Inmate killed herself one day before parole hearing. Now California will pay $1.5 million

Erika Rocha was 15 when she was accused of shooting the operator of a Southern California group home in February 1996.

She was charged with attempted murder and set to be tried as an adult when she pleaded guilty and began serving a 19-year sentence – at age 16 – inside a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation prison, spending the first two years in solitary confinement for her own protection.

On April 14, 2016, one day before she was to appear before a parole board hearing at which she was expected to be granted her freedom, Rocha hanged herself inside her cell with a bed sheet tied to an air vent.

Her death followed years of suicide attempts by the troubled young woman – court records say tried to kill herself eight times between the ages of 7 and 14 – and the corrections department eventually determined her death was “both foreseeable and preventable,” the Rocha family’s lawyer, Lori Rifkin, said Tuesday.

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Erika Rocha was 35 at the time she killed herself inside the California Institution for Women, and had spent her entire adult life in prison. Hadsell, Stormer & Renick

Rifkin says the settlement, which does not include an admission of liability by the state, is believed to be the highest payout on record involving the death of a single inmate.

“This is an acknowledgment that the system completely broke down when it came to providing the care that she needed,” said Rifkin, who has spent years fighting to improve mental health care inside California’s prisons. “The entire leadership team of CDCR from the secretary all the way down to the warden of this particular prison had decades of notice that mental health treatment, especially at CIW, was below standard and they chose not to address it.”

Corrections officials had no comment on the agreement.

The exact amount of the settlement is $1,501,500, which includes $1,500 the family wanted to pay for a swing set to be built in Las Flores Park in La Verne, her stepmother, Linda Reza, said.

“When I saw Erika at one point and she was talking about coming home, she told me, ‘Mom, on the way home when you pick me up, I don’t care where, but just somewhere along the way I want you to take me to a park and I want you to push me in the swings and roll me in the grass,’ ” Reza said.

The closest they could come to that dream was swinging with Rocha’s ashes at the park after her death, which the family blames on corrections officials.

“By doing the settlement so early in the case, before we even went through discovery and for this much money, they know they failed my sister,” said sister Geraldine Rocha. “It wasn’t really about the $1.5 million, that really doesn’t do anything for us mentally or emotionally.

“We asked for such a big number because we want the apology – that’s what we’re taking this settlement as, an apology for the disrespect that they showed to my sister.”

Rocha, who was born in Whittier in November 1980, spent her entire adult life in prison, and her childhood before that was deeply troubled.

Her mother died when she was 7. Because her father was incarcerated at the time, Rocha was sent to live with a family member who sexually abused her, according to the family’s lawsuit. As she was moved from home to home, the abuse continued until child protective services entered the picture and began placing her in a series of group homes, according to the lawsuit.

Rocha ended up in a group home Feb. 3, 1996. The next day she shot the woman running the home, Rifkin said.

This began her lifelong odyssey through California’s prison system, where she was diagnosed with a number of mental health illnesses, including antisocial personality disorder, psychotic disorder and major depressive disorder, the lawsuit says.

She was placed in a mental health crisis bed at least nine times during her years in prison, and slit her wrists twice while in custody, the lawsuit says, adding that she was “almost always” assessed as having a “high” risk for suicide.

As her parole board hearing neared, Rocha began to complain that she was becoming anxious and worried about how she would fare outside prison, the lawsuit says.

Two weeks before the parole board hearing, she complained of feeling “really paranoid” and worried about suicide. The clinician she was working with offered her a “Tibetan chant” that was to be used as “a calming tool,” the lawsuit says, adding that “this treatment plan did not meet the standard of care.”

On March 31, 2016, a CDCR psychiatrist placed Rocha under watch because she had expressed thoughts of suicide, but she was removed from suicide watch the next day without the proper five-day step-down procedure being ordered, the lawsuit says.

“Over the next two weeks, both CIW staff and other prisoners observed significant changes in Erika’s behavior,” the lawsuit says. “Erika’s CDCR medical records reflect that on the evening of April 2 Erika became upset and punched a locker with her fist.”

She began avoiding other inmates, refused her psychotropic medication and fought with her cellmate, the lawsuit says.

Rifkin noted in her lawsuit that CDCR officials knew of “significant inadequacies” in its suicide prevention efforts and that the suicide rate at CIW was “more than five times the already-elevated rate for all other California prisons.”

Up until the day Rocha died, CDCR records show she was considered “at high risk for self harm” and “impulsive,” the lawsuit says, but no changes were made in her treatment plan.

When she was found dead inside her cell on April 14, 2016, “she was already in a state of rigor mortis, indicating that she had been hanging for several hours before she was found,” the lawsuit says, adding that she had not been checked on for more than two hours in violation of prison policy.

The family says they knew nothing of the problems she was having as the parole board hearing drew near.

“She called me 12 days before and she was so excited,” Reza said. “’Mom, I finally got a parole hearing, I’m going to be coming home, they say I’ll be coming home in October.’ ”

Instead, Reza said, the next she heard of her 35-year-old stepdaughter’s fate was from a voicemail left on her phone after the suicide.

The family wanted to be certain that Rocha’s memory did not die with her, and insisted that the settlement agreement included plans for another children’s swing set, this one to be erected by CDCR inside the prison where she died.

The terms of the settlement require that a plaque be placed on or near the swing set, engraved with this message:

“In loving honor of Erika Rocha, November 7, 1980-April 14, 2016.”

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Sam Stanton has worked for The Bee since 1991 and has covered a variety of issues, including politics, criminal justice and breaking news.