Sexual violence and transphobia in prisons are still taboo topics of discussion, even in the midst of some prison reform efforts nationwide.
But a group of victims/survivors and advocates launched the #MeTooBehindBars campaign that aims to influence the #MeToo movement and to include the voices of those incarcerated who have or are suffering from sexual harassment or sexual abuse.
This new campaign has found its way to the steps of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) office in Sacramento. An Oct. 30 protest was held to raise the awareness of transgender, gender nonconforming (GNC) and queer people’s plight within the state prison system, according to the Young Women’s Freedom Center and California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) advocacy groups.
Advocates arrived in front of the building in vans. The participants arranged themselves in a circle and laid out the words “Me Too” on the ground and lined them with flowers. Many of the speakers shared their stories of being sexually assaulted behind bars, as each spoke from the building steps.
“There is so much violence against trans women inside. The culture is to blame women for the violence,” said Attorney Jen Orthwein, who represents transgender women in California’s men prisons, to SQ News.
“Many of the women I’ve worked with are gone. There was Allie, who was sliced in her neck and placed in solitary confinement. Her cellmate was constantly harassing her, and she begged to be moved.
“Another one of my clients was beaten by cellmates and correctional officers, then…a noose was left in her cell. She was denied surgery and committed suicide the next day,” added Orthwein.
In a call and response cry of “Me Too,” “behind bars” activists walked in a circle chanting and holding protest signs.
“I was harassed and sexually harassed because I was GNC,” said Stacy Rojas, who is formerly incarcerated and spoke at the rally. “People thought they could make me want to be a woman or show me that I am.
“From the very beginning of me stepping foot in jail and having them telling me to put on a dress—it’s all in the way they say it, the way they tell me to turn around and spread it. [They would] laugh at me. They would tell me that they would make me like it.
“There was so much sexual violence because of me being masculine presenting and being GNC,” Rojas added.
Rojas understands the importance of speaking out and bringing awareness to the #MeTooBehindBars movement.
“It’s not just my story, believe me. I have friends who would not speak out at first. They’re embarrassed and ashamed,” said Rojas. “Now they’re standing up next to me screaming it out. It’s not that we’re happy, but we’re not going to…keep secret(s) anymore. I want them [people in authority] to understand that sexual assault happens, period.
“[It] runs so deep—trans women are looked at in a f@#ked up way,” reflects Rojas. “Toxic patriarchal men look at them and are upset that they believe in their heads that they are men and can’t believe that they want to be a woman.
“They can’t understand what trans is at all,” said Rojas.
Victims of sexual assault in prisons are encouraged to report incidents to their state’s correctional internal affairs department—this includes if someone has been threatened with sexual assault or has experienced retaliation for reporting an incident, according to PREA posters within U.S. prisons.
In 2003, the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was signed into law. The goal was to create a zero tolerance policy around rape in prison. To date, San Quentin, along with most state or federal prisons in the nation, has PREA posters on the walls in all areas of the institution.
The “Shine the Light on Sexual Abuse” posters provide telephone numbers and addresses for reporting incidents. The phone numbers accept collect calls from incarcerated people.
SQ News has received mixed responses about PREA’s effectiveness. Some people reported that it worked and others said they experienced some form of retaliation or no action was taken for their claims.
There have been various lawsuits filed against correctional departments nationwide, including CDCR. Also there are ongoing investigations into abuse claims by correctional departments, according to some court filing records.
Changing a culture of violence toward the LGBTQ community within prisons is one of the main priorities of the protestors.
“When you hear about sexual assault in the workplace, everyone is freaking out about it and saying that this has to stop. People are appalled while they are watching [it on] the news,” said Rojas. “But there’s thousands of people who can’t complain at all.
“You’re stuck in a place where nobody worries about you. There are thousands of people going through this and it’s kept a secret.”
Madeleine Gregory, a student at UC Berkeley, contributed to this article.