Female prisoners sue California for censoring complaints about anatomically male transfers

First Amendment chilling effects, 8th Amendment violation from increased risk of sexual harassment, rape, STDs, they claim.

Updated: November 18, 2021 - 11:13pm

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The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) is violating the First Amendment rights of female prisoners by removing male references from their complaints about transgender women being moved into their facilities, according to a gender-critical feminist group.

It's the most unusual claim in the federal lawsuit filed this week by the Women's Liberation Front (WoLF) on behalf of inmates Janine Chandler, Krystal Gonzalez, Tomiekia Johnson and Nadia Romero, who allege they are victims of either sexual or domestic violence.

They are challenging the constitutionality of California Senate Bill 132, which has been in effect for 10 months. It lets prisoners choose their gender identity for purposes of placement — and even bodily searches — regardless of sex reassignment surgery or hormone therapy.

When Romero filed a complaint about being "grabbed by a man in her unit," and Gonzalez requested single-sex housing after a transgender inmate sexually assaulted her, prison officials described their attackers as transgender women or females.

Being housed with self-identified transgender prisoners who are anatomically male also constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the 8th Amendment, and violates their 14th Amendment equal protection rights, the suit claims. 

It puts biological women, whose facilities are already overcrowded, at "substantially increased risk of sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape, and physical violence," as well as sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and psychological fear of such harms — an "unofficial punishment."

Given the stark imbalance between the number of men and women seeking transfer into each other's prisons, the law functionally "transform[s] the California prison system from being sex-separated ... to a system comprised of men’s facilities, and mixed-sex facilities."

This spring, the Los Angeles Times interviewed several transgender inmates at men's prisons who raised the issue of inmates requesting transfers to women's prisons under false pretenses. The Transgender Gender-Variant & Intersex Justice Project also criticized the law for requiring only self-identification.

WoLF executive director Mahri Irvine told Just the News that "the vast majority of women in prison have histories of sexual and/or domestic violence, committed against them by men," even if prison medical records don't document conditions like anxiety.

"It is a logical assumption that many female survivors would experience psychological distress, fear, or anxiety when they are forced to share close quarters and be naked or semi-naked in the presence of men," she wrote in an email.

'Stronger' pepper spray, condoms

Many of the allegations were made months ago by WoLF and the ex-offender nonprofit Woman II Woman, another plaintiff. 

One of the more explosive assertions was that female inmates had taken to sleeping in schedules so someone was always awake, to prevent sexual assault by the anatomically male transfers. 

CDCR officials previously denied another claim, that women's prison officials considered cutting down "the only shade trees" inmates could enjoy so that biological males couldn't fashion "weapons" out of the wood.

Prison officials allegedly told members of the Inmate Advisory Council in July that no one would be "forced to live with a transgender female" and that such transfers would be "clustered for their orientation period." The law doesn't provide for any of these conditions.

The suit quotes an unnamed official who told a California Senate hearing in August that "we're slowing down a little bit" on transgender transfers, to ensure "we're providing safe housing for our population." 

Just the News couldn't find the source of that extended quote, and Irvine said its legal director was unavailable to immediately provide the specific evidence behind many allegations, often attributed to "information and belief."

Among them: Prison staff now have "new, stronger pepper spray" in anticipation of facing stronger and more riot-prone inmates, and have "at least temporarily" distributed condoms and brochures on pregnancy and STDs to female inmates.

And by "altering the complaining inmate's [sic] own words, perception, and substance of requested corrective action" when they file administrative grievances against the transfer of "men," CDCR is practicing compelled speech.

"Knowing these likely, foreseeable consequences of speaking about the men housed in women's facilities (and awaiting transfer), Plaintiffs' freedom of speech and expression is chilled by S.B. 132," the suit claims.

It doesn't allege, however, that any inmate has been punished for using, or warned not to use, male pronouns in regard to transgender inmates, which is a typical allegation in other transgender-related First Amendment suits.

The law also makes no provision for "a woman's sincerely-held religious beliefs" that forbid sharing housing or intimate facilities with a man, violating the Establishment Clause, the suit says.

'Thorough review process'

Even though WoLF and Woman II Woman said in June that transgender transfers had "sped up dramatically" a few months in, the lawsuit says only 23 are known to have been completed, while claiming "nearly 300" transgender inmates are awaiting approval of transfer requests.

CDCR press secretary Dana Simas gave Just the News different official figures but also used different terminology. 

As of Oct. 18, 276 inmates in male facilities have requested transfers; seven were denied, 10 "changed their minds," and the rest are under review, she wrote in an email. Eight inmates in female facilities have requested transfers.

Twenty-five of 41 approved transgender transfers have been actually placed in a women's facility as of Oct. 22, Simas said. 

She declined to further comment except to highlight CDCR's "thorough review process" for "gender-based housing requests" and note that federal and state law impose "specific provisions for gender non-conforming people" in its prisons.

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