By David M. Greenwald
Los Angeles, CA – It was a unique moment for Sheri Graves. In 2016, her daughter was beaten to death by her cellmate inside the California Institution for Women in Chino. On Thursday, she got a chance to present her proposal, on Thursday, to prevent inmate partner violence to dozens of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials.
Graves, of Jurupa Valley, insisted the presentation be included in a settlement finalized with the CDCR in February after her daughter Shaylene Graves was beaten to death by her cellmate when their brief intimate relationship ended. Shaylene had just five weeks remaining on her sentence.
Attorney James DeSimone, representing Graves, told the Vanguard that there were at least 25 to 30 prison officials on the team call during her presentation.
“While there was a monetary settlement that was part of it, it was very important to Sheri,” DeSimone explained. “We put together this PowerPoint presentation… that we feel look at the root causes of this, and by looking at the root causes, how changes and protocols could be made that could have saved Shaylene’s life and hopefully could save lives and make prison less dangerous to individuals in the future.”
“It seemed like they were really honestly interested in what we presented, which was good,” Sheri Graves explained. “I felt like they understood my motivation for doing this in order to see change.”
Shaylene, who had never been in trouble before, got an eight-year prison sentence for getting involved, at age 19, in a series of robberies.
“She had about six weeks before she went home, done the whole eight years, pretty much trouble free,” her mother explained. “So they tell me that she died in prison. They told me that she committed suicide. I didn’t believe them. I went right away that very day and started to pursue some answers, and find out what’s the truth behind everything.”
The prison officials shut the doors to her and she had to get an attorney.
“Finally, when we get discovery, I find out that it wasn’t suicide, that she was killed by her cellmate, and they knew that,” Graves explained. “My biggest thing was accountability so that other families don’t have to go through this. So that was my biggest motivation, was getting to uncover the truth and to get accountability and then to make some changes.”
DeSimone noted that they had to “overcome some procedural hurdles with those motions to dismiss.”
“A couple of things really stood out,” DeSimone explained. “One was that this type of death of Shaylene Graves could have been foreshadowed by studies that were commissioned by the California Department of Corrections themselves. They had an unusually high rate of suicides in the California Institute for Women.”
He said, “At some point it was five times higher than the national average compared to comparable prison institutions. And what they found was within the prison was that women were forming relationships, even familial units within the prison. But that when things went wrong, and you had, as you do, because these women who are in prison can sometimes come from a cycle of abuse, cycle of trauma, and you’d have domestic violence starting to come in within the prison. Well, that resulted in, in women killing themselves. But nothing changed. It was just business as usual.”
DeSimone explained, “But then it became obvious to Shaylene that her cellmate was someone who had violent propensity and was basically threatening her. And Shaylene was in kind of a rock, between a rock and a high hard place, because she’s requesting ‘I need a bed change, I need out.’ And she’s getting ignored.”
DeSimone said, “It was very simple—get her out of there. It’s heartbreaking for a parent. It was heart wrenching for us to go through to see how this could have been so easily avoided.”
For Sheri this was never about the money.
DeSimone said they came to the conclusion “that by resolving the case we could actually make an impact and open up an avenue where we could have a dialogue with prison officials about what we found in our investigation to affect change. And once that became part of that, Sheri insisted presentation happened, and without the presentation, she wouldn’t have taken the money.”
The proposed “Inmate Violence Prevention Policy” includes sensible, concrete steps to lower the number of female inmates being injured or killed in the state’s prisons.
A 2017 audit commissioned by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee in response to the worrying trend of mounting suicides and suicide attempts at CDCR women’s prisons found that “domestic violence has contributed to the higher suicide rates at women’s prisons.”
In Shaylene’s case, her cellmate told prison officials the woman hanged herself and that’s what prison officials told Sheri Graves. During disclosure in preparation for the civil suit, DeSimone discovered that the CDCR investigation determined that Shaylene was killed and did not die by her own hand, yet the family was never informed of that fact until after a lawsuit was filed.
“The first part of solving a problem is to admit that you have a problem,” DeSimone said. “CDCR has ignored this problem for too long, and women are still suffering and more than a few have died because prison officials turn away from the reality of women who often have a history of domestic abuse being threatened, abused and beaten in prison relationships. If it’s a crime outside of prison, it should be taken seriously inside, as well.
“Sheri hopes this proposed Inmate Violence Prevention Policy truly results in reforming laws and systems that prevent incarcerated women from reporting abuse and being taken seriously by those who are supposed to protect them while they are in the state’s care,” DeSimone said.