[Pnews] When the Sexual Assaulter Holds the Keys to Your Cell

Prisoner News 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 
system-wide abuse.

    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 
Correctional Center.

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 
<https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/images/asset_upload_file79_25805.pdf>, incarcerated 
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 
the Coalition.

    Officer Retaliation

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 
ever investigated.

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 
<https://twitter.com/ashlelorde/status/971471632920403970> demanding 
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."

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
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