By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Capitol Bureau
SACRAMENTO – The CA Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation has, according to a pending lawsuit and speakers at a rally Wednesday at the agency’s downtown offices, engaged in “sexual and gender-based violence, including homophobia and transphobia.”
About 60 demonstrators participated in the two-hour long rally, and asked legal observers from the National Lawyers Guild Sacramento Chapter to be on hand because of concerns that they would be profiled by the state, and those they cared about behind the prison walls would be retaliated against.
Their fears had more than a little merit – people from inside the department repeatedly took photos of them, and then ran back inside. And the California Highway Patrol, which usually ignores these kind of peaceful rallies, maintained a constant vigil with patrol cars and officers, who often waded into the crowd to seemingly harass participants.
Sponsored by the California Coalition for Women Prisoners and Young Women’s Freedom Center, the #MeTooBehindBars rally was billed as an opportunity to “expose how the prison system uses sexual and gender-based violence, including homophobia and transphobia, to target people who they incarcerate,” according to organizers.
The accusations are damning.
In a lawsuit filed nearly two years ago, former Gov. Brown, Secretary of the CDCR, the Warden of the CCWF, a former warden and more than a dozen current and former correctional officers are named as defendants.
The complaint, filed on behalf of current and former prisoners, specified two assaults at the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla. The lawsuit claims that correctional officers “used physical force, sexually harassed, and used homophobic and transphobic insults” who identify as transgender, gender non-conforming (GNC) or queer.
Allegedly, those assaulted were not provided medical treatment for their injuries, but were put in so-called “isolation cages where they were subject to further sexual humiliation and denied access to bathrooms.”
The attacks as described in the pleading are disturbing.
Stacy Rojas, a gender non-conforming plaintiff, and according to the complaint filed, was “subject to countless instances of verbal harassment by guards at CCWF because of their gender identity. Rojas was brutally attacked by guards on November 11, 2015, for demanding to make a complaint to internal prison investigators concerning verbal harassment from prison guards.
A Sgt. Collier, a defendant, performed a “boot-burn” on Rojas’s back, causing severe bruising and back lacerations.
The complaint explains a “boot-burn is…stomping forcefully onto a person’s back and then dragging one’s boot in a grating manner against the skin to create a burning sensation. Sergeant Collier did this for no other reason than to unjustifiably punish and cause pain to Rojas in retaliation for their complaints. Rojas was confined for nearly twelve hours in a small programming cage not meant for punitive confinement and tormented during that time. Rojas was denied medical attention.”
At one point, Rojas – after watching fellow inmates brutalized – ”Traumatized…and unable to bear the cries of their dear friend…tied a shoelace around their neck and hanged themselves.” Rojas was saved, but the episode is described in graphic detail in the lawsuit.
Plaintiff Ivett Ayestas alleges in the suit she was also the victim of “verbal harassment by guards because of her sexual orientation and former sexual victimization (and) was brutally tortured by guards at CCWF on November 11, 2015, after she implied to guards that she would make a complaint against them concerning the use of excessive force she witnessed. Ayestas was confined for nearly twelve hours in a small programming cage not meant for punitive confinement and tormented.”
Ayestas was forced to undress in front of male officers, who eventually, according to the complaint, undressed her and cut her clothes from her body. She was also, as noted in the pleading, injured when she hit her head on a toilet after officers threw her into a bathroom.
Plaintiff Sarah Lara said she was, according to the suit, “brutally attacked by guards at CCWF on November 11, 2015, for telling guards not to speak to her with derogatory tone or language. Lara was confined for nearly twelve hours in a small programming cage not meant for punitive confinement and
tormented during that time. Lara was denied medical attention and access to grievances to complain about any of the conduct she suffered.”
Guard and defendant Collier is accused in the complaint of causing Lara’s right breast to protrude from her clothing, and then stepping “on her exposed breast (with) so much pressure that plaintiff Lara was left with visible bruises. Plaintiff Lara cried out in pain, pleading with them that she was complying and imploring them to stop standing on her back and breast.”
Finally, plaintiff Isaac Medina, a transgender prisoner who has a “has a disability accommodation requiring the intermittent use of a walker and handcuffing in front of his body or with the use of a waist chain, and as such was known to CDCR and its officers,” was harassed and attacked by the guard on Jan. 5, 2017, and “tormented” for four hours.
The lawsuit details how Medina was paraded around the prison yard with his pants down, exposing his genitalia, in 40 degree weather. They later put Medina in a “wheelchair, further exposing his genitals.”
Medina has charged that other officers, after his head was bloodied and shoulder dislocated – with a bone protruding from the skin – suggested he have sex with them, or be raped. Medina was denied medical care.
Those speaking Wednesday said that women in prison have always been, and are currently sexually violated and harassed. They said there has been an uptick in recent years with “an increasing pattern of physical and sexual violence against transgender, GNC and queer women prisoners at CCWF. These incidents represent a backlash against hard-won legal rights for trans people in prison.”
“Prison is all a sham, a scam. They are all crooks (who) pass us around for favors,” said speaker Ebony Harper outside the state building.
Another speaker explained that “we are only asking for them to be held accountable. They (prison) system is designed to hurt people who don’t conform. When you speak out about that, you become endangered.”
The #MeTooBehindBars campaign notes that it is an expansion of gender-based violence, sexual exploitation and harassment (and) exposes how women, transgender, GNC and queer people remain unprotected from daily harassment, humiliation, assault, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia and how the system fails to hold accountable those who inflict harm.
Among sponsors were California Coalition for Women Prisoners members, Young Women’s Freedom Center staff and leadership, Survived and Punished members, civil rights attorneys and formerly incarcerated activists.
Before the lawsuit was filed, plaintiffs attempted to use the prison grievance process, but their attempts were blocked, they say.
The demands in the lawsuit ask for an end to the assaults and targeting of women and trans prisoners, to hold guards and staff accountable when they use excessive force, to end the use of force, intimidation and other forms of retaliation against prisoners and whistleblowers when they report force, to end use of isolation cages with no toilets, to uphold the American with Disabilities Act, and to provide better healthcare.
“These incidents represent a backlash against hard-won legal rights for trans people in prison, such as the right to access hormone therapy. They reflect CO resentment about changing cultural norms regarding gender identity. The incidents also re-traumatize people who are survivors of sexual violence, homophobia and transphobia before they were incarcerated,” according to the coalition Wednesday.
The coalition also explained that the lawsuit connects to the #MeToo movement because it “represents a moment of exploding social awareness about the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and violence by those in power against vulnerable people. Women, trans and GNC people inside prisons are vulnerable, invisible targets of the guards, staff and prison administration who control their lives (and) provides a crucial dimension to the national conversation on gendered violence.”
Lawsuit: CCWF Complaint 9 Nov 2017