[Pnews] ‘No longer human’: Women’s prisons are a breeding ground for sexual harassment, abuse
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Aug 29 13:57:17 EDT 2018
‘No longer human’: Women’s prisons are a breeding ground for sexual
Incarcerated women and gender minorities are largely left out of the
#MeToo discussion. Stacy Rojas wants to change that.
Marisa Endicott <https://thinkprogress.org/author/marisa-endicott/> Aug
29, 2018, 8:00 am
Stacy Rojas can still smell the chewing tobacco from the prison guard
who spit on them three years ago during an incident in which guards
allegedly subjected Rojas and their two cellmates to hours of sexual
humiliation, harassment, and physical abuse.
“For me, that was torture, and it still is torture,” said Rojas, who is
gender nonconforming. “I still have bad dreams about it.”
Rojas was released from Central California Women’s Facility, a state
prison in Chowchilla, one and a half years ago after a 15-year term.
Along with their female cellmates who are still inside, Rojas filed a
the episode in November 2017. The case was referred to Magistrate Judge
Jennifer L. Thurston in July
a hearing is set to take place Wednesday.
During the ordeal, which took place in November 2015, guards allegedly
stomped on one woman’s breast, cut another’s clothes off, left them in
isolation cells so long they had no choice but to soil themselves, and
berated them with graphic sexual insults and suggestions.
While this was an extreme example, sexual harassment and abuse of women,
transgender, and gender nonconforming people in women’s prisons and
jails are anything but rare. Rojas had documented guards’ denigrating
and sexual comments for weeks, a fact they think inspired the hours-long
attack which occurred four days after they demanded to report the verbal
“This is not something that happens once a month or even once a week.
This is an everyday thing,” Rojas told ThinkProgress. “This is what goes
on, and this is how they speak to you. They refer to women as bitches
and hoes, and if you’re not, then they’re going to make you their bitch.”
While incarcerated people across the country are currently striking
demand improved conditions and better channels for reporting
mistreatment, few are aware of the extreme abuse rampant in women’s
prisons and jails. These institutions are breeding grounds for the type
of harassment that has become a national focal point thanks to the
#MeToo movement. But behind bars, so far from the public eye with so few
checks and balances to hold staff accountable, the problem becomes more
blatant and extreme.
“You have people who are primarily men in positions of basically
absolute power over a captive – literally captive – population,” said
Diana Block, founding member of the California Coalition for Women
Prisoners, which is helping with the lawsuit. “All the dynamics of
sexism and patriarchy and sexual violence that are very prevalent in the
society as a whole are translated directly into the conduct and behavior
within prisons with very little protection or surveillance or recourse.”
Between 2009 and 2011, women represented just 13 percent of the people
in jails, but they accounted for 67 percent of all staff-on-prisoner
sexual victimization, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics
In the context of incarceration, sexual harassment takes on a much more
violent, humiliating, and dehumanizing quality than what is typically
discussed in the #MeToo movement, almost as if it’s part of the
punishment for committing a crime, Block explained.
“All the dynamics of sexism and patriarchy and sexual violence that
are very prevalent in the society … are translated directly into the
conduct and behavior within prisons.”
Rojas said part of what is most misunderstood about incarcerated women,
and especially transgender and gender nonconforming people behind bars,
is the sense that they chose to break the law or be different, and so
they may not be worthy of the same attention or protection.
It’s like “we made that choice to get treated like this,” Rojas said.
For “the women there, I feel like people also look at them not as
mothers, not as sisters… and they should just think a little bit more
about why they’re there, what went wrong, instead of ‘they’re there, and
now they’re no longer human.’”
Incarcerated women have largely been left out of the #MeToo discussion,
just as they are left out of many conversations.
Part of the reason may be that incarcerated women disproportionately
come from the most vulnerable and overlooked communities. In jails, the
majority of women lack full employment prior to arrest and a third
suffer from serious mental illness, according to a 2016 report
the Vera Institute of Justice. Two-thirds of jailed women are people of
“As the most marginalized community, this is just something else where
it’s not discussed and that we are the last to be talked about,” said
Topeka Sam, a former prisoner and the founder of the Ladies of Hope
Ministries, an organization that helps formerly incarcerated women
transition back into society.
Sam pointed out that while the #MeToo movement was founded by a black
woman, Tarana Burke, over a decade ago, the mainstream media and public
didn’t start paying attention until more affluent and white women
started speaking out.
Even within criminal justice circles and reform efforts, women and
gender nonconforming individuals are often left out, according to
Elizabeth Swavola, a senior associate with the Center on Sentencing and
Corrections at the Vera Institute. Women make up a much smaller
proportion of the overall incarcerated population, making them less of a
But, over the last several decades, the incarceration rate of growth for
women has been double that of men’s, according to The Sentencing Project
Since 1980, the population of women in jails and prisons rose from about
26,000 to almost 214,000 in 2016, a stunning growth rate of about 800
The population explosion means that women have been funneled into
systems that were not built for them. Even supposedly standard
correctional practices like shackling, observing prisoners changing and
using the bathroom, or performing body searches can take on an
especially sexual and violating nature when performed by male guards on
female inmates. This is particularly true for the shockingly high
proportion of women prisoners who are already survivors of sexual
violence, as Rojas and their cellmates are, a reported 86 percent of
women in jails, the Vera Institute report
“All of that can be incredibly traumatic for any person but particularly
for women knowing how high the rates of trauma are,” Swavola told
ThinkProgress. “Most of the people in jail are men, and that’s how
systems and practices have been designed, and so it’s absolutely easy to
miss that women may be triggered by some of the standard practices.”
In general, support services and training are lacking in jails and
prisons for both the prisoners and the guards.
“It’s not rehabilitative,” Sam said. “It’s a dark place, for everybody.
And they’re not getting the type of treatment that they need either…So
it’s just this constant violence being perpetuated over and over.”
The especially closed system and lack of accountability for reporting
abuse is a major factor in continuing the cycle. To report staff
misconduct of any kind, prisoners can file an administrative appeal (a
602) to request an investigation. But the problem is “you are filing the
602 basically with, if not the actual people, the friends of the people,
the coworkers of the people, who have abused you,” Block said.
“It’s a dark place, for everybody. And they’re not getting the type
of treatment that they need …So it’s just this constant violence
being perpetuated over and over.”
Rojas and the other plaintiffs filed multiple 602 grievances that were
for the most part ignored or left unresolved. “You want to make someone
laugh in there? You want to tell a joke,” Rojas said. “You tell them
you’re filing a 602.”
And when Rojas and their cellmates dialed a hotline meant for reporting
sexual harassment at the California Department of Correction and
Rehabilitation’s Office of Internal Affairs, the number was no good. “It
is so discouraging…You’re hopeless.”
The sense that there will be no recourse or, even worse, that there will
be retaliation, can have a chilling effect on reporting. And the utter
isolation factor can leave incarcerated women feeling all the more helpless.
Sexual assault of inmates by staff is prevalent and often goes
“That’s one of the things we are really grappling with is what system
can we ask for that would be better? What does it mean to be a
whistleblower and have any type of protection when you’re in prison,”
That’s why, beyond seeking damages, Rojas’ lawsuit is seeking injunctive
relief in a number of areas, including the development of a
whistleblowing process managed by an external agency. The goal is to be
able to hold correctional officers and staff accountable for
mistreatment, excessive force, and the use of solitary confinement
cages, claiming officers violated the prisoners’ Eighth Amendment rights
to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. The lawsuit also aims to
ensure prisoners can access proper medical care, food, and clothing.
There is reason to be hopeful. Despite the many deterrents, reporting of
sexual victimization has increased in recent years, according to new
Bureau of Justice Statistics
Nationwide, grassroots efforts have increased public and media awareness
about women prisoners. At the federal level, several members of congress
have introduced legislation
the dignity of incarcerated women, and there is hope that such efforts
might increase as more women take on legislative positions.
“I think just as the #MeToo movement represents some level of evolution
or culmination of struggles and consciousness that has been developing
over decades, so too within the prisons, there has been a changing at
least awareness that that imbalance and power dynamic and that status
quo is not acceptable,” Block said.
Now on the outside, Rojas often feels a sort of “survivor’s guilt” when
they think of their former cellmates still inside. It makes them
depressed, but also even more determined.
“That’s why I really have that fire inside me,” Rojas said. “I want to
let the world know and get whatever help I can.”
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