AT THE JAIL COMMISSION COMMUNITY MEETING, A FATHER’S ANGUISHED TESTIMONY HAS EVERYONE CAPTIVATED
by Matthew Fleischer
The Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence held its first—and possibly only–community meeting at the EXPO Center at the Los Angeles Swimming Stadium Wednesday night. Three commission members, Chair Lourdes G. Baird, Vice Chair Cecil L. Murray, and Commissioner Alexander Busansky, were all in attendance to hear public testimony about the state of LA County’s jails, along with the commission’s executive director Miriam Krinsky and the group’s legal director, Richard Drooyan.
The results were a mixed bag, as the speakers’ lineup frequently seemed dominated by pro-LASD plants from Sheriff Baca’s Citizens Advisory Board, and well-intentioned social justice do-gooders looking for a soapbox. The night found its footing, however, thanks mostly to the striking testimony of Stephen Rochelle.
Stephen is the father of Matthew Rochelle–-a 24-year-old former Twin Towers inmate now serving an indeterminate sentence of 15-years to life in Patton State Hospital for the murder of a fellow inmate.
In 2006, Matthew—-a bright, personable kid, in his senior year of high school-—was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. With treatment and medication he was able to stabilize his condition, but in November of 2008, he went off his meds and, in a confused state, was arrested for breaking and entering a residence. While he waited to stand trial, he was to have been placed in Patton State Hospital. But Patton didn’t have a bed, so Matthew was taken to LA County’s Twin Towers jail—which houses a sizable population of mentally ill inmates.
“It was our hope to get Matthew stabilized and get him admitted to Patton State Hospital,” his father, who works as an LAUSD high school principal, told the captivated audience at the jails commission.
Instead, inside Twin Towers, Stephen said, things got far worse—due in large part to deputy treatment of his son. “They taunted him and called him a ‘piece of shit,’” said Stephen, his powerful voice betraying the slightest hint of a quaver. “They stopped feeding him for several days and shut off the water to his cell.** They broke his pinkie. And they orchestrated inmate fights. On one occasion Matthew was escorted to a hostile gang member’s cell and was locked in while deputies watched him get beaten up.”
Delivery of his medication was reportedly intermittent at best.
Eventually, in August of 2009, Matthew was placed inside a cell with a 56-year-old fellow schizophrenic inmate named Cedric Watson. Matthew had never been more unstable.
“He had stopped eating,” recalled Stephen. “His weight dropped from 165 to 126.We got a call from his lawyer telling us ‘your son is in a lot of trouble.’”
Soon after, an altercation ensued between Matthew and his fellow mentally ill cellmate that left Watson dead–and Matthew on trial for first-degree murder. This despite the fact that Matthew was clearly in a delusional state after the killing.
“He told investigating deputies that he was Hotep from Egypt” among other elaborate hallucinations, Stephen told me after the hearing.
Although the district attorney’s office pressed hard for a first degree murder conviction, Matthew was found not guilty of that charge, by reason of insanity. But he was convicted of second-degree and sentenced 15-to life in Patton State Hospital—the same facility that said they couldn’t admit him before the killing despite his parents’ desperate attempts to find him a bed there.
When the commission meeting ended at around 8:30 p.m., the commissioners each thanked those assembled, but several made a special point of thanking Stephen and Nina Rochelle, in particular, for coming forward.
Commissioner Cecil Murray was, on this night, the most expressive of the members. “Who will protect us from our protectors?” he said to the crowd, who nodded and murmured in response. “Who will defend us from our defenders?”
He also told the audience that, if they were worried the commission would be nothing more than “fluff,” to check back with them in September when they deliver their report.
“My expectations were low coming in here,” Stephen told me after the hearing concluded. “But I felt the commission was thankful and it renewed their commitment to do something substantive.”
“Our lives are an open book at this point. We just hope something comes of our son’s story.”
**EDITOR’S NOTE: It’s important to say that, although, like most people present Wednesday night, we found the Rochelle parents very compelling, we have in no way vetted any of their claims. And while some of the allegations—the verbal abuse and physical abuse, the inmate fights, the failure to deliver medication consistantly—are in keeping with other, better validated inmate experiences we are aware of, the charge of non feeding and turning of water to the cell, as it is described does not strike us as terribly logical, nor is it common to the other inmate experiences we have run across in the course of the past two years of reporting on the matter. Thus we surmise that part of their story may be misinterpretation of events by distraught parents. But we will let you know more, as we know more.