[Pnews] 'PTSD is real, I wake up crying': the activist who stood up to prison guard abuse

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Sat Oct 10 12:29:32 EDT 2020

is real, I wake up crying': the activist who stood up to prison guard abuse
Sam Levin - October 8, 2020

Tired of daily harassment and violence by prison guards, Rojas decided to
fight back.

The 39-year-old, who spent 15 years behind bars in California
<https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/california>, said officers routinely
tormented transgender and non-binary people, mocking their bodies,
threatening sexual violence and sometimes physically assaulting them.

“We were sick of it. We weren’t going to let the officers abuse us any
more,” said Rojas, who is gender-nonconforming (GNC) and uses a single
name. “We organized on the inside.”

In the final year of their sentence at the Central California Women’s
Facility (CCWF), the state’s largest women’s prison, Rojas began
documenting their experiences, filing grievances and forcing the state to
respond. Since their release in 2017, they have been a leader in an ongoing
lawsuit accusing guards of civil rights violations, including attacking
trans and GNC people; locking them in “isolation cages” in retaliation for
their complaints; and denying them medical treatment. (A prison
spokesperson declined to comment on Rojas’s claims, citing pending

The Los Angeles-based activist also helped launch #MeToo Behind Bars, a
against gender discrimination and sexual violence, fighting for the people
Rojas left behind – the oft-forgotten transgender men and non-binary and
queer people housed in women’s prisons.

In the latest installment of the Guardian’s series
<https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/series/trans-freedom-fighters> on
trans activists at the forefront of protest movements, we talked to Rojas
about prison abolition, the Covid crisis, and standing up to officers who
control every aspect of your life.

*This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.*

*I know there are a lot of trans and queer people in California women’s
prisons. Can you tell me a bit about this community behind bars?*

There were so many queer folks and GNC and trans people inside. There were
roughly 4,000 people incarcerated at CCWF, eight people in a room, and
every room had at least two trans and GNC folks. There were even more queer
folks. It’s crazy because we all come from the same communities. It felt
like every queer person from these small communities ends up in prison.
It’s then when you realize, damn, we’re targeted. It’s very revealing. How
does that happen? How are so many of us incarcerated? We’ve all been
through the worst of it, and if we don’t fight for us, there isn’t anyone
else who is going to come. Nobody’s coming to save us. That’s why it has to
be us fighting for us.

*Those numbers are striking. Why do you think queer and trans people are so
overrepresented in prison?*

We are criminalized for being us. These are the people whose families have
forgotten about them, whose families are not there for them, because they
don’t accept them for being who they are. People have to understand that a
lot of folks are there for survival crimes. They were hungry. They were
getting beaten, and they were defending themselves. People need to stop
looking at us like: “You’ve been to prison, you can’t be trusted, you don’t
belong in society.” Trans, GNC and queer folks, especially if they are
Black, are criminalized, and there is no winning in this system. It’s like
we were thrown away by society.
[image: rojas]
‘The guards can cut off all your lifelines – they stop your mail, rip up
your pictures.’ Photograph: Kayla Reefer/The Guardian

*Can you give me a sense of what life behind bars was like for you and

It is like we are not human, period. They constantly misgender us, and that
hurts, but that is the least of our problems. They always want to humiliate
us. Even the way they handcuff us. If you’re GNC or trans, they twist your
arms back and it’s really painful. They make you bend over as they walk you
across the yard. You’re the joke of the prison. Staff make fun of you. They
talk about our bodies and ask us if we know what we are. They’ll joke about
periods. They’ll dangle a tampon in front of you and taunt you. A male
guard said he would show me what a “real man” was. I was threatened with
rape, and then I was laughed at when I was scared. They would strip me and
I’d be naked in a room with male officers. They parade you around. And we
would get disciplined more than anyone else. We were abused in every way.

*What impact did this have on you personally?*

You feel shame. You want to keep it a secret. It’s hard to tell your family
and each other, because you don’t want to be the punchline, you don’t want
folks to hear about it. You just try to stay quiet so it goes away. But it
doesn’t ever go away. A lot of folks inside have never had any type of
therapy. So they get angry. It does something to you mentally. And I think
about the times I didn’t speak up, listening to my friends cry and seeing
what happened to them, and I feel like, damn, I should have said something
about this. There are so many people that were incarcerated with me and
we’re constantly apologizing to each other now, realizing we should have
said something. Out here, at least there are spaces for us to talk about
these things. PTSD is real. I still cry. I wake up crying at night. I have
horrible dreams. Sometimes I’m daydreaming and tears are just rolling down
my eyes, because of what I had to live with for so long.

*How did you decide to start organizing? That must have been terrifying.*

I didn’t decide to start organizing until my last year in prison, because I
was so scared of retaliation. They can cut off all your lifelines – they
stop your mail, rip up your pictures, it’s horrible. But after being in
there for so long, I decided I was sick of it and I would blow the whistle
and fight back, even if I had to go through retaliation. They do what they
want with you. They come down hard. They’ll make you strip. They give you
write ups. They discipline you. You literally have to let them abuse you.
But we started organizing anyway. And we had a network of folks that
supported us on the outside and helped us create #MeToo Behind Bars.

*What tactics did you use when you actually organized with others inside?*

You have to get super creative. You’re not allowed to be in groups of more
than three or you can get in trouble. They can label you a gang. And so we
had to figure out other ways to talk to each other. And a lot of us didn’t
go to school, so sometimes we’d get a dictionary and figure out how to
write our grievances together. We’d help one another, but in secrecy. You
can’t let the officers know you’re organizing on the inside, because then
everyone has to deal with retaliation. If you get caught, that’s it.

So you have to find new ways to keep it a secret. You have to meet in
hidden places wherever you can, and figure out who can bring back messages.
You have to trust each other. Sometimes you have to figure out how to talk
without talking. I know that sounds so crazy, but you can see someone with
a certain look and you know something has happened to them and you have to
figure out what’s going on. Sometimes we can’t speak, but we know what
those teary eyes mean.

*You filed the lawsuit in 2017 – do you think the guards or the institution
have changed at all?*

Two of our plaintiffs are still incarcerated, and the case is stuck in
litigation. We’re still waiting. But I’ve heard that other folks are
speaking up or they are writing grievances or considering suing. I think
more folks are empowered. That is a big deal, just to hear that folks want
to sue, that they are going to fight back and stand up to retaliation –
that is amazing. Sometimes when there is media attention around these
cases, the officers will back down for a bit. But eventually they go back
to their behaviors. It doesn’t matter. Or they’ll just change the way they
attack you. Just because we’re exposing these institutions doesn’t mean
it’s going to stop. They’re not just going to give up their power. This is
going to be a long fight.

*Beyond litigation, how do you protest and stop this kind of abuse?*

It’s not going to be fixed with reform. There is no fixing this. We can’t
keep these systems in place and just make them better. They are still going
to be super violent. Gender-based violence isn’t going to end when you fire
certain officers or put certain officers in jail. This is the system and
this is how it works, and even if we change things a little bit, the
problem is not going away. The violence comes from these systems. I hope
people really start listening to the folks that have been through it, and
start thinking about prison abolition – thinking of how we can better our
communities without these systems. These prisons are supposed to
“rehabilitate” you, but instead they just continuously punish you. There is
no help.

*Now that you’re out, what has it been like for you to watch the Covid-19
in California’s prisons – to see thousands get infected and dozens lose
their lives?*

It exposes that they don’t give a shit. They’d rather leave people in there
who have months left of their sentence and leave them at risk of dying. We
ain’t shit to them. They don’t care about our lives. They’d rather take
those last few months that they think we owe them. We don’t matter. The
governor has to release
more folks – folks who have two years left in their sentence, folks who
have been imprisoned for 20 years, folks over 60, folks with medical
conditions who could easily die. With more folks out, they could at least
socially distance more on the inside, and folks could live. We wouldn’t
have to talk about who lost their life today inside of prison.

*How should people on the outside who are sympathetic to the experiences of
incarcerated people get involved?*

People should look up local organizations that do this work wherever they
live. Find the closest one and ask what kind of support they need. And I
hope people start to have these conversations at home, with their families.
What would it be like if we didn’t have police? Beyond that, more people
need to listen to our stories. There are hundreds of people saying the same
thing as me. Believe us, like they did with the larger #MeToo movement when
the public started believing women more. Us too. We deserve that. It’s so
hard to change the narrative. People think we deserve this punishment, that
we are liars. It’s time to give us a chance.


*The state declined to comment to the Guardian on Rojas’s specific
claims. **California
has denied **their allegations in court, but a judge has ruled that **the
retaliation and excessive force claims in their case can move forward. An
order is still pending on other charges, though a judge issued an initial
recommendation that some sexual abuse claims be dismissed, arguing that
“mere verbal sexual harassment” and incidents that cause “humiliation” may
not rise to the level of constitutional violations.*

*Terry Thornton, a prison spokeswoman, said in an email that California has
adopted policies to prevent sexual abuse and “create more respectful
environments” for trans and non-binary prisoners. Guards are directed to
use correct pronouns and allow trans people to access clothes that match
their gender, she said, adding that the prison system has a zero-tolerance
policy for sexual harassment and retaliation.*


   In our *Trans freedom fighters
   project, the Guardian is spotlighting the work of trans and non-binary
   movement leaders on the frontlines of 2020 organizing and activism. Read
   more stories here
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