Keiana Aldrich has struggled to keep herself alive inside the California Institution for Women for months, anxious about the coronavirus, scared of retaliation for reporting alleged sexual abuse and fighting the urge to kill herself.
“Being locked in a room 24 hours a day except to shower sucks,” Aldrich wrote in an August email from the Riverside County prison. She has too much time to think, she said, “and it makes me go crazy.”
Last week, after being cut off from communication with the outside world for weeks, Aldrich, 25, reportedly slashed her wrists and neck with razor blades, then swallowed two of them, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. State authorities declined to give specifics about Aldrich, citing medical privacy laws.
Though Aldrich did not die, those closest to her say the attempt on her own life, and the scant information they are able to glean from prison authorities, is another breakdown in a system that has continually failed Aldrich, first sexually abused at age 4, then imprisoned at age 17 for a crime related to her being trafficked for sex.
They petitioned Gov. Gavin Newsom for a commutation of her sentence in July, but have heard little back.
“There are so many wrongs in this case,” said Peggy Fava, Aldrich’s mentor and executive director of a nonprofit that helps sex trafficking victims. “And it continues to go wrong.”
Aldrich is one of about 30,000 inmates with mental health conditions who lawyers and advocates say are being left largely without help as prisons scramble to contain COVID-19 outbreaks.
Michael Bien, a lawyer who works on prison mental health issues but is not involved in Aldrich’s case, said that lockdowns have curtailed access to mental health treatment, leaving vulnerable inmates at greater risk. Before her suicide attempt, Aldrich said her access to a therapist had been cut back, leaving her with one five-minute session a week, with the counselor standing outside her metal cell door. She has been clear she wants her history, including her suicide attempts, made public.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in a statement that it is still providing necessary mental health treatment even at facilities with outbreaks. The agency added it understands “how vitally important it is to deliver comprehensive mental health services within our institutions at all times, but especially during these extraordinary times of heightened uncertainty.”
As the prison system rushes to free thousands of medically fragile and elderly inmates to reduce the risk of transmission, Bien is arguing in court that mental health should also be considered a risk factor for early release.
“The were problems with mental health in the prisons before COVID,” Bien said. “In the midst of the emergency, mental health concerns have been postponed.”
Fava said she believes Aldrich’s current mental health crisis is the result of oft-repeated abuse and authorities, from police to prosecutors to prison officials, who treated her as a “throwaway.”
Fava first met Aldrich when the teen was brought into Sacramento’s juvenile detention facility as a runaway at about age 13, she said. Aldrich’s mother, Tracey Aldrich, said her daughter began escaping to the streets at about age 12 after witnessing an abusive boyfriend beat her mother for years.
“It bothered her a lot,” said Tracey Aldrich. “She felt like she was helpless, so she would leave.”
Though she is no longer in an abusive relationship, the elder Aldrich said she didn’t understand her daughter’s behavior at the time and they fought. Once, Tracey Aldrich said, she broke her arm trying to stop her daughter from climbing out a window.
“I would be angry because I thought she was leaving to go have fun,” Tracey Aldrich said. “I felt hurt.”
Keiana Aldrich said her relationship with her mother hurt her, too.
“She would call me names, bitch and ho and slut, and she would tell me I am not good, like she hated me or something,” she said. She added that her mom is “trying to work on it now” and is one of the most important people in her life.
Tracey Aldrich had Keiana, her second child, when she was 18. Like Keiana, Tracey Aldrich had run away from home multiple times before she was a teen, she said. She had repeated nightmares and her parents would spank her for refusing to sleep in her room, she said, “so I would run away, run away, run away because I didn’t think my parents cared.” At 14, Tracey Aldrich was living on the streets, “eating out of garbage cans.”
She met Keiana’s father, a 35-year-old minister, after a cousin took her in when she was about 18, she said. When Keiana was 5, her father was convicted of sexually molesting her. Fava said Aldrich still has difficult memories of walking alone down the court hallway as a child on her way to testify against him.
Aldrich said that by 12, she was being sexually exploited by people she met on the streets. Fava said between the ages of 14 and 17, Aldrich was brought into juvenile hall a half dozen times for running away. Fava saw that she needed mental health intervention, but little was provided beyond Fava’s support, she said, though in intervening years, the mental health program at the facility has greatly expanded.
“I distinctly remember her hitting the door and screaming for a few days straight,” Fava said. “At that time, they thought, ‘Oh we are not going to cave in to her. She is just trying to get attention.'”
At 16, Aldrich was arrested with a 26-year-old female pimp and agreed to testify against the woman, believing that Sacramento County prosecutors would give her counseling and safe housing in exchange, she said. But that help never materialized despite testimony that led to the pimp’s conviction with a sentence of nearly nine years.
“She was treated like she did something wrong,” Tracey Aldrich said. “They didn’t offer no counseling, no nothing. Here, come testify and that’s it, that’s the last I ever heard of from those people.”
In 2012, when she was 17, Aldrich was back out on the street. A gang-related family took her in, and one of the female family members began trafficking Aldrich, she said. The woman answered an online ad to sell Aldrich to two men who wanted to make pornography.
But after meeting the men, the pimp pulled a gun and robbed them, putting one in the trunk of a car to transport him to a store where, prosecutors argued in court filings, Aldrich and her exploiter forced the man to buy goods and give them money. The incident was caught on a surveillance camera.
Aldrich was charged as an adult and, facing decades in prison for kidnapping and false imprisonment, took a plea deal that resulted in a sentence of nearly 10 years. Neither of the men who attempted to solicit her was charged.
Two years later, California began changing laws around what had been considered willful child prostitution, ending the practice of treating exploited minors as criminals. Fava and Aldrich’s lawyer say she probably wouldn’t have faced charges if the incident had happened more recently.
“You can’t arrest a minor for their own sexual exploitation today,” said Maggy Krell, a former state prosecutor who has taken Aldrich’s case pro bono. “She’s very much a victim but also a survivor.”
Aldrich said her time behind bars has also been marked by sexual exploitation. She filed complaints against three civilian staff members and one guard at the California Institute for Women who she alleges individually coerced her into sex acts or sexually molested her. One, the guard, was terminated from California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation last week after an investigation, and the case was referred to the San Bernardino County district attorney, CDCR said in a statement.
The department said it has a “zero tolerance” policy on sexual misconduct and “investigates each allegation thoroughly.”
The San Bernardino County district attorney’s office would not immediately say if it had filed charges in the case.
The three civilian staffers whom Aldrich reported for alleged abuse have all left state employment, according to the CDCR.
Krell, Aldrich’s pro bono lawyer, filed a civil suit against three of the men and CDCR officials for their handling of the incidents. In one instance detailed in the legal complaint, Aldrich claimed that a civilian supervisor brought her into a closet where he coerced her into oral sex. Afterward, Aldrich found “she had a piece of [the supervisor’s] pubic hair in her mouth,” which she put on a napkin and gave to prison investigators that day, the claim contends.
The alleged abuse has left her feeling that she is “disgusting,” she said, enough that she tried to kill herself earlier this year by ingesting pencils. Another time, she tried to hang herself.
Aldrich said she believes she has been retaliated against for making the reports, including being put in “administrative segregation,” which many describe as similar to solitary confinement, and losing her job in the prison hospital, where she was paid 45 cents an hour — money she needed to buy personal items such as tampons and shampoo.
The corrections department said in a statement it was diligent about enforcing its policies against retaliation and, like sexual abuse, finds “any instance of it completely unacceptable,” adding that such complaints are “vigorously investigated and staff are held accountable.”
Aldrich is steadfast in her determination to tell her story as she sees it. She would like to be a peer counselor when she is released, and thinks coming forward may help other women and give a purpose to the pain she feels.
“It’s terrifying and it’s draining because you don’t know what’s going to happen next to you just for opening your mouth,” Aldrich said in August. “I don’t want it to happen to any more women. … It’s my turn to get a light shed on it in prison. I want to be the one to get a light shed on it.”
A few weeks after that communication, Fava, Krell and Aldrich’s mother stopped hearing from her, and have not been able to contact her for more than two weeks, they said.
A spokesman for Newsom said the governor was unable to comment on specific requests for clemency, and has received an unusually high number of petitions since the coronavirus hit — 50 to 80 each week.
The spokesman added that “each application receives careful and individualized consideration.” In June, the governor granted 34 commutations and pardons, two forms of clemency, for people who had committed crimes, including murder and arson.
“I am just really scared for her,” Tracey Aldrich said. “I just want people to know that my daughter is not a criminal. She is a victim who made the wrong decision in her childhood, her adolescence, and was sentenced as an adult. And she is a good kid, she is. She is a sweetheart.”
Aldrich had a simpler message in one of her last conversations with a reporter before reportedly slashing her throat and ingesting the blades.
“I am a woman who has been through a lot of abuse in my life,” she said. “And I want it to stop.”