Prisons without protections
Women in California prisons sue as the state pushes transgender policies, housing male and female inmates together
Incarcerated women in California say their prisons have changed since the men moved in. A state law enacted last year prompted an influx of male inmates who identify as female or nonbinary at facilities designed for women. Recent reports from advocates revealed that prison officials installed condom dispensers and posters displaying options for impregnated inmates—abortion, abortifacients, or adoption. Meanwhile, women share cramped cells and bathrooms with men convicted of rape and murder.
“Males keep moving from room to room to violate as many women as possible,” one female inmate said in a handwritten letter to Amie Ichikawa, president of Woman II Woman, a nonprofit advocacy group for incarcerated women. The woman described a male inmate who chose a bunk closest to the bathroom to watch her and other cellmates undress and shower. “If we make a [curtain] out of sheets, we get written up,” she said.
Woman II Woman and four inmates currently housed at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla filed a lawsuit on Nov. 17 against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). The women claim the state’s mixed-sex facilities put them in danger of physical and sexual violence and violate their rights to safety, privacy, and dignity.
Now, President Joe Biden is reportedly planning an executive order modeled after California’s law, allowing federal inmates to self-identify their gender and choose between male or female prisons, according to a leaked draft order obtained by The Federalist. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., introduced a bill last Wednesday to stop Biden’s plan, stating it puts incarcerated women at increased risk of sexual assault.
An estimated 1,200 of 156,000 federal inmates identify as transgender, according to a Justice Department official.
In California, 288 incarcerated men had requested transfers to female prisons as of Dec. 15, according to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Officials approved 41 of those requests and denied eight, and 12 inmates changed their minds. Nine individuals in female prisons requested transfers to facilities for men.
Terry Thornton, deputy press secretary for the department, said in an email that the CDCR is deliberate and thorough in its review of gender-based housing requests. A department FAQ page states that transfer requests are reviewed by a committee that includes the prison warden, a legal compliance manager, and custody, medical, and mental health staff members. The committee is required to assess the inmate’s criminal history but must give “serious consideration to the perceptions of health and safety of the person making the request.” An inmate’s anatomy, physical characteristics, or sexual orientation are not reasons for denial, the department’s website states.
Tracking the number of transfers the CDCR approves is becoming increasingly difficult. On Nov. 30, the state began recording its weekly population reports based on inmates’ gender identity rather than biological sex. On Wednesday, for example, 89 inmates at the Chowchilla women’s prison self-identified as “male,” 2,142 as “female,” and 51 as “nonbinary.” At the California Institution for Women in Chino, there were 55 self-identified males, 952 women, and 18 nonbinary.
Lauren Adams, the legal director for Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF) and an attorney representing Chowchilla plaintiffs, said the new gender identity reports further obscure the truth about what is happening in women’s prisons, including increased physical and sexual violence. “We fight with information and data that has integrity and with language. … They’re trying to take that away from us,” she said. “We can’t call them men, we can’t count them, they’re not recording them, so it’s harder to expose what is going on.”
Krystal Gonzalez, a Chowchilla inmate and plaintiff in the lawsuit against the CDCR, alleged she was sexually assaulted by a male inmate who transferred to the facility under the state law. She said in court documents that after filing a grievance report, prison staff listed her assailant as a “transgender woman” with male genitalia.
The CDCR declined to comment on the pending lawsuit.
Meanwhile, the department states that condoms are only available at female prisons for overnight family visits and when inmates are released after completing their sentence. Sexual acts are otherwise prohibited in prison and result in disciplinary charges. Still, documents obtained by WoLF and Ichikawa of Woman II Woman indicate female state prisons began distributing condoms more widely as men moved in.
A July 2021 document obtained by Ichikawa, first reported by the Daily Caller, described discussions between California Institution for Women prison officials and inmates over condom distribution and other concerns, including wider shower curtains and strip searches by officers wearing body cameras. The inmate advisory council meeting notes state that condom dispensers were installed “because the Administration believed it was the right thing to do given the makeup of the population.” Condom issuance was later halted after a “decision was made by individuals higher than the Warden,” the minutes said.
Female inmates first alerted Ichikawa about newly installed condom dispensers. “They saw them and were pretty traumatized … it’s terrifying,” she told me. Ichikawa hopes highlighting such firsthand accounts will help shift the debate: “I think people are slowly starting to wake up and realize this is a human rights issue.”
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