9 months of solitary followed California prison rape complaint, lawsuit alleges

California prison inmate Candice Crowder is suing the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, alleging that prison guards allowed her to be raped and mistreated.
California prison inmate Candice Crowder is suing the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, alleging that prison guards allowed her to be raped and mistreated.

A transgender California prisoner alleges in a new legal complaint that she spent nine months in solitary confinement after reporting that a cellmate had raped her, exacerbating her distress after the attack.

The new filing expands on a claim Candice Crowder initially filed in August 2017, when she complained that correctional officers allowed her to be attacked and then did not give her immediate medical attention while she bled from her face, head and neck.

The case now alleges that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is failing to protect gay and transgender inmates and that it must revise its policies to comply with a federal law that aims to reduce rape in prison.

“I am not alone in this struggle,” Crowder, 33, said in written remarks that her attorneys released. “Transgender prisoners are systematically abused behind prison walls.”

A spokeswoman for the department said it had not yet been served with the new complaint and declined to comment.

In November, a federal judge dismissed a version of the case that Crowder had filed by herself without an attorney. She now is represented by two lawyers who last year sued the corrections department on behalf of a prison psychologist who alleged guards harassed her after she advocated for gay and transgender inmates.

Jennifer Orthwein, one of the attorneys, said she wanted to take Crowder’s case “to illustrate to the uncaged world that this is the reality for so many transgender people in prison. The problem is undeniably systemic.”

A 2007 study by researchers at the University of California Irvine found that transgender inmates were more likely to experience rape in prison the general population. California prisons last year saw a 29 percent spike in inmate reports of sexual assault, which the department and prisoner advocates viewed as a sign that inmates and staff were growing more confident that their reports of abuse would be taken seriously.

In August 2015, Crowder was placed in a cell at a prison in Corcoran with an inmate who harassed her and pressured her to perform sex acts on him. She disclosed her worries about him to correctional staff and other inmates. Her lawsuit says the inmate raped her the following month, causing lasting physical injuries.

“Ms. Crowder made every effort to report the sexual assault to custody officers and obtain medical treatment, but her reports and requests were ignored,” the lawsuit says.

She spent the better part of the following nine months in solitary confinement, the lawsuit says. It says that at first, she was removed from the general population because correctional officers reported that she broken rules. Later, the prison put her in solitary because it received “confidential information” suggested she’d be a target for an attack.

Crowder was relocated to the California Medical Facility in Vacaville in September 2016. She met a former boyfriend there who threatened to kill her.

According to the lawsuit, Crowder reported her fear of her ex-boyfriend to a correctional sergeant. Two days later, the former boyfriend attacked Crowder in a dining hall with a sharp object, slashing her face and head. Guards who were nearby “did nothing to stop the assault,” the lawsuit says.

Crowder believed correctional officers blamed her for the attack when they investigated it. “What did you do to him to deserve this? Did you try to flirt with him?” they asked, according to the lawsuit.

Crowder received 63 stitches on her face, neck, head, ear and hands, as well as 14 staples, according to medical records. She was placed in solitary confinement for eight days when she returned from the hospital, according to the lawsuit.

Crowder’s new complaint has echoes of the lawsuit that Orthwein and her partner, Felicia Medina, filed on behalf of former California Medical Facility psychologist Lori Jesperson in 2017. Both complaints allege that prison guards at the site routinely refer to transgender inmates with disparaging language, such as intentionally confusing gender pronouns.

Jesperson in May accepted a $275,000 settlement to close her lawsuit. A state workplace investigation found merit to her claims that correctional officers put her in dangerous positions with inmates.

The state administrative judge who reviewed Jesperson’s complaint also found that one of the correctional officers asked coworkers not to report misconduct, and that the guard was a “poor historian” because she claimed to forget key incidents, according to a document The Sacramento Bee obtained through the California Public Records Act.

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