Over the last few years, the news has been full of stories describing how powerful men in various industries sexually harassed and abused female subordinates and coworkers. Now, imagine how much worse it must be for women who are literally held prisoner by their abusers. That’s the picture we get from sexual misconduct records recently released to news station KQED under a new state transparency law as well as recent court filings by female inmates who are fighting back.
U.S. News reported that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation “fired at least six male correctional officers for sexually abusing women in their custody between 2014 and 2018.” But, according to “inmate advocates,” the problem of “sexual abuse by [prison] staff is more rampant than the records show because few officers get reported or investigated.”
That statement makes sense. If sexual harassment is common in the private business sector where women can quit an abusive boss or work environment, file a complaint with the EEOC, and are protected by law against retaliation, how much more significant must the problem be for female prisoners. These women don’t worry that speaking up might damage their careers; they fear not being let out of their cells and losing access to “clean laundry, phone calls, tampons, …and other basic needs.” Additionally, Correctional Officers can “write up inmates, which can result in extending a prison sentence.” Given the power male prison guards wield over almost 5,000 female inmates in the state’s prison system, it’s hard to imagine that only six correctional officers were guilty of sexual misconduct.
The Prison Law Office, a non-profit that monitors conditions for inmates, “interviewed hundreds of women at the Central Valley prison and documented their complaints for the court.” In 2016, the Office surveyed a “random sample of 80 women,” finding that “nearly all had experienced sexual abuse or harassment while incarcerated.” That led to a “second round of interviews,” which “turned up similar complaints, often at the hands of the same officers.” The Office noted that “a culture of bigotry and sexism [exists] at the prison.”
A recent case involved Correctional Officer Israel Trevino, whom an inmate accused of groping her buttocks after putting her in wrist restraints. On another occasion, Trevino had allegedly tried to pull up a woman’s shirt and put his hand down her pants. That inmate had claimed, “Trevino squeezed her buttocks over her clothing while escorting her [to the shower] and tried to get her to expose her breasts and vagina.” Both incidents allegedly occurred in 2017. Trevino, who had worked at the prison for a decade, was subsequently fired in 2018 for sexual misconduct, but criminal charges were never brought.
The list of abusive acts cited by KQED includes:
- Sexually harassing comments
- Groping and fondling
- Sexual assault, including oral sex and rape
Correctional Officers are prohibited by law from having any sexual contact with inmates, who cannot legally consent to relations. But Amika Mota, who “spent most of a nine-year prison sentence for vehicular manslaughter at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla,” said female inmates have little choice in how to respond to the harassment. Mota “never reported any harassment,” because she feared retaliation. In her words, “It was just this survival technique to play along.”
After Mota was released in 2015, she “joined the San Francisco Bay Area-based Young Women’s Freedom Center” and is “now part of a new movement called Me Too Behind Bars, working to expose sexual abuse of people in prison and jail.”
The movement has allies within the system, according to prison system spokeswoman Dana Simas. Ms. Simas wrote in an October 11th email, “All sexual violence, staff sexual misconduct, and sexual harassment is strictly prohibited.” She claims the action taken against Trevino demonstrates that the state prison system is determined to root out “sexual assault and harassment by staff, including correctional officers, to comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.” However, the system’s record does not inspire confidence. KQED notes that “In 2018, 337 staff-on-inmate incidents were reported in California prisons,” but “investigations substantiated just three of those allegations.” How can women feel secure in reporting abuse if less than one percent of complaints are taken seriously?
Clearly, California has a long way to go in reforming the system to protect female prisoners from predatory guards. In the meantime, inmates must realize they have rights. This includes the right to effective legal representation to pursue complaints against abusive guards and receive monetary compensation for their injuries, pain, and suffering.
If you or a loved one suffered from sexual assault at the hands of prison guards or jail staff, you may be entitled to damages. Visit our inmate abuse information page for more details. Ready to see if you have a case? CALL US at 866.836.4684 or Connect Online to learn how we can help you file a federal civil rights lawsuit.