Grieving mother of slain Chino inmate gets rare audience with corrections officials

Sheri Graves, seated in her attorney’s Marina del Rey office, emotionally shared the story of her daughter’s death during a recent Zoom call. Then she matter-of-factly read from a 13-slide PowerPoint presentation about intimate-partner violence in prisons.

On the other end of the teleconference were California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials, including five wardens.

It’s the first time in his 35-year practice, her attorney V. James DeSimone said, that an inmate’s relative has had such an audience.

Shaylene Graves, 26, of Jurupa Valley had six weeks left on the robbery sentence she was serving at the California Institution for Women in Chino when she was killed on June 1, 2016. Her mom’s federal lawsuit against the state prison system said inmates heard Shaylene Graves’ cellmate threatening to stab her to death, and on the night she died, the sounds of the assault were so loud that they awakened some.

Graves was having an intimate relationship with the woman, her mother said. The suit says her daughter’s previous requests for help had been ignored: She had asked to be moved to another cell — prison officials dispute this claim — but stayed put when the only option presented was solitary confinement.

Graves was found hanging from a sheet. Prison officials initially stated she died by suicide, but later acknowledged in a lawsuit deposition that she was actually slain.

Her cellmate was never charged for the death.

Shaylene Graves left behind a son, who is now 15 and was also a plaintiff along with his grandmother in the suit.

A federal judge this February signed off on a $3.5 million settlement of that lawsuit that contained the unusual provision that Sheri Graves would be allowed to make a 15-minute presentation to corrections officials on how she believed they could have prevented her daughter’s death.

“There was no settlement without this for me,” Graves, a 57-year-old Murrieta resident, said in an interview after the Zoom call. “My whole point was I wanted accountability and to have the light shined on this situation, and I wasn’t going to stop until that happened.”

DeSimone said the prison officials on the Oct. 6 call were respectful and attentive.

“So you have someone like Shaylene genuinely afraid for her life,” DeSimone said in an interview. “She was between a rock and a hard place. If she says nothing, she’s in danger. But if she ‘snitches,’ she’s in more danger.”

Graves asked the officials to develop programs to improve reporting procedures, encourage positive intimate partnerships, and train staffers on how to prevent violence in those relationships.

“The best gift CDCR can give its inmates is help processing the trauma that likely caused them to enter the prison system to begin with,” she told them via her PowerPoint, “and to empower them with the building blocks to form healthy, violence-free relationships and establish personal boundaries.”

The associate director of female offender programs has pledged to meet with Graves to learn about her recommendations in greater detail and to provide a tour of a women’s prison, said Terri Hardy, a CDCR spokeswoman.

Hardy listed several gender-based initiatives that already have been implemented in state prisons. Among them:

• The Gender Responsive Strategies Commission, created in 2005, provides rehabilitative programs and educational opportunities to women that help them deal with the trauma of being incarcerated.

• Beyond Violence helps inmates understand how the trauma in their lives has affected how they treat others and teaches them how they can avoid becoming violent.

• Domestic Violence focuses on the cycle of violence: the warning signs and the triggers and defines abuse.

• Personal Empowerment Program discusses types of abuse, boundaries and unhealthy relationships.

Graves said in the interview that she hopes more will be done.

“It’s just a subject that nobody wants to talk about,” she said. “Anything that I can do to help another family. … No other child should have to deal with losing their parent in prison due to negligence or indifference.”