#MeToo Behind Bars – Lawsuit and Grassroots Campaign

On November 9, 2017, a lawsuit was filed against the CDCR by four plaintiffs who are or were incarcerated at CCWF. The plaintiffs all identify as transgender, gender non-conforming (GNC) or queer. The lawsuit denounces two assaults where correctional officers (COs) used physical force, sexually harassed, and used homophobic and transphobic insults against the plaintiffs.  Medical treatment was not provided for their injuries and they were placed in isolation cages where they were subject to further sexual humiliation and denied access to bathrooms.

Below are some common questions and answers regarding the lawsuit.

Why was a lawsuit filed?

The plaintiffs tried to go through the prison’s 602 grievance process to address the assaults. In some cases their 602’s were blocked from being processed and in other cases the 602 process was exhausted but didn’t result in any relief.  The 602 process is controlled by the CDCR and rarely provides substantial relief for grievances.

  • Many letters were written by advocates to CCWF’s warden and the CDCR asking them to deal with the plaintiffs’ grievances and to hold COs accountable.
  • A lawsuit was finally filed because CDCR did nothing to respond to these requests for relief and change.
  • Plaintiffs recognize that the assaults are part of a larger pattern of excessive force by guards that impact many other women and trans prisoners. Their hope is that the lawsuit will help prevent such incidents in the future.

What specific changes are the plaintiffs hoping to accomplish with the lawsuit?

The plaintiffs want to win change/ injunctive relief in the areas listed below: 

  • Stop the prison’s targeting of gender non-conformity.
  • Hold COs and staff accountable when they use excessive force. This could include reassignment, suspension, firing and legal prosecution.
  • End the use of force, intimidation and other forms of retaliation against people who try to document and report CO misconduct –Protect whistleblowers inside prisons!
  • End the use of punitive isolation cages with no access to toilets and no monitoring for health problems.
  • Ensure that prisoners who are involved in any physical altercation with guards receive medical care as already mandated (but not implemented) by CDCR policies.
  • Ensure the upholding of ADA (American with Disabilities Act) mandated policies and accommodations for incarcerated people with disabilities in all situations.
  • Develop a whistle-blowing process that is managed by an agency external to the CDCR.
Rojas, plaintiff who has been released, speaking at event.

Why does the lawsuit specify that plaintiffs were all transgender, gender non-conforming or queer?

Many women in prison are sexually violated and harassed. However, in the past few years there has been an increasing pattern of physical and sexual violence against transgender, GNC and queer women prisoners at CCWF.

  • These incidents represent a backlash against hard-won legal rights for trans people in prison, such as the right to access hormone therapy. They reflect CO resentment about changing cultural norms regarding gender identity.
  • The incidents also re-traumatize people who are survivors of sexual violence, homophobia and transphobia before they were incarcerated.
  • Winning changes in procedures for trans and GNC people will support everyone who is subject to physical and sexual violence.

How can other people in women’s prisons connect to the lawsuit?

 The legal team is continuing to collect stories from other prisoners about abusive attacks which could be used as amplifying material or to support a class action lawsuit in the future.

How does this lawsuit connect to the growing #MeToo movement?

#MeToo represents a moment of exploding social awareness about the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and violence by those in power against vulnerable people.  Women, trans and GNC people inside prisons are vulnerable, invisible targets of the guards, staff and prison administration who control their lives.

The inclusion of these shameful stories from inside women’s prisons provides a crucial dimension to the national conversation on gendered violence.

How can people support the lawsuit?

CCWP and allied groups are committed to building a grassroots campaign to support the lawsuit. The campaign, anchored by loved ones and advocates, will educate and mobilize the public to demand an end to abusive and discriminatory behavior behind prison walls.

Next steps include pressuring state legislators to hold a hearing on on assaults in women’s prisons against queer, transgender and gender non-conforming people as well as gender-based violence more broadly; and organizing a statewide tribunal which would connect the assaults inside prisons with police and other forms of state violence on the outside.

Janetta Johnson, Maria Moore, Jen Orthwein and Rojas on panel at New Parkway benefit.

To get regular updates about how to support the lawsuit and plug into the campaign, email us at info@womenprisoners.org.