. “She’d say she would be an old lady in prison.”
Other times, however, the girl had a hard time coping with prison. “She would be very shaky, trembling almost,” Click recalled. “‘I can’t do this no more,’ she’d tell me.” During those times, Click said, Rocha would tell prison staff that she was afraid for her life and request to be placed in administrative segregation, a form of isolation commonly known as ad-seg, where she would be locked in a cell for 23 to 24 hours each day. Prison staff obliged and Rocha would be placed in isolation. When she returned to general population, Click remembered that the girl would seem better but “after a day or so, she’d be back to that shakiness.”
Click recalled one conversation in which she told Rocha, “This place isn’t the last place you’ll ever be.” But, she remembered, the younger woman couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.
It didn’t help that Rocha spent more than a decade without seeing her family, who lived nearly 300 miles in the Los Angeles area. Lacking a car, they could not make the trek to Central Valley. It was not until Rocha was moved to CIW, 15 minutes from their home, that they could visit. By then, Rocha’s father had died; her stepmother Linda Reza brought her three daughters as soon as Rocha was allowed to receive visits.
“She was still the same little kid that left us,” Reza remembered of that first visit in an interview with Rewire.
That was how Geraldine, Rocha’s half-sister, saw it as well: “She’s nine years older than me. But it was like I was the big sister.”
Rocha got along best with her teenage sister Freida, who was born after her incarceration and whom she met for the first time in the CIW visiting room. When the family visited, Reza remembered that Rocha and Freida would head to the visiting room’s play area and play on the swings. Reza recalled that, when Rocha received news of her upcoming hearing, she and Freida made plans to share a room at Reza’s house, clipping magazine pictures and envisioning how to decorate the room.
Colby Lenz, a volunteer legal advocate with CCWP, saw a different, more vulnerable side, one that Rocha did her best to keep from her family. “She was the most fragile and traumatized person I had ever met in prison,” Lenz recalled about their first meeting less than two years ago. It was only partway through the legal visit that Rocha began to open up. “She went back to [age] 14 or 15 and talked about her early years—how much time she had done in solitary, how they treated her.”
Under California’s SB 260, which passed in 2013 and went into effect in January 2014, Rocha became eligible for a youth parole hearing for youth sentenced as adults to long prison sentences. As part of the hearing process, she was given a psychiatric evaluation. But, said Lenz, no one explained to her why she was undergoing a psychiatric evaluation. The process brought her back to the police interrogations she had gone through at age 14 without a parent or guardian present. Frightened and retraumatized, Rocha not only waived her hearing, but also attempted to take her own life.
In 2015, Rocha learned she was scheduled for another youth parole hearing on April 15, 2016. In the weeks before, Reza recalled that Rocha was excited. The last time she called, Reza wasn’t able to answer her phone. The message Rocha left was hopeful. “Tell my sisters I know they’re going to kick my ass when I get home,” she said. “But that’s okay, I’ll take it.”
“In a Hopeless Place, Most Don’t Make It”
Since Rocha’s death, CCWP has reported that at least 22 people in CIW have been placed on suicide watch for attempting suicide or stating that they felt suicidal.
Mariposa, who asked to go by her stage name, is one of those 22 placed on suicide watch. She is the co-author of the one-woman play Mariposa and the Saint about her own time in solitary. She was also Rocha’s cellmate and fiancée. After Rocha was found hanging in their shared cell, Mariposa was immediately placed in suicide watch, where she was not allowed regular visits, phone calls, or mail. She was, however, allowed a legal visit with CCWP, but, advocates told Rewire, kept in a treatment cage the entire time.
Those inside the prison report that the lack of programs and activities contributes to the feeling of hopelessness. “People have way too much time to think and be in their heads,” wrote another woman at CIW to Rewire one month before Rocha’s death. “A lot of us are only hanging on by hope alone. In a hopeless place, most don’t make it.”
Krista Stone-Manista noted that CDCR is working on new policies and procedures to move people who need more care or longer-term care to inpatient care rather than keeping them inside the prisons, which are often inadequately staffed with mental health professionals. She also pointed to CDCR’s reduction of the use of solitary confinement, noting that studies have shown the damage to mental health and that suicides and suicide attempts often occur in segregation. In addition, she says, CDCR is working on how to respond to reports of suicidal thoughts before they become attempts or actual suicides.
All of these efforts are too late for Rocha. “When I get out, I want you to take me to the park,” Reza remembered her stepdaughter telling her and her sisters during one visit. “I want to play on the swings and the slide and run in the grass.”
Reza plans to honor that wish. “After her cremation, we’re going to have a reception in the park,” she said. “We’re going to put her on the swings.”
In El Salvador, Maria Teresa Rivera was convicted of aggravated homicide after experiencing an obstetrical emergency. She is scheduled to have a new day in court on May 11, when she will argue that there were judicial errors in her original trial.
In November 2011, Maria Teresa Rivera unexpectedly went into labor, giving birth in the latrine of her home. The birth was dangerous and unattended by any medical professionals; the fetus died. Like many women in El Salvador, where abortion is completely illegal, Rivera’s medical crisis led to her being charged with and convicted of aggravated homicide; she was sentenced in 2012 to 40 years in prison.
Rivera’s sentence is the most extreme of “Las 17,” a group of women who have been imprisoned after obstetrical emergencies. Now, she is scheduled to have a new day in court on May 11, when she will argue that there were judicial errors in her original trial. If the judge rules in her favor, she will be freed from prison. Advocates say that her case could influence public sentiment about other similar cases around the country.
With the support of the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto, a Salvadoran feminist organization, Rivera has been fighting her case for several years, as reported earlier in Rewire. Along with the rest of Las 17, she requested a pardon from the Salvadoran government in 2014, but her request was denied.
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“Rivera represents the maximum will of the state to criminalize women in this country,” Morena Herrera, president of the Agrupación, explained in an on-the-ground interview with Rewire. “Her sentence is the longest of any of the women with similar convictions; at 40 years, it is practically a life sentence.”
Fortunate To Be Alive
Maria Teresa Rivera, who shared her story on camera from prison in 2013, was a 28-year-old factory worker in 2011. She was living with her young son and his grandparents, her ex in-laws, in a very modest home in the outskirts of San Salvador. Rivera, the sole provider for the family, supplemented her factory work with house-cleaning in order to pay $13 a month to keep her son in a neighborhood Catholic school and purchase his asthma medication.
One night, according to court documents, Rivera said she awoke with intense thirst. But when she arose from her bed, she felt dizzy and then fainted. When she regained consciousness, she felt a strong urge to defecate and went to the latrine outside the house. As she sat in the latrine, she had intense cramping and “felt as if a little ball fell from her body.” Then she fainted and fell to the ground, where her mother-in-law found her in a pool of blood and called an ambulance to take her to the hospital. No one at the scene—family or paramedics—reported hearing any sounds of a baby, and no one realized she had given birth.
Rivera told doctors, attorneys, and others that did not know she was pregnant. She had been experiencing bleeding during the time of the pregnancy, which she interpreted as her menstrual cycle. Neither she nor any friends, relatives, or co-workers noted any physical changes that would indicate a pregnancy. She had also had two doctor visits for other complaints during those months, and no doctor had diagnosed her pregnancy. According to her own estimations, the last sexual contact she’d had that could have resulted in pregnancy had been six months earlier.
She arrived at the hospital in a severe state of shock from extreme blood loss, fortunate to still be alive. Doctors told her she had given birth and wanted to know where the baby was. Medical personnel contacted police, who went to her home to locate the deceased fetus. Rivera was detained by police at the hospital and has been imprisoned since that time.
Interrogation While Hospitalized
Multiple national and international organizations, including Amnesty International and the Center for Reproductive Rights, along with numerous medical, legal, human rights, and academic experts, have analyzed Rivera’s case in the years since her conviction. Harvard University sociologist Jocelyn Viterna and Salvadoran lawyer Jose Santos Guardado Bautista, for example, used parts of Rivera’s story and court documents in their 2014 analysis of systematic gender discrimination toward Las 17 within the judicial system.
Viterna and Bautista noted, for example, that the only witness testimony the judge considered credible was a supervisor from human resources at the factory where Rivera worked. Contrary to Rivera’s testimony, the supervisor testified that Rivera asked for time off for doctor appointments in January 2011 because she was pregnant. The judge refused to allow testimony from neighbors and friends who stated that they had never seen Rivera show any signs of pregnancy.
“Had Maria Teresa truly reported a pregnancy to her employer in January of 2011, she would have been 11 months pregnant when the birth occurred in November,” Viterna and Bautista observed. “This testimony is nothing short of preposterous. Nevertheless, this is the only witness testimony that the judge deems ‘credible’ in the final sentencing.”
According to Viterna and Bautista’s report, “The judge admitted that there was no evidence that Maria Teresa had done anything to hurt her baby. The judge also admitted that there was no evidence of any motive for why she would want to kill her baby.” However, he still convicted her of aggravated homicide.
A 2015 resolution from the Salvadoran Attorney General for Human Rights (Procuradoría Para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos or PDDH in Spanish), which provided a formal opinion on violations of Rivera’s human rights, supports Viterna and Bautista’s findings.
The PDDH resolution observed that Rivera faced a slanted system even before she got to court:
At the First of May Hospital where Rivera was taken, the criminal investigation was prioritized over her right to health. She was subjected to interrogation when she was still in Intensive Care and without legal representation. In addition, the medical personnel did not seek information about her health history; they limited themselves to examining the birth canal, carrying out the extraction of the remaining placenta, and discharging her the following day, without attending to her overall health.
Both the PDDH and Viterna-Bautista reports noted that the judge relied on shoddy, unscientific evidence to convict Rivera. According to court records, the autopsy report for the fetus said its cause of death was “perinatal asphyxia.”
“It is perhaps worth reiterating that there were no signs of trauma on the [fetus], either externally or internally. It is perhaps worth reiterating that, despite the judge’s conclusion that the [fetus] died from suffocating within the latrine, the fetal lungs were clean with no sign of fecal matter or other materials inside them. Rather, the autopsy concluded that the [fetus] died of a medical condition—perinatal asphyxiation—that could have occurred before, during, or after the birth. Clearly, there is no evidence in these documents proving homicide,” Viterna and Bautista wrote. “Perinatal asphyxiation,” they said, “is a medical condition.”
Still, the judge interpreted the autopsy report to mean that Rivera had carried out an intentional criminal act. He also ignored the portion of the autopsy report stating that the umbilical cord could have been separated by its fall into the latrine. As quoted by the PDDH resolution, he wrote:
There is no doubt that the baby was born alive and was full-term and that the detached umbilical cord was cut by the mother …. This judge does not give credibility to what the accused says when she states she did not know she was pregnant …. She knew she was pregnant and that brought with it the obligation to care for and protect this young person she carried in her womb. In this sense, the fact that she went to the latrine, she did it with the intention of violently expelling [it] so that inside the latrine there would be no opportunity to breathe and in that way cause its death and then be able to say it was a [spontaneous] abortion.”
The judge also based his conviction, the PDDH resolution said, on the results of a DNA test showing the fetus was genetically related to Rivera.
“No evidence was introduced to show that Rivera had taken any intentional action to cause the death,” the PDDH resolution concluded.
Convicted by Patriarchy
Rivera’s legal representatives will likely use many of these inconsistencies as evidence for procedural judicial error in court this week. A favorable outcome in her trial can represent a significant step forward for women’s human rights, particularly sexual and reproductive rights in El Salvador. The country’s 1997 absolute ban on abortion, along with a 1998 constitutional modification to declare that life begins at conception, created the social, cultural, and legal environment that has justified courts sending women such as Rivera to prison for documented obstetrical emergencies, not even attempted abortion. According to the global organization Ipas, more than 600 women were incarcerated between 1998 and 2013 under the abortion law.
As the PDDH resolution noted, “in El Salvador, there exists a culture of the promotion of motherhood as the only form of self-realization for women, and the creation of the binomial ‘woman-mother,’ which locates women as instinctive and not rational. This imposes upon women [duties of] sacrifice, abnegation, and the prioritization of children over their own human conditions, behaviors that are not demanded in equal proportions from men.
“Women find themselves with a social expectation to comply with the role ‘woman-mother,’ even in the health system where women should be assured of conditions free of discrimination and obstetric violence,” it continued.
Advocates and researchers have argued that this sexist framework contributed to Rivera’s conviction. As Viterna and Bautista wrote, the trial judge claimed that Rivera “‘decided to carry out her criminal plan within the area of her household, looking for a moment during which there weren’t any other persons around to carry out this homicide,’ as if a woman has complete control over when, where and how her body will give birth.”
The PDDH concluded that “the judge convicted Rivera under subjective criteria with a heavily sexist ideology,” saying that Rivera’s rights to the presumption of innocence were overruled by such an ideology, unsupported by any medical or scientific evidence.
Rivera’s case, along with that of Carmen Guadalupe Vazquez (who was one of Las 17 granted a pardon in 2015 when the Salvadoran Supreme Court recognized judicial errors in her case), is representative of a consistent pattern toward this group of women that the Agrupación has been documenting.
“Correcting these judicial errors is very important, first of all for Rivera and her young son, so that she can go free, but also for all the other women in similar circumstances. It’s also necessary for those who work for justice in this country, particularly women’s reproductive justice, to see that the work has concrete results,” Herrera said.
Herrera hopes that a positive outcome will continue to make visible this pattern of judicial error and “move other cases [of Las 17] forward more rapidly and bring greater justice to the judicial system.”
According to IThe Agrupación is currently representing more than 25 women imprisoned with similar convictions: the original 17, two of whom received pardons, and others who have entered the system more recently.
“Maria Teresa’s story illustrates the systematic ways that women’s rights are violated: the right to health, the right to privacy in one’s life, the right to doctor-patient confidentiality, along with all the judicial procedural rights such as the presumption of innocence,” Herrera said in an interview with Rewire.
“The judicial system in El Salvador is the part of the state that has changed least since the signing of the 1992 peace accords” that ended the Salvadoran civil war, Herrera said. “Not just in how it deals with women, but how little sensitivity it demonstrates overall with regard to human rights.”