Chowchilla guards threatened rape, harassed inmates over gender identity, lawsuit says

A sign at the entrance of the Central California Women's facility in Chowchilla Monday. (1-7-13)
A sign at the entrance of the Central California Women's facility in Chowchilla Monday. (1-7-13) Merced Sun-Star file photo

Four former or current inmates of the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla say they were victims of sexual humiliation, harassment and even threats of rape, among other abusive treatment, because of their gender identities, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court.

A transgender man, a gender non-conforming person and two female prisoners who identify as queer have filed a joint lawsuit against the state and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. All four are Hispanic.

The suit was filed in November and outlines a string of alleged abuses involving multiple correctional officers on two specific days — Nov. 11, 2015, and Jan. 5, 2017. Plaintiffs say correctional officers beat, sexually harassed, and tormented the inmates, including using homophobic and transphobic insults, according to the complaint.

They were also denied medical treatment for their injuries related to the assaults, nor were they allowed to file grievances, according to the complaint.

"The assaults are particularly reprehensible because the plaintiffs are all survivors of sexual trauma and violence and were assaulted while advocating for their basic human rights," according to a statement from the plaintiffs.

Prison officials on Tuesday said it was unclear whether they’ve formally been notified of the lawsuit but said they wouldn’t comment on any litigation.

During the 2015 incident, guards made Stacy Rojas and two cellmates, Ivett Ayestas and Sarah Lara, stand outside their cell as about 10 guards conducted "a destructive search,” the complaint says. One of the officers made comments that led Rojas to suspect the search was conducted in retaliation for Rojas demanding to report another guard calling Rojas a “stupid hoe.”

Rojas asked again to file grievances, the complaint says, and subsequently was "slammed" to the ground and handcuffed.

A guard then placed his boot on Rojas’ back and did what's called a "boot-burn," dragging his boot across Rojas' back, the complaint says.

Lara, too, asked to file grievances with the Investigations Services Unit, but also was denied, the complaint says.

She was placed face down, with a guard at her back in such a way that her right breast became exposed, the complaint says. The officer stepped on her exposed breast hard enough to cause bruising, according to the complaint.

All three were placed in isolation for about 12 hours, the complaint says, and were not let out to use the restroom, seek medical attention or get food and water. All three ultimately soiled themselves when no longer able to hold in their urine, the complaint says.

Ayestas was taken out at one point and ordered to changes her clothes in front of a male officer, the complaint says. When she asked for privacy, she was threatened with solitary confinement, the complaint says. Ayestas insisted on privacy and was taken down forcefully causing her to hit her face on a toilet, the complaint says.

The officers used a pair of scissors to cut the clothes off of Ayestas, the complaint says.

Rojas was released from the facility in January 2017, according to a news release.

"Most of us are inside because of the histories of violence and abuse that we experienced and then got caught up in," Rojas said in a statement. "Just because we are in prison doesn’t mean that we should not have our basic human rights protected. I do not want anyone else to go through what I did."

The 2017 incident involved Isaac Medina, a transgender man with disabilities who takes medication four times a day, according to the complaint.

Medina asked an officer to allow him out to get his medicine, the complaint said. After a disagreement over Medina's needs, the officer trailed him and began harassing him, the complaint says.

The officer attempted to grab the inmate in an "unwarranted" headlock, but Medina dodged it and the officer slipped, the complaint says. Several other guards responded to help the officer take Medina to the ground.

A female officer searched Medina, at one point loosening his pants so that they fell to the ground with his genitals exposed, the complaint says. He was then forced walk through the prison and the yard with his pants around his ankles, exposed to other inmates, the complaint says.

The guards did not pull his pants up, though he asked, the complaint says. Medina was placed in isolation for four hours and not allowed to use the bathroom or get water, the complaint says. He was handcuffed and unable to pull his pants up. One of the officers taunted Medina by telling other officers that Medina "had not been with a man in a long time," the complaint says. He suggested he could take Medina "around the corner" and have sex with him, according to the complaint.

Medina suffered shoulder damage, a bloodied head and other injuries, according to the complaint. He was transferred to California Institute of Women in Chino in February of last year.

The complaint names a number of correctional officers as defendants. The plaintiffs are seeking an unspecified amount of money to cover the health needs of the inmates and other expenses.

A hearing in the case is set for March 18 in U.S. District Court.