By OBSERVER Newsroom

Women who experience sexual assault often say they feel like prisoners in their own bodies and minds, suffering in silence in fearing judgement, future abuse and retaliation for speaking out.

Survivors who were physically imprisoned got an audience at the state Capitol recently, sharing their stories while testifying at a California Legislative Women’s Caucus briefing about abuse by staff at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla.

Among them was Latasha Brown, who says she survived more than 20 years of sexual abuse in penal facilities and feels “perpetual uneasiness” because she’s still tied to her incarceration.

“I’m here to amplify the voices of all women – cisgender or trans, inmate or staff – that have been subjected to male violence in penal facilities,” Brown said. “Because at the facility where I was previously housed, both inmates and staff suffered from sexual harassment or abuse.”

Brown recalled having an officer watch her while she showered and later being sexually assaulted by that same officer while escorting her, shackled, to the yard. She also recalls having a flashlight shone in her face as she was forced to flash her genitals.

“I want to forget what his hands feel like as they grope me. But my body betrays me as a vehicle carrying these memories. I want to forget the things that have happened to me at CCWF by multiple officers, including one whose name everybody in this room knows.”

The hearing followed extensive charges recently brought against former prison guard Gregory Rodriguez. Rodriguez is accused of assaulting at least 13 women at Chowchilla over a 10-year period.

In 2022, the Associated Press conducted an investigation into sexual abuse that led to the conviction of the former warden at a federal women’s prison in Dublin. Ray J. Garcia was sentenced to 70 months for molesting inmates and forcing them to pose for nude photos in their cells. Two former officers there also pleaded guilty to multiple accounts of abuse.

Advocates from several organizations testified at the Aug. 23 hearing. California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Survived and Punished, UnCommon Law, Prison Law Office, and Sister Warriors Freedom Coalition also have formed a solidarity committee for incarcerated survivors to investigate what they call a “horrific environment of fear and coercion that breeds abuse and assault in prisons,” while working to secure protections and resources for currently and formerly incarcerated survivors. Members of the coalition say their goal is to shed light on the “systemic and unchecked nature of such pervasive abuse” – and push California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to implement policy changes that they say are crucial for investigating abuse and protecting survivors.

“We must address the abusive and retaliatory culture inherent to the prison system that allows someone – and anyone – like Rodriguez to use their position of power to coerce, intimidate, and abuse vulnerable incarcerated people,” says Amika Mota, executive director of Sister Warriors Freedom Coalition. “The entire system must be overhauled to prioritize the safety of victims and witnesses and create survivor-led programs to support recovery.”

Advocates say incarcerated survivors and witnesses of sexual assault by prison staff experience retaliation when they speak up. Survivors such as Brown say they are silenced through threats of having “privileges” such as visitation or phone calls removed in addition to physical violence and intense surveillance.

What’s worse, they say, is the corrections protocol for investigating sexual abuse, which mandates strip-searching the victim and isolating them in solitary confinement.

“This response, and the lack of safe reporting, effectively institutionalizes sexual violence and compounds the traumatic violence that survivors have experienced,” says Katie Dixon, campaign and policy organizer with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners.

In 2017, many of these and other advocates came together in a #MeTooBehindBars lawsuit seeking to hold CDCR accountable for violent assaults by Chowchilla correctional officers who used abusive physical force and verbal assaults, including homophobic and transphobic threats against queer and gender nonconforming people.

Six years later, the solidarity committee says not much has changed. They are calling for investigations into abuse at the hands of staff conducted by an independent group, removal of personnel accused of abuse from the prisons they work in during investigations, expedited release of survivors, and access for survivors to comprehensive and self-determined health care and victim services that are also independent of CDCR, including access to lines of communication that are not surveilled.

Over the coming weeks, “Inside Out” will highlight the experiences of formerly incarcerated individuals and their families, look at efforts to improve local jail and prison facilities, and share the perspectives of Black correctional staffers and attorneys who work on change from within and activists who have dedicated their lives to shining a light on the inequities of the criminal justice system.