Analysis Human Rights

A New Lawsuit Sheds Light on the Horrors Trans People Face in Prison

Victoria Law

Candice Crowder, a 33-year-old Black trans woman, says prison staff beat her and placed her in solitary confinement, as well as in housing units closer to the prisoners who assaulted and abused her.

Since entering California’s prison system in January 2015, Candice Crowder has been beaten, sexually assaulted, and sliced. But rather than address her repeated pleas for help and safety, the 33-year-old Black trans woman says prison staff beat her and placed her in solitary confinement, as well as in housing units closer to the prisoners who assaulted and abused her.

All this is outlined in a suit Crowder has filed against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) for its failure to protect her from harassment, discrimination, threats, and assault. She also charges that, by failing to update its policies and practices to comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), CDCR is failing to protect LGBTQ people from sexual violence while behind bars.

“Candice’s story is not unique,” said her attorney Jennifer Orthwein in an interview with Rewire.News. As both a prison psychologist and an attorney working with trans people in prison, Orthwein said, “countless trans women have told me that, within a month [of arriving in prison], they are placed intentionally in cells with someone who sexually assaults them. It’s almost like a rite of passage.”

A 2007 study found that 59 percent of trans women (compared to 4.4 percent of a random sampling of inmates) reported experiencing sexual assault while incarcerated. Within months of entering the North Kern State Prison in January 2015, Crowder was placed in a cell with a man who was openly transphobic. When she told prison staff that she did not feel safe, she says prison staff beat her. Later, as her complaint outlines, she was transferred to another prison, where she was placed in a cell with a man who pressured her to perform sex acts on him. With the help of a trans woman who was on the prison’s Men’s Advisory Council, which has direct access to the warden and other administrators, Crowder was transferred to another cell.

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Days later, however, another officer moved her back to the sexual abuser. Two weeks later, in September 2015, Crowder says the man violently raped her. Under PREA, prison staff should have immediately investigated the complaint she filed, provided her with mental health treatment, and administered a rape exam. Instead, aside from moving her from the cell, her suit says no action or investigation was taken until four months later when a prison psychologist filed a formal PREA report. Crowder did not receive medical attention for nearly a year.

Instead, one month after the sexual assault, prison staff placed her in administrative segregation, where she remained on and off for the next ten months. According to her complaint, at one point, officers told her this was because of her gender identity and past victimization: “‘Confidential Information’ was received that you have been targeted for assault due to your known sexual behaviors inside dorm/living areas inside the housing unit. Due to the reception of this information you are deemed a threat to the safety and security of the institution, staff and inmate population(s).”

In September 2016, Crowder was transferred to the California Medical Facility (CMF). There, she was afforded better mental health and medical care. But she was also threatened there by an ex-boyfriend who had been abusive before incarceration. Once again, her complaints to prison staff were ignored; two days later, as recounted in her suit, her ex-boyfriend assaulted her with a box cutter in the prison’s dining hall, slicing her head, face, neck, ear and hands. She later received 63 stitches and 14 staples to her head.

Under PREA, prison staff are supposed to undergo training on how to investigate allegations of sexual violence as well as how to question a person who has experienced sexual trauma. But, her lawsuit states, “According to staff who questioned her in the immediate aftermath” of the slicing incident, “it was her fault for choosing to live a transgender ‘lifestyle.’ She was ‘asking for it.’”

The complaint claims that such treatment is not an anomaly at this particular prison: “CMF correctional staff routinely express disgust with LGBTQI prisoners, referring to their ‘lifestyles’ as optional. They actively refuse to use gender-affirming pronouns for transgender prisoners– a discriminatory act commonly referred to as misgendering. Rather, LGBTQI prisoners are called ‘faggots’ and ‘abominations.’ When LGBTQI prisoners report these homophobic and transphobic comments, their requests for non-discrimination and human decency are perceived as burdensome or as a request for a ‘favor’ or ‘special treatment.’ Such complaints and grievances also often result in retaliation from correctional staff in the form of minor, frivolous, and/or false [rules violation reports].”

Retaliation isn’t limited to people in custody, but also to staff members who attempt to assist them. That’s what former CMF psychologist Lori Jesperson says she experienced. In 2017, Jesperson, who had worked for CDCR since 2008, sued the department, alleging CMF staff complicity in abuse and violence against gay and trans people in custody. She says when she filed complaints on behalf of trans people, she incurred retaliation from prison staff, including being locked in housing units “unsupervised, alone and without access to a safety alarm.” In May 2018, CDCR settled her lawsuit for $275,000.

Orthwein, too, can attest to the rampant transphobia at the prison. Before becoming an attorney, Orthwein worked as a psychologist in California prisons, including CMF. During their initial training at the prison, which was given by custody staff, they recounted that “there was a constant mocking of trans people” behind bars.

That behavior wasn’t only directed toward those in custody. “I was called ‘Dr. It’ by custody staff regularly,” Orthwein, who is a gender non-conforming masculine person, told Rewire.News. But, they add, “the hostile environment exists everywhere, not just at CMF.”

Crowder says continuing to press for her own safety at CMF led to further retaliation by prison staff, who issued her Rules Violations Reports (RVRs), or tickets for violating prison rules: “Tellingly, one of these RVRs was issued to Ms. Crowder for expressing safety concerns about being placed in a cell with a specific prisoner, indicating he had been her cellmate before and ‘he was harassing and sex playing me.’ She also reported she ‘feared for her life.’ The RVR was for ‘Willfully Delaying a Peace Officer.’ The Senior Hearing Officer upheld the RVR despite Ms. Crowder’s legitimate safety concerns, which were noted in the original RVR.” The accumulation of disciplinary tickets resulted in Crowder’s transfer to a more restrictive prison, where the ex-boyfriend who attacked her in September 2016 had already been moved. When she was transferred to another prison again, she says sixmen there threatened to kill her if she remained in general population.

Crowder is not the first incarcerated trans woman to sue California for failing to protect her from sexual assault. In 2005, Alexis Giraldo was sent to the North Kern State Prison and then to Folsom State Prison—both male prisons—for a parole violation. At Folsom, an incarcerated man who worked as a lieutenant’s clerk requested that Giraldo be moved to his cell; his request was granted. According to a suit Giraldo filed against CDCR in 2007, the man then “sexually harassed, assaulted, raped and threatened” her on a daily basis for nearly a month. The violence didn’t stop when she was transferred to a different cell, once again at the request of her soon-to-be cellmate. Giraldo said that cellmate also beat and raped her on a daily basis. Giraldo sued CDCR for negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violation of the cruel or unusual punishment clause of the California Constitution. In 2012, after Giraldo was released from prison, CDCR entered a settlement in which it paid her $10,000 in exchange for her voluntary dismissal of her lawsuit.

More recently, in 2014, Shiloh Quine successfully sued CDCR for gender-affirming surgery. Quine, sentenced to life without parole, had been housed in California’s male prisons since 1981. In 2015, despite the opposition of then-Attorney General Kamala Harris, CDCR settled the lawsuit, agreeing to provide Quine with gender-affirming surgery as well as changing its policies so that transgender people in custody can access clothing and commissary items (such as makeup) consistent with their gender identity. The department also agreed to revise its policies regarding trans people’s access to medically necessary treatment, including surgery.

Quine became the first person in the country to undergo gender-affirming surgery while in prison. After her surgery, she was transferred to the Central California Women’s Prison. Her transition to the new prison, however, was rocky. CDCR practice is to deny all newly admitted people access to razors and televisions while they are being evaluated. Once officials have ascertained that they will not hurt themselves, they are allowed to have razors. For Quine, such denials were “akin to torture.”

But it’s not just California prisons where trans people fear for their safety. That’s what Heather Jean Brooke learned when she entered the federal prison system in the fall of 2017. In a letter to Rewire.News, Brooke wrote, “I have found out the hard way that in ‘male’ federal prison, you are either someone’s girlfriend or someone’s victim. So far I’ve been lucky I was beat up in [federal prison in Oklahoma City] over sex but only had a few lumps and a very bad black eye.” But, she adds, after that, “there was a guard (female) who kept an eye on me to keep me safe after the attack. They [prison officials] kept me in a single cell and said it was in my paperwork that I’m supposed to be in a cell alone.”

Now at another federal prison in the Midwest, where she can expect to serve the remainder of her sentence, Brooke is in a three-person cell. One man, she describes, as “very respectful and treats me as the female I am.” But it’s not without a price—Brooke became the man’s girlfriend. “Here, I’ve been bleeding a bit but at least I’m not getting hit anymore,” she wrote. The other man, she said, spent Christmas intentionally misgendering her and taunting her that “Trump says he can do what he wants to me.” Though she is on hormones, she is hoping for gender-affirming surgery as well as a transfer to a women’s prison.

Brooke is under no illusions that a women’s prison will provide safety and security. “Women are treated horribly in all prisons!” she noted. “But when we are placed in a male prison, we are not even allowed our dignity.”

In July 2018, Crowder would have become eligible for early parole through Proposition 57. But, because of the tickets she had been issued after filing grievances about the violence and staff indifference to her safety, she was deemed ineligible. That mean she will stay in prison until 2022. (Orthwein noted that Crowder’s ex-boyfriend, who had pleaded guilty to slicing her, has a release date of December 2020.)

Crowder’s lawsuit demands that CDCR update and develop its policies to comply with PREA standards, particularly as applied to LGBTQI people in custody. She also seeks transfer back to CMF; medical treatment, including surgery for the keloids that developed from her stitches and staples, as well as access to a wig, walker, and wrist brace; reinstatement of her previous work and educational assignments; revocation of the points accumulated through the retaliatory tickets issued by staff; and a removal of all incorrect pronouns in her medical and prison files.

For now, Crowder remains at Kern Valley State Prison. There, says Orthwein, “she continues to be retaliated against by custody staff.” Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), explained Kevin Love Hubbard, co-counsel on Crowder’s lawsuit, a judge must review any lawsuit filed by an incarcerated person and decide whether it can proceed. “We can’t do anything until we’re past this screen,” he said. The last time that Crowder filed suit, on her own without a lawyer, the screening took over a year.

For now, Hubbard said, “we’re just in limbo.”

In a statement released by her attorneys, Crowder wrote, “I am not alone in this struggle. Transgender prisoners are systematically abused behind prison walls. I refuse to be silenced while correctional staff harm me and my community. Unfortunately, my resilience has come at a great cost. I hope that CDCR finally realizes it has a problem and takes meaningful action to address its anti-LGBTQ culture so that no more transgender prisoners have to endure what I have survived.”

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