Erika Rocha's Suicide Underscores the Damage That Prison Is Wreaking on Youth

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Erika Rocha, 35, who committed suicide in her California Institution for Women jail cell on April 14, 2016. (Photo: Colby Lenz)Erika Rocha, 35, who committed suicide in her California Institution for Women jail cell on April 14, 2016. (Photo: courtesy of Colby Lenz)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.

I visited Erika in prison as a volunteer legal advocate with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. She told me about the abuses she suffered at the hands of the State of California since she was 14. With no family by her side, Erika was intimidated by police and threatened by prosecutors with a double life sentence for attempted murder. This threatened sentence was far beyond the charge, but Erika was scared and confused. Police had interrogated her with no guardian present. She waived her Miranda rights, without understanding what that meant. The district attorney aggressively prosecuted Erika, who had grossly inadequate legal representation. Under pressure, she took the blame for the older kids involved and pled to a 19-to-life sentence. When it came time for her sentencing proceedings, Erika sat in court alone. The criminal legal system is intimidating for a well-resourced adult. Imagine what it was like for Erika.

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 likely that 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…

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