[Pnews] When the Sexual Assaulter Holds the Keys to Your Cell
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Mar 19 12:37:32 EDT 2018
When the Sexual Assaulter Holds the Keys to Your Cell
Victoria Law - March 18, 2018
In January, Strawberry Hampton, a trans woman incarcerated in Illinois,
settled a lawsuit about repeated sexual and physical abuse she'd
experienced by prison staff in the state's men's prisons. What she
endured isn't limited to Illinois prisons, or to men's prisons. Across
the country, thousands of incarcerated people face sexual harassment,
abuse and assault, frequently at the hands of staff. In the face of
these attacks -- and the reality of retaliation -- incarcerated people
have come forward to file complaints and lawsuits, fighting back against
The Pervasive Problem of Prison Sexual Abuse
In 2016, Hampton, then age 24, was transferred to Pinckneyville
Correctional Center, a medium-security men's prison in Illinois. There,
officers repeatedly made sexual comments and derogatory slurs toward her
and her cellmate, another trans woman. This was not the first time that
Hampton had experienced sexual harassment by staff. "Everybody
experiences some harassment [in prison]," noted Alan Mills, executive
director of the Uptown People's Law Center (UPLC), which works with
people incarcerated throughout Illinois and represented Hampton in her
suit. "Everybody who is trans or gender nonconforming gets more harassment."
But at Pinckneyville, the verbal abuse escalated into sexual abuse.
According to her complaint filed with the courts, in March 2017, several
staff members, including an internal affairs officer, entered Hampton's
cell. They forced her to put on a thong and her prison-issued bra. They
forced her cellmate, a trans woman named Denashio Tester, to put on
boxers. They forced the two to dance in a sexual manner, touching
themselves and each other. They also grabbed Hampton's breasts and
buttocks. Over the next three months, these officers made these demands
at least four times. Terrified, neither person reported these events.
All of these actions violate the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA),
federal legislation designed to address and eliminate sexual abuse
behind bars. But, as Hampton and Tester's experiences demonstrate, PREA
frequently fails to either address or eliminate sexual abuse. In jails
and prisons across the country, incarcerated people are subject to
sexual harassment, abuse and assault, frequently at the hands of staff.
If they report these assaults, they risk retaliation, including greater
violence, causing many to stay quiet.
As the #MeToo movement outside of prison walls continues to gather
momentum, what about survivors who are locked away? And what happens
when the assailants are the people who literally hold the keys to their
The Worst Distillation of Toxic Masculinity
"Prisons are the worst distillation of toxic masculinity," said Alan
Mills. "That's just the way we run prisons in this country. It's all
about inflicting punishment on people. It's about the use of force in
order to force compliance to an arbitrary set of rules. It's about
dehumanizing people. It's not surprising that this translates to
harassment and abuse." The Uptown People's Law Center is preparing to
file an amended complaint on behalf of Janiah Monroe, a trans woman who
was sexually assaulted several times by staff at Illinois's Dixon
Sexual abuse at the hands of staff isn't limited to Illinois. In one
year alone, the Department of Justice found that, in jails and prisons
across the country, staff were responsible for more than half of sexual
victimization <https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/svpjri1112.pdf>. In
state and federal prisons, trans people were more likely to experience
abuse by staff than by other incarcerated people
<https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/svpjri1112_st.pdf>. This was
certainly true for Stacy Rojas, a gender nonconforming person who was
incarcerated at the Central California Women's Facility (CCWF), the
state's largest women's prison. Throughout their 14 years in prison,
Rojas endured continued verbal harassment by prison staff because of
their gender identity.
In November 2015, after an officer called them a "stupid hoe," Rojas
told officers that they had been documenting these comments for weeks
and would complain to the prison's internal investigation unit. In
response, officers ripped apart the contents of Rojas's cell and
attacked Rojas. When two of their cellmates said that they would report
the attack, they too were assaulted. The officers slammed them to the
ground, stomped on one of their breasts with a boot, strip searched them
in view of male officers and cut their clothing off. Officers then
placed all three in small programming cages for nearly 12 hours, denying
them medical care and even the use of a bathroom. When they were taken
out of these cages, they were placed in administrative segregation, a
form of solitary confinement in which a person spends 23 to 24 hours
each day locked in a cell without their belongings.
The Limits of PREA
Among the officers who arrived at Hampton's cell in March 2017 was an
internal affairs officer. In prisons across the country, including
Illinois, PREA complaints are investigated by internal affairs officers.
"What it shows is the total dysfunction of PREA," stated Mills. "PREA on
its face is great, but it depends on honest and thorough investigations
into complaints once they're made." That an internal affairs officer was
not only present, but participated, in the initial sexual abuse "sends a
message to everybody that internal affairs is not to be trusted."
In many jails and prisons, including California's prisons, victims of
sexual abuse have the option of calling the PREA hotline instead of
filing a report with staff. But these forms of sexualized violence
experienced by Rojas and their cellmates may not be covered by
California's interpretation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act
<http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/PREA/docs/2016-DOM-54040.pdf>, which defines
sexual harassment as repeated and unwelcome comments or gestures of a
sexual nature. Given that the violence inflicted upon Rojas can be
interpreted as a (non-sexual) assault, their only recourse is to file
complaints, known as 602s, with prison staff. To do so, they first had
to ask prison staff for 602 forms; at first, staff refused to give them
these forms. When they finally did, the grievances were lost or
misplaced. Even when Rojas and their cellmates received a response, they
reported that officers' behavior remained changed.
Under the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act
people must exhaust the prison's administrative process (also known as
the grievance process) before they are allowed to appear in court. In
November 2017, Rojas, their two cellmates and a trans man at CCWF
finally did so and were able to file a lawsuit charging that the
continual sexual harassment, excessive force and subsequent denial of
medical care violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and
unusual punishment. Their complaint demands more control and
accountability when excessive violence, whether physical or sexual,
occurs, as well as safe reporting options to a third party outside the
Their lawsuit -- and the subsequent publicity -- encouraged others to
come forward with their own stories of sexualized violence by prison
staff. The California Coalition for Women Prisoners, an advocacy
organization working with Californians incarcerated in women's jails and
prisons, has compiled dossiers from 11 other people, mostly trans and
gender nonconforming people, detailing staff sexual abuse and
misconduct. "This is systematic," noted Sara Kershner, an organizer with
On May 24, 2017, after an officer verbally harassed them, Hampton and
Tester threatened to file a PREA complaint. That night, 16 officers
pulled both women out of their cell. They cuffed Hampton behind her back
and walked her to the shower, making so much noise that people in the
nearby cells awoke and came to their cell doors to see what was
happening. They brutally beat her before cutting off her shirt, bra and
pants and leaving her naked in a cold cell for several hours.
The following day, Hampton filed a PREA complaint about the physical and
sexual abuse with mental health staff. According to her complaint, the
internal affairs officer told her that, if she dropped the complaint,
she and Tester could continue as cellmates. If not, he threatened her
with fake disciplinary tickets that would leave her "buried in
segregation" where she would not be fed or allowed to shower.
Nonetheless, Hampton refused to drop her complaint. She spent the next
three months in segregation as officers issued her disciplinary tickets
for imaginary misconduct; they also continued to sexually harass and
physically abuse her. Hampton filed grievance after grievance; none were
On August 23, 2017, Hampton was transferred to Menard Correctional
Center, another men's prison. Officers assaulted her on the hour-long
bus ride. Once at Menard, she attempted to file a PREA complaint, but
officers denied her and told her to "shut the fuck up." That was only
the start of the daily harassment and abuse at the hands of prison staff
who, according to the complaint, "made it clear ... that they knew she
filed a PREA complaint about the sexual abuse she experienced at
Pinckneyville and that they are going to punish her at Menard for
speaking up against fellow IDOC [Illinois Department of Corrections]
officers." When Hampton again tried to file a PREA complaint, officers
pepper-sprayed her in the face.
By October, the verbal sexual harassment escalated. Hampton was placed
in a holding cell with an incarcerated man known to be aggressive. While
officers watched, he beat her. When another person tried to intervene,
officers pepper-sprayed him and Hampton. In addition, officers on the
night shift threatened to physically hurt Hampton if she did not perform
for them by moving her body in sexual ways, touch herself sexually and
expose herself to them. Meanwhile, Hampton received a letter from the
prison's warden stating that, because she had no physical or video
evidence or witnesses, her PREA allegations were unsubstantiated.
Fortunately for Hampton, she had legal support. While at Chicago's Cook
County Jail awaiting trial, she had been part of a lawsuit about the
jail's excessive force and was still in contact with attorneys from the
Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center. With the support of
attorneys from the Center and their co-counsel from the Uptown People's
Law Center, she filed suit against the Department of Corrections.
Over 20 men incarcerated at Pinckneyville submitted affidavits attesting
to the repeated sexual abuse against Hampton. Some even testified at the
hearing. One witness, Edward Taylor, testified that staff told him
earlier that morning, "You better not run your mouth." Despite the
threat and fear, he told the court about the violence he witnessed
against Hampton, adding, "I'm in fear for my life being here today."
This fear of retaliation keeps not only witnesses, but often victims of
staff violence from coming forward. "There's always a risk," Mills said,
pointing out that prison staff have total control over a person's life
in prison, including leaving their cell, accessing food or phone calls
or visits. But, he adds, "What's surprising is how many people are
willing to stand up and take that risk on behalf of somebody else that
they don't know very well."
Witnesses are often key not only to winning (or at least settling) in
court, but also encouraging survivors not to stay silent. In Illinois,
after inadvertently walking in on the sexual abuse that Janiah Monroe
was experiencing, Patrice Daniels, another person incarcerated at Dixon,
confronted the abusive officer and helped Monroe file a grievance.
"I Do Not Want Anyone Else to Go Through What I Did"
Despite her settlement, Strawberry Hampton remains in segregation in a
(different) men's prison. Part of her settlement simply instructs the
Illinois Department of Corrections to do what it was supposed to be
doing to begin with -- its Gender Identity Disorder Committee will
review Hampton's placement and mental health care; the committee will
then decide where she will stay for the duration of her sentence.
Hampton had initially been scheduled to be released from solitary
confinement into the general prison population in March, but was charged
with assaulting an officer. If found guilty, her time in isolation will
be extended. In addition, Hampton's past charges come with a loss of
good time, or time off one's prison sentence. Some of her previous
misconduct tickets, written in retaliation for her reporting, resulted
in a loss of good time. "She would be out sooner, if not already, were
it not for those tickets," said Mills.
Meanwhile, she continues to suffer sexual abuse, including rape threats
from another man in the housing unit. She has also been denied access to
the prison's mental health group for people in segregation. Faced with
the bleak prospect of an indeterminate time in isolation, continued
sexual abuse and no recourse, Hampton has attempted suicide four times.
Each time, Hampton spent one day wearing a stiff suicide-proof smock in
a crisis cell, or a cell devoid of everything save a concrete slab. Each
time, she was returned to segregation after that one day. She continues
to be denied access to mental health treatment.
On March 8, the UPLC filed another lawsuit, this time demanding that
Hampton be released from solitary confinement, provided with mental
health treatment and transferred to a women's prison. At the same time,
activists have launched a call-in campaign
that the Department of Corrections release Hampton from solitary
confinement and transfer her to a women's prison.
In California, Rojas is now out of prison. The three other plaintiffs
are still incarcerated. Since filing suit, the three have experienced
verbal harassment, but no additional physical attacks or sexualized
violence. Kershner attributes this to the publicity and pronounced
public support that organizers, both inside and outside, galvanized
immediately after the suit was filed.
Though now out of prison, Rojas is determined to change conditions for
those still incarcerated. "Just because we are in prison doesn't mean
that we should not have our basic human rights protected," Rojas stated
in a press release after filing suit. "I do not want anyone else to go
through what I did."
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