‘No longer human’: Women’s prisons are a breeding ground for sexual harassment, abuse

Incarcerated women and gender minorities are largely left out of the #MeToo discussion. Stacy Rojas wants to change that.

Credit: Getty Images
Credit: Getty Images

Stacy Rojas can still smell the chewing tobacco from the prison guard who spit on them three years ago during an incident in which guards allegedly subjected Rojas and their two cellmates to hours of sexual humiliation, harassment, and physical abuse.

“For me, that was torture, and it still is torture,” said Rojas, who is gender nonconforming. “I still have bad dreams about it.”

Rojas was released from Central California Women’s Facility, a state prison in Chowchilla, one and a half years ago after a 15-year term. Along with their female cellmates who are still inside, Rojas filed a lawsuit over the episode in November 2017. The case was referred to Magistrate Judge Jennifer L. Thurston in July and a hearing is set to take place Wednesday.

During the ordeal, which took place in November 2015, guards allegedly stomped on one woman’s breast, cut another’s clothes off, left them in isolation cells so long they had no choice but to soil themselves, and berated them with graphic sexual insults and suggestions.


While this was an extreme example, sexual harassment and abuse of women, transgender, and gender nonconforming people in women’s prisons and jails are anything but rare. Rojas had documented guards’ denigrating and sexual comments for weeks, a fact they think inspired the hours-long attack which occurred four days after they demanded to report the verbal abuse.

“This is not something that happens once a month or even once a week. This is an everyday thing,” Rojas told ThinkProgress. “This is what goes on, and this is how they speak to you. They refer to women as bitches and hoes, and if you’re not, then they’re going to make you their bitch.”

While incarcerated people across the country are currently striking to demand improved conditions and better channels for reporting mistreatment, few are aware of the extreme abuse rampant in women’s prisons and jails. These institutions are breeding grounds for the type of harassment that has become a national focal point thanks to the #MeToo movement. But behind bars, so far from the public eye with so few checks and balances to hold staff accountable, the problem becomes more blatant and extreme.

“You have people who are primarily men in positions of basically absolute power over a captive – literally captive – population,” said Diana Block, founding member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, which is helping with the lawsuit. “All the dynamics of sexism and patriarchy and sexual violence that are very prevalent in the society as a whole are translated directly into the conduct and behavior within prisons with very little protection or surveillance or recourse.”


Between 2009 and 2011, women represented just 13 percent of the people in jails, but they accounted for 67 percent of all staff-on-prisoner sexual victimization, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

In the context of incarceration, sexual harassment takes on a much more violent, humiliating, and dehumanizing quality than what is typically discussed in the #MeToo movement, almost as if it’s part of the punishment for committing a crime, Block explained.   

“All the dynamics of sexism and patriarchy and sexual violence that are very prevalent in the society … are translated directly into the conduct and behavior within prisons.”

Rojas said part of what is most misunderstood about incarcerated women, and especially transgender and gender nonconforming people behind bars, is the sense that they chose to break the law or be different, and so they may not be worthy of the same attention or protection.

It’s like “we made that choice to get treated like this,” Rojas said. For “the women there, I feel like people also look at them not as mothers, not as sisters… and they should just think a little bit more about why they’re there, what went wrong, instead of ‘they’re there, and now they’re no longer human.’”

Incarcerated women have largely been left out of the #MeToo discussion, just as they are left out of many conversations.


Part of the reason may be that incarcerated women disproportionately come from the most vulnerable and overlooked communities. In jails, the majority of women lack full employment prior to arrest and a third suffer from serious mental illness, according to a 2016 report by the Vera Institute of Justice. Two-thirds of jailed women are people of color.

“As the most marginalized community, this is just something else where it’s not discussed and that we are the last to be talked about,” said Topeka Sam, a former prisoner and the founder of the Ladies of Hope Ministries, an organization that helps formerly incarcerated women transition back into society.

Sam pointed out that while the #MeToo movement was founded by a black woman, Tarana Burke, over a decade ago, the mainstream media and public didn’t start paying attention until more affluent and white women started speaking out.

Even within criminal justice circles and reform efforts, women and gender nonconforming individuals are often left out, according to Elizabeth Swavola, a senior associate with the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute. Women make up a much smaller proportion of the overall incarcerated population, making them less of a focus.

But, over the last several decades, the incarceration rate of growth for women has been double that of men’s, according to The Sentencing Project. Since 1980, the population of women in jails and prisons rose from about 26,000 to almost 214,000 in 2016, a stunning growth rate of about 800 percent.

Credit: The Sentencing Project
Credit: The Sentencing Project

The population explosion means that women have been funneled into systems that were not built for them. Even supposedly standard correctional practices like shackling, observing prisoners changing and using the bathroom, or performing body searches can take on an especially sexual and violating nature when performed by male guards on female inmates. This is particularly true for the shockingly high proportion of women prisoners who are already survivors of sexual violence, as Rojas and their cellmates are, a reported 86 percent of women in jails, the Vera Institute report showed.

“All of that can be incredibly traumatic for any person but particularly for women knowing how high the rates of trauma are,” Swavola told ThinkProgress. “Most of the people in jail are men, and that’s how systems and practices have been designed, and so it’s absolutely easy to miss that women may be triggered by some of the standard practices.”

In general, support services and training are lacking in jails and prisons for both the prisoners and the guards.

“It’s not rehabilitative,” Sam said. “It’s a dark place, for everybody. And they’re not getting the type of treatment that they need either…So it’s just this constant violence being perpetuated over and over.”

The especially closed system and lack of accountability for reporting abuse is a major factor in continuing the cycle. To report staff misconduct of any kind, prisoners can file an administrative appeal (a 602) to request an investigation. But the problem is “you are filing the 602 basically with, if not the actual people, the friends of the people, the coworkers of the people, who have abused you,” Block said.

“It’s a dark place, for everybody. And they’re not getting the type of treatment that they need …So it’s just this constant violence being perpetuated over and over.”

Rojas and the other plaintiffs filed multiple 602 grievances that were for the most part ignored or left unresolved. “You want to make someone laugh in there? You want to tell a joke,” Rojas said. “You tell them you’re filing a 602.”

And when Rojas and their cellmates dialed a hotline meant for reporting sexual harassment at the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation’s Office of Internal Affairs, the number was no good. “It is so discouraging…You’re hopeless.”

The sense that there will be no recourse or, even worse, that there will be retaliation, can have a chilling effect on reporting. And the utter isolation factor can leave incarcerated women feeling all the more helpless.

“That’s one of the things we are really grappling with is what system can we ask for that would be better? What does it mean to be a whistleblower and have any type of protection when you’re in prison,” Block said.

That’s why, beyond seeking damages, Rojas’ lawsuit is seeking injunctive relief in a number of areas, including the development of a whistleblowing process managed by an external agency. The goal is to be able to hold correctional officers and staff accountable for mistreatment, excessive force, and the use of solitary confinement cages, claiming officers violated the prisoners’ Eighth Amendment rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. The lawsuit also aims to ensure prisoners can access proper medical care, food, and clothing.

There is reason to be hopeful. Despite the many deterrents, reporting of sexual victimization has increased in recent years, according to new Bureau of Justice Statistics findings. Nationwide, grassroots efforts have increased public and media awareness about women prisoners. At the federal level, several members of congress have introduced legislation around the dignity of incarcerated women, and there is hope that such efforts might increase as more women take on legislative positions.

“I think just as the #MeToo movement represents some level of evolution or culmination of struggles and consciousness that has been developing over decades, so too within the prisons, there has been a changing at least awareness that that imbalance and power dynamic and that status quo is not acceptable,” Block said.

Now on the outside, Rojas often feels a sort of “survivor’s guilt” when they think of their former cellmates still inside. It makes them depressed, but also even more determined.

“That’s why I really have that fire inside me,” Rojas said. “I want to let the world know and get whatever help I can.”