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CA LGBT inmates detail life behind bars

by Alex Madison

Candice Crowder, shown before she was incarcerated in 2015. Photo: Courtesy Jennifer Orthwein
Candice Crowder, shown before she was incarcerated in 2015. Photo: Courtesy Jennifer Orthwein  

LGBT inmates in the California prison system allege a culture of sexual abuse, discrimination, and, for some, violence.

The Bay Area Reporter has corresponded with a small group of inmates, who are, or were, part of an LGBT support group at California Medical Facility in Vacaville. They shared their experiences, how current law aimed to protect them is working, and what they feel should be done to help mitigate the disproportionate injustices LGBT people face in jail.

"We live in an environment where we are barely tolerated, often ridiculed or disrespected, misgendered, humiliated, abused, assaulted, sexually assaulted, raped, and attacked," wrote Yekaterina Wesa Patience, a trans woman at CMF, an all-men's facility.

Another CMF inmate, Cole M. Bienek, a gay man, said, "I've been locked up for 34 of my 49 years. I've fought a long hard battle to figure myself out while trying to survive in a toxic environment, and I have a need to live an authentic life."

Bienek is serving a sentence of 16 years to life for second-degree murder. He was 18 when he killed a man he went home with.

In letters some of the inmates describe how there are no protections against other offenders who sexually harass or abuse them, that their allegations are not taken seriously by prison staff, are not treated equally, for example not being offered the same job opportunities as other inmates, and have been retaliated against by correctional officers for complaints.

Gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) recognizes the violence and civil inequalities LGB and, in particular, transgender inmates face. In January he introduced Senate Bill 132, the Transgender Respect, Agency and Dignity Act, which would require trans inmates to be housed in a facility that corresponds to their gender identity when the incarcerated person believes such housing would be safer.

Currently, California houses inmates based solely on their biological gender, leaving trans women to be housed in men's facilities. Connecticut is the only state that allows trans inmates to be housed where they choose, although Massachusetts in January transferred a trans woman to a women's facility, a first for the state.

"There is a lot of work ahead of us to improve the lives of transgender prisoners and housing is one of them, but not the only one," Wiener told the B.A.R. "Right now, we are focused on housing. Once people are properly housed, that can resolve other issues. For instance, a trans woman is often put into isolation as to not be victimized and the reason she is being victimized is because she is being housed with men instead of [according to] her gender identity."

In California, a study of the state's prisons designated for men found that the rate of sexual assault for transgender women in those facilities was 13 times higher than for men in the same prisons, states a summary of Wiener's bill.

The legislation would also allow trans inmates to self-report their identity and first name in the intake process and require all prison employees and staff to use the inmate's preferred gender pronoun and name. They would also be able to choose the sex of the correctional officer who searches them.

Today, trans inmates can obtain a name or gender change under lesbian state Senator Toni Atkins' (D-San Diego) Name and Dignity Act, signed last year by former Governor Jerry Brown. It requires the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation or county jails to use the new name of a person who obtains a name change and to list the prior name only as an alias.

Prior to this law, incarcerated individuals were required to receive permission from their parole agent or probation officer, who determines that the name change will not pose a security risk to the community and grants prior written approval.

As for SB 132, Wiener said there has been no opposition from CDCR, which operates the state prisons.

"CDCR is much more open and working with us this year and expressed to us they are not opposed to making changes in how they house trans inmates," Wiener said. "In addition, we have a new governor who gets it when it comes to LGBT issues."

Last year, the senator's SB 990 was killed in the Legislature, due to concerns over the high cost to implement it. The bill would have required that incarcerated transgender people in correctional facilities be referred to by their preferred pronouns, gender, and name. Wiener said he does not foresee this being an issue this legislative session, due to CDCR's cooperation.

CDCR spokeswoman Terry Thornton declined to comment on pending legislation.

An April 24, 2018 memo from Kathleen Allison, director of the CDCR Division of Adult Institutions, outlined the department's code of conduct with respect to fellow employees, offenders, families of offenders, and the public and that all must be respected and treated fairly. This is regardless of sex/gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression, as well as race, disability, and other categories.

"When an inmate has advised staff they identify specifically as male or female and wish to be addressed as such, staff can use the preferred pronouns or gender-neutral pronouns when speaking or referring to the inmate," the memo states.

It also states, "repeatedly calling a transgender inmate by the wrong pronouns after the inmate has provided notice of his or her transition is inappropriate."

Life in prison
The trans inmates the B.A.R. corresponded with over the last seven months strongly agree with the need to have their preferred gender be recognized and to be housed where they feel safe.

"I think consideration should definitely be given to the housing problems and needs of transgenders," wrote Patience.

She received a life sentence in 1995 at the age of 18 for an incident in which three people were involved with the burglary and killing of a 25-year-old woman and attempted murder of a 12-year-old child in El Segundo in southern California. A crime for which, Patience said, "she is deeply ashamed."

Violence against trans inmates is one of the most pressing reasons for the need to house trans prisoners at the facility of their choice. Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics confirms that, nationwide, transgender inmates experience exceptionally high rates of sexual abuse. A 2011-2012 survey revealed that 40% of incarcerated trans people reported experiencing sexual victimization while in jail compared to 4% of other inmates, and 38% of trans prisoners reported being harassed by correctional officers or staff.

Patience described an incident at CMF in which another inmate began to stalk her and, after multiple complaints, no action was taken to help protect her. An investigation was opened and found her claims to be substantiated, yet she continued to be exposed to the stalker and was eventually attacked by him. Patience was issued a rules violation after the attack.

"How is it fair that I defended myself from violence, from a known stalker?" she wrote. "More protections must be offered."

Thornton did not answer questions regarding these allegations, saying she needed to "verify" the incidents prior to answering. She also said she would, at a later date, comment on what CDCR was currently doing to help protect trans inmates. She did say, "CDCR cares about everyone's safety," and acknowledged that trans inmates are at higher risk for violence.

"I have relayed these allegations to CDCR's PREA Unit," Thornton wrote in an April 19 email, referring to the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003. "They will investigate this and make sure any appropriate action is taken."

Another trans female inmate, Candice Crowder, who now resides at Kern Valley State Prison, filed an amended complaint against the California State Prison system in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California in January. She alleges being brutalized by correctional officers and inmates, sexually assaulted, raped, and knifed while in custody at multiple men's prisons since January 2015, including CMF.

At the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility in Corcoran, Crowder, a woman of color, was raped and had cellmates constantly pressure her to perform sex acts on them after being transferred there in August 2015, according to the complaint. She was then, like many trans female prisoners, locked in solitary confinement for nine months, said her attorney, Jennifer Orthwein, who identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns.

Crowder then came to CMF, where her ex-boyfriend was also imprisoned. In one incident he threatened to kill her, and she reported it to a staff member, who did not document it or take any action, according to Orthwein. Two days later her former partner attacked her with a box cutter, slashing her face, head, and neck.

The suit claims that correctional officers asked Crowder questions implying that she provoked the assault for flirting with the attacker and making him jealous. The assailant was eventually prosecuted and convicted and had an additional four years added to his sentence. Crowder continued to suffer from discrimination after the incident.

"[CMF] denied to provide her with adequate medical care," Orthwein told the B.A.R., adding that Crowder's injuries were severe. "She was not provided any kind of observations related to her medical injuries."

Things escalated from there with Crowder being targeted by correctional officers, Orthwein explained. In a biannual trans risk assessment, a correctional counselor determined that Crowder was safe in the cell she was staying in with her then partner. That decision was overridden, however, and Crowder was again forced to be in the same open spaces as her ex-partner.

"She was targeted because she filed lawsuits and multiple complaints against the staff for gender discrimination and for not keeping her safe and placing her in solitary confinement following the attack," Orthwein said.

The CDCR declined to comment on Crowder's allegations, saying it was not able to comment on ongoing litigation.

Thornton did write in an email, "CDCR is committed to providing a safe, humane, secure environment for all offenders. CDCR has a zero-tolerance for sexual violence, sexual misconduct, and sexual harassment. Retaliation is not tolerated."

The suit also alleges that officials at CMF routinely humiliate gay and transgender inmates by calling them slurs and subjecting them to strip-searches in front of other inmates. Crowder claims at least 15 correctional officers at CMF have called her a "faggot" or misgendered her.

During her time at North Kern State Prison, Crowder was beaten by correctional officers when she expressed concerns about being housed with a transphobic cellmate in 2015. She suffered bruising and permanent scarring, had a seizure, and was refused medical attention for her injuries, according to the complaint.

"I am not alone in this struggle," Crowder said in a January 7 news release. "Transgender prisoners are systemically 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."

Orthwein, who is also representing other trans inmates in suits alleging gender discrimination, said a culture of transphobia and suppressing and ignoring any complaints of sexual abuse or discrimination is present at nearly all 14 of the state prisons that house trans inmates. Orthwein helped write SB 132 and said it's absolutely necessary to house trans inmates where they feel most safe. They said they could, "not overstate the type of violence taking place in this culture."

Other grievances
The trans and LGB prisoners also shared the less violent grievances they experience, one of them being not able to shower in privacy. The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, which has many provisions, allows trans and intersex inmates to shower privately. This, however, is not being enforced at CMF, according to the inmates.

CDCR's Thornton wrote in an email that the agency is "required to provide transgender inmates separate shower times. CDCR officials will look into these allegations."

The PREA in 2016 also directed authorities to decide on a case-by-case basis whether to house transgender inmates in a male or female facility. When President Donald Trump took office, however, this language was rewritten in 2018 to require inmates to be housed according to their biological sex.

"There is no privacy in the bathroom areas, in showers, or at your bunk area, in changing clothes," said Patience, who added she, too, is forced to be strip-searched by male staff, an occurrence she said often can cause mental flashbacks to her former sexual assault.

Not having equal job opportunities while incarcerated is something both Patience and Crowder have faced during their jail time. As well, they do not have access to things other female inmates usually do including women's underwear, make-up, and jewelry such as earrings.

Both of the inmates have taken advantage of being able to legally change their name and gender, a process both said has been difficult. Crowder was informed of the law by her attorney, not facility staff. Patience was informed by staff of the law and was the first at CMF to submit paperwork to get her name and gender changed in September 2018. Due to the newness of the law, she needed to re-file twice due to the facility not initially having updated forms, she explained. She is waiting on the court's response.

All three of the prisoners say significant changes need to be made in order for them to receive equal civil protections and to be safe where they are imprisoned. Something all three have been grateful for is the LGBT support group at CMF. According to Thornton, San Quentin and California Institution for Men in Chino also have LGBT support groups.

For one prisoner, Bienek, the support group is where he came out. He said CMF is less toxic than the other facilities he's been housed at.

He hopes the LGBT community becomes more involved in the lives of prisoners, in hopes they will not only gain understanding of the hardships they face, but that they will see inmates in a different light.

"What I'd like to see is for the outside LGBT community to become more involved in the prisons," he wrote. "Every prison has LGBT people. It would be great to have some community volunteers come to spend time with us."

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