Incarcerated women in California say their prisons have changed since men moved in. A state law enacted last year led to an influx of male inmates identifying as female or non-binary in facilities for women. Recent reports from lawyers revealed that prison officials put up condom dispensers and placards with options for pregnant inmates – abortion, abortifacients or adoption. Meanwhile, women share cramped cells and bathrooms with men convicted of rape and murder.
“Men go from room to room trying to hurt as many women as possible,” one 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 near the bathroom to watch her and other cellmates undress and shower. “If we do one [curtain] When we run out of leaves, we get written down,” she said.
Woman II Woman and four inmates currently housed at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla filed a lawsuit Nov. 17 against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). The women claim that the state’s mixed-sex facilities subject them to physical and sexual violence and violate their rights to safety, privacy and dignity.
Now, President Joe Biden is reportedly planning an executive order modeled on California law that would allow federal inmates to self-identify their gender and choose between male or female prisons, according to a leaked draft executive order obtained by The Federalist. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., introduced legislation last Wednesday to stop Biden’s plan, saying it puts incarcerated women at increased risk of sexual assault.
An estimated 1,200 out of 156,000 federal inmates identify as transgender, according to a Justice Department official.
In California, as of December 15, 288 incarcerated men had applied to be transferred to women’s prisons, according to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Officials approved 41 of those requests and denied eight, and 12 inmates changed their minds. Nine people in women’s prisons requested transfer to men’s facilities.
Terry Thornton, the department’s deputy press secretary, said in an email that the CDCR is deliberate and thorough in reviewing gender-based housing requests. A department FAQ page says transfer requests are reviewed by a committee that includes the jail warden, a compliance manager, and child custody, medical and mental health workers. The committee is required to assess the inmate’s criminal record but must “take serious account of the perception of the health and safety of the person making the request.” An inmate’s anatomy, physical characteristics or sexual orientation are not grounds for rejection, the department’s website said.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to track the number of referrals approved by the CDCR. On November 30, the state began collecting its weekly population reports based on inmates’ gender identity rather than biological sex. For example, on Wednesday, 89 inmates at 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 females, and 18 nonbinary.
Lauren Adams, the legal director of the Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF) and an attorney representing Chowchilla accusers, said the new gender identity reports obscured the truth about what is happening in women’s prisons, including increasing levels of 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 don’t pick them up, so it’s harder to uncover what’s going on.”
Krystal Gonzalez, a Chowchilla inmate and plaintiff in the lawsuit against the CDCR, alleged that she was sexually assaulted by a male inmate who was transferred to the facility under state law. She said in court documents that after she filed a complaint report, prison staff listed her attacker as a “transgender woman” with male genitalia.
The CDCR declined to comment on the pending lawsuit.
Meanwhile, the department says condoms are only available in women’s prisons for nighttime family visits and when inmates are released after serving their sentence. Sexual acts are otherwise prohibited in prison and will result in disciplinary measures. However, documents obtained by Woman II Woman for WoLF and Ichikawa indicate that female state prisons began distributing condoms on a larger scale as men moved in.
A July 2021 document obtained by Ichikawa, first reported by the Daily Caller, detailed discussions between prison officials at the California Institution for Women and inmates over condom distribution and other concerns, including wider shower curtains and strip searches by officers with body cameras. Inmate advisory board meeting notes say condom dispensers were installed “because the administration believed it was the right thing to do given the makeup of the population.” The distribution of condoms was later stopped after a “decision was made by people higher than the director,” the record says.
Female inmates first alerted Ichikawa to newly installed condom dispensers. “They saw her and they were pretty traumatized… it’s scary,” she told me. Ichikawa hopes that highlighting such first-hand accounts will help shift the debate: “I think people are slowly starting to wake up and realize that this is a human rights issue.”