#MeToo Behind Bars: When the Sexual Assaulter Holds the Keys to Your Cell

(Image: ostill, Piyathep  / Shutterstock; Edited: JR / TO)(Image: ostill, Piyathep / Shutterstock; Edited: JR / TO)

In January, Strawberry Hampton, a trans woman incarcerated in Illinois, settled a lawsuit about repeated sexual and physical abuse she’d experienced by prison staff in the state’s men’s prisons. What she endured isn’t limited to Illinois prisons, or to men’s prisons. Across the country, thousands of incarcerated people face sexual harassment, abuse and assault, frequently at the hands of staff. In the face of these attacks — and the reality of retaliation — incarcerated people have come forward to file complaints and lawsuits, fighting back against system-wide abuse.

The Pervasive Problem of Prison Sexual Abuse

In 2016, Hampton, then age 24, was transferred to Pinckneyville Correctional Center, a medium-security men’s prison in Illinois. There, officers repeatedly made sexual comments and derogatory slurs toward her and her cellmate, another trans woman. This was not the first time that Hampton had experienced sexual harassment by staff. “Everybody experiences some harassment [in prison],” noted Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center (UPLC), which works with people incarcerated throughout Illinois and represented Hampton in her suit. “Everybody who is trans or gender nonconforming gets more harassment.”

But at Pinckneyville, the verbal abuse escalated into sexual abuse. According to her complaint filed with the courts, in March 2017, several staff members, including an internal affairs officer, entered Hampton’s cell. They forced her to put on a thong and her prison-issued bra. They forced her cellmate, a trans woman named Denashio Tester, to put on boxers. They forced the two to dance in a sexual manner, touching themselves and each other. They also grabbed Hampton’s breasts and buttocks. Over the next three months, these officers made these demands at least four times. Terrified, neither person reported these events.

All of these actions violate the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), federal legislation designed to address and eliminate sexual abuse behind bars. But, as Hampton and Tester’s experiences demonstrate, PREA frequently fails to either address or eliminate sexual abuse. In jails and prisons across the country, incarcerated people are subject to sexual harassment, abuse and assault, frequently at the hands of staff. If they report these assaults, they risk retaliation, including greater violence, causing many to stay quiet.

As the #MeToo movement outside of prison walls continues to gather momentum, what about survivors who are locked away? And what happens when the assailants are the people who literally hold the keys to their lives?

The Worst Distillation of Toxic Masculinity

“Prisons are the worst distillation of toxic masculinity,” said Alan Mills. “That’s just the way we run prisons in this country. It’s all about inflicting punishment on people. It’s about the use of force in order to force compliance to an arbitrary set of rules. It’s about dehumanizing people. It’s not surprising that this translates to harassment and abuse.” The Uptown People’s Law Center is preparing to file an amended complaint on behalf of Janiah Monroe, a trans woman who was sexually assaulted several times by staff at Illinois’s Dixon Correctional Center.

Sexual abuse at the hands of staff isn’t limited to Illinois. In one year alone, the Department of Justice found that, in jails and prisons across the country, staff were responsible for more than half of sexual victimization. In state and federal prisons, trans people were more likely to experience abuse by staff than by other incarcerated people. This was certainly true for Stacy Rojas, a gender nonconforming person who was incarcerated at the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), the state’s largest women’s prison. Throughout their 14 years in prison, Rojas endured continued verbal harassment by prison staff because of their gender identity.

In November 2015, after an officer called them a “stupid hoe,” Rojas told officers that they had been documenting these comments for weeks and would complain to the prison’s internal investigation unit. In response, officers ripped apart the contents of Rojas’s cell and attacked Rojas. When two of their cellmates said that they would report the attack, they too were assaulted. The officers slammed them to the ground, stomped on one of their breasts with a boot, strip searched them in view of male officers and cut their clothing off. Officers then placed all three in small programming cages for nearly 12 hours, denying them medical care and even the use of a bathroom. When they were taken out of these cages, they were placed in administrative segregation, a form of solitary confinement in which a person spends 23 to 24 hours each day locked in a cell without their belongings.

The Limits of PREA

Among the officers who arrived at Hampton’s cell in March 2017 was an internal affairs officer. In prisons across the country, including Illinois, PREA complaints are investigated by internal affairs officers.

“What it shows is the total dysfunction of PREA,” stated Mills. “PREA on its face is great, but it depends on honest and thorough investigations into complaints once they’re made.” That an internal affairs officer was not only present, but participated, in the initial sexual abuse “sends a message to everybody that internal affairs is not to be trusted.”

In many jails and prisons, including California’s prisons, victims of sexual abuse have the option of calling the PREA hotline instead of filing a report with staff. But these forms of sexualized violence experienced by Rojas and their cellmates may not be covered by California’s interpretation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which defines sexual harassment as repeated and unwelcome comments or gestures of a sexual nature. Given that the violence inflicted upon Rojas can be interpreted as a (non-sexual) assault, their only recourse is to file complaints, known as 602s, with prison staff. To do so, they first had to ask prison staff for 602 forms; at first, staff refused to give them these forms. When they finally did, the grievances were lost or misplaced. Even when Rojas and their cellmates received a response, they reported that officers’ behavior remained changed.

Under the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act, incarcerated people must exhaust the prison’s administrative process (also known as the grievance process) before they are allowed to appear in court. In November 2017, Rojas, their two cellmates and a trans man at CCWF finally did so and were able to file a lawsuit charging that the continual sexual harassment, excessive force and subsequent denial of medical care violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Their complaint demands more control and accountability when excessive violence, whether physical or sexual, occurs, as well as safe reporting options to a third party outside the prison.

Their lawsuit — and the subsequent publicity — encouraged others to come forward with their own stories of sexualized violence by prison staff. The California Coalition for Women Prisoners, an advocacy organization working with Californians incarcerated in women’s jails and prisons, has compiled dossiers from 11 other people, mostly trans and gender nonconforming people, detailing staff sexual abuse and misconduct. “This is systematic,” noted Sara Kershner, an organizer with the Coalition.

Officer Retaliation

On May 24, 2017, after an officer verbally harassed them, Hampton and Tester threatened to file a PREA complaint. That night, 16 officers pulled both women out of their cell. They cuffed Hampton behind her back and walked her to the shower, making so much noise that people in the nearby cells awoke and came to their cell doors to see what was happening. They brutally beat her before cutting off her shirt, bra and pants and leaving her naked in a cold cell for several hours.

The following day, Hampton filed a PREA complaint about the physical and sexual abuse with mental health staff. According to her complaint, the internal affairs officer told her that, if she dropped the complaint, she and Tester could continue as cellmates. If not, he threatened her with fake disciplinary tickets that would leave her “buried in segregation” where she would not be fed or allowed to shower. Nonetheless, Hampton refused to drop her complaint. She spent the next three months in segregation as officers issued her disciplinary tickets for imaginary misconduct; they also continued to sexually harass and physically abuse her. Hampton filed grievance after grievance; none were ever investigated.

On August 23, 2017, Hampton was transferred to Menard Correctional Center, another men’s prison. Officers assaulted her on the hour-long bus ride. Once at Menard, she attempted to file a PREA complaint, but officers denied her and told her to “shut the fuck up.” That was only the start of the daily harassment and abuse at the hands of prison staff who, according to the complaint, “made it clear … that they knew she filed a PREA complaint about the sexual abuse she experienced at Pinckneyville and that they are going to punish her at Menard for speaking up against fellow IDOC [Illinois Department of Corrections] officers.” When Hampton again tried to file a PREA complaint, officers pepper-sprayed her in the face.

By October, the verbal sexual harassment escalated. Hampton was placed in a holding cell with an incarcerated man known to be aggressive. While officers watched, he beat her. When another person tried to intervene, officers pepper-sprayed him and Hampton. In addition, officers on the night shift threatened to physically hurt Hampton if she did not perform for them by moving her body in sexual ways, touch herself sexually and expose herself to them. Meanwhile, Hampton received a letter from the prison’s warden stating that, because she had no physical or video evidence or witnesses, her PREA allegations were unsubstantiated.

Fortunately for Hampton, she had legal support. While at Chicago’s Cook County Jail awaiting trial, she had been part of a lawsuit about the jail’s excessive force and was still in contact with attorneys from the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center. With the support of attorneys from the Center and their co-counsel from the Uptown People’s Law Center, she filed suit against the Department of Corrections.

Over 20 men incarcerated at Pinckneyville submitted affidavits attesting to the repeated sexual abuse against Hampton. Some even testified at the hearing. One witness, Edward Taylor, testified that staff told him earlier that morning, “You better not run your mouth.” Despite the threat and fear, he told the court about the violence he witnessed against Hampton, adding, “I’m in fear for my life being here today.”

This fear of retaliation keeps not only witnesses, but often victims of staff violence from coming forward. “There’s always a risk,” Mills said, pointing out that prison staff have total control over a person’s life in prison, including leaving their cell, accessing food or phone calls or visits. But, he adds, “What’s surprising is how many people are willing to stand up and take that risk on behalf of somebody else that they don’t know very well.”

Witnesses are often key not only to winning (or at least settling) in court, but also encouraging survivors not to stay silent. In Illinois, after inadvertently walking in on the sexual abuse that Janiah Monroe was experiencing, Patrice Daniels, another person incarcerated at Dixon, confronted the abusive officer and helped Monroe file a grievance.

“I Do Not Want Anyone Else to Go Through What I Did”

Despite her settlement, Strawberry Hampton remains in segregation in a (different) men’s prison. Part of her settlement simply instructs the Illinois Department of Corrections to do what it was supposed to be doing to begin with — its Gender Identity Disorder Committee will review Hampton’s placement and mental health care; the committee will then decide where she will stay for the duration of her sentence.

Hampton had initially been scheduled to be released from solitary confinement into the general prison population in March, but was charged with assaulting an officer. If found guilty, her time in isolation will be extended. In addition, Hampton’s past charges come with a loss of good time, or time off one’s prison sentence. Some of her previous misconduct tickets, written in retaliation for her reporting, resulted in a loss of good time. “She would be out sooner, if not already, were it not for those tickets,” said Mills.

Meanwhile, she continues to suffer sexual abuse, including rape threats from another man in the housing unit. She has also been denied access to the prison’s mental health group for people in segregation. Faced with the bleak prospect of an indeterminate time in isolation, continued sexual abuse and no recourse, Hampton has attempted suicide four times. Each time, Hampton spent one day wearing a stiff suicide-proof smock in a crisis cell, or a cell devoid of everything save a concrete slab. Each time, she was returned to segregation after that one day. She continues to be denied access to mental health treatment.

On March 8, the UPLC filed another lawsuit, this time demanding that Hampton be released from solitary confinement, provided with mental health treatment and transferred to a women’s prison. At the same time, activists have launched a call-in campaign demanding that the Department of Corrections release Hampton from solitary confinement and transfer her to a women’s prison.

In California, Rojas is now out of prison. The three other plaintiffs are still incarcerated. Since filing suit, the three have experienced verbal harassment, but no additional physical attacks or sexualized violence. Kershner attributes this to the publicity and pronounced public support that organizers, both inside and outside, galvanized immediately after the suit was filed.

Though now out of prison, Rojas is determined to change conditions for those still incarcerated. “Just because we are in prison doesn’t mean that we should not have our basic human rights protected,” Rojas stated in a press release after filing suit. “I do not want anyone else to go through what I did.”