What’s she doing in the men’s jail?

Marched around half-naked. Raped. Kept in isolation. The life of a transgender prisoner in the Sacramento County Jail is basically hell.

Luisa Espinoza fled Nicaragua because she feared persecution as a transgender. Now, she says Sacramento jailers have mistreated her, too.

Luisa Espinoza fled Nicaragua because she feared persecution as a transgender. Now, she says Sacramento jailers have mistreated her, too.

Photo by Dean Johansson

Once a week, Luisa Espinoza’s jailers required her to walk a gauntlet. She was made to walk bare-chested past leering, laughing men who stared at her breasts and hurled insults. She was called “faggot” and threatened with sexual attacks. “It was terrible. The inmates and the officers were making fun of me, laughing and making homophobic slurs,” she said. It was the kind of humiliation that she had come to expect in her native Nicaragua.

But this wasn’t Nicaragua. It was the Sacramento County Jail—the men’s side.

Espinoza is transgender. She was born male, anatomically speaking. But ever since she was a small child, she has identified as a female. She dresses and speaks femininely and wears her hair as a woman might, now long and bleached blond, although several inches of her natural brown have grown in during her time in jail, since she was put there while the Immigration and Naturalization Service makes efforts to deport her. And, as you may have noticed, Espinoza prefers the feminine pronouns “her” and “she” to be used when talking about her.

Two years ago, she began what is called transitioning. The transition involves much more than the “sex change” operation in which a penis is replaced with a vagina. Espinoza is preoperative, still years away from surgery. She has assumed a feminine name and style of dress. All men making the switch to womanhood, or vice versa, are required to go through at least two years of psychological counseling, to be sure they really want to go through with the transformation. Espinoza also has begun a regimen of feminizing hormones, which are helping her body to transition to the gender she assumed long ago. Although she is nearly 40, her facial hair now comes in no more thickly than that of a teenage boy, and eventually, it will disappear altogether. Espinoza also has grown breasts, about which she is as modest as any woman would be.

Espinoza left Nicaragua because of human-rights violations and is seeking asylum in the United States. In Nicaragua, it is illegal to be gay or transsexual. “They kill transgenders in my country,” Espinoza said.

According to formal claims lodged with the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors by Espinoza and other transgender inmates, the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department routinely violates the rights of transgenders, as well. The complaints are precursors to civil lawsuits and outline repeated instances of discrimination against Espinoza and other transgender inmates, bigoted epithets by jail personnel and regular sexual harassment. Taken together, they paint a picture of transgender people who are singled out for cruel and unusual punishment in Sacramento’s main jail.

Take, for example, the humiliation of “laundry call,” when all inmates on the men’s side of the jail are required to leave their cells, wearing no more than a single towel, to turn in their dirty orange jumpsuits for clean ones.

Espinoza and another preoperative transgender inmate named Jackie Tates protested to jail officials because the two were denied brassieres. The jail routinely issues brassieres to inmates on the women’s side of the jail, but Espinoza and Tates were deemed male by jail officials because they both still have penises. Tates said that one sergeant said simply, “You’re a man. There’s no reason for you to have a bra.” She claims that was despite having a signed medical slip from one of the jail nurses requesting that a bra be issued to her.

So, for Espinoza and Tates, laundry call meant being exposed to taunts and insults from inmates. “They’d be yelling, ‘Hey bitch!’ Or, ‘Look at that guy. He’s got titties,’ ” said Tates. Both said that guards occasionally joined in the fun as well.

Kelly McAllister says sheriff’s deputies who ignored the fact that she is transgender put her in a cell with another inmate who raped her.

Photo courtesy of kelly mcallister

The laundry call ordeal and other hostilities began to take their toll on Tates, she said. “I started having suicidal thoughts. I started to hate the fact that I was transgender.” Tates’ legal complaint says that despite writing numerous grievances about sexual harassment and other mistreatment, she was ignored by jail officials.

Espinoza and Tates both said that the jail recently has changed its policy and has issued bras to them, most of the time, and has stopped requiring them to leave their cells bare-chested. Both believe it is because of pressure from their attorneys and because of the recent attention about much more serious claims of mistreatment of transgender inmates inside the jail—treatment that goes far beyond catcalls and insults.

For example, one former transgender inmate, Kelly McAllister, alleges that negligent deputies put her in a cell with another inmate who raped her. The alleged incident occurred, she said, in spite of what she believed was the jail’s policy of keeping transgender inmates apart from the general population. And Tates claims that, two years ago, deputies actually helped facilitate her rape by another inmate.

Last September, McAllister was serving time at the Sacramento County Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center, known as RCCC, after she was convicted of assaulting a neighbor during an argument. On September 6, she was taken to the main jail on I Street in downtown Sacramento to make a court appearance in a subsequent and unrelated charge of resisting arrest. According to the complaint filed against the county, the court never got to her case that day, and it became apparent that McAllister would have to spend the night at the main jail and would be transported back to RCCC the next day.

McAllister is 5 feet 7 inches tall, weighs 135 pounds and is thin and effeminate, but she is still in the early stages of transitioning. Her facial hair hasn’t gone away, and her stubble is fairly thick. Her Adam’s apple is prominent; her hands are large. Still, it would be hard to miss the fact that she is transgender. She has small but noticeable breasts, and when she arrived at the jail, she wore her hair in long braids. During her time at RCCC, she was kept in protective custody because of her transgender status.

The vast majority of jails and prisons in California and around the United States classify preoperative transgender inmates according to their genitalia. Because of their femininity, those who identify as women are viewed as being particularly vulnerable to abuse and sexual assault, so most institutions have protective housing for transgender people. In some jails, there are special units set aside in which transgenders are housed together. In the California prison system, almost all the transgender inmates are housed in the California Medical Center at Vacaville because their transgender status is deemed a medical issue. California Department of Corrections spokesman Russ Heimrich said few problems arise at Vacaville because the general inmate population is generally not as “hardcore” as in high-security prisons.

When McAllister’s mother and partner found out that she was being left behind at the Sacramento main jail, they made a frantic series of phone calls and tried to get her placed in protective custody, as she had been at RCCC.

Instead, McAllister said, jailers put her in a cell with a much larger, physically stronger inmate, despite her protests that she feared for her safety in the general population.

At first, McAllister said, things were fine with the inmate in the cell, with no indication of trouble. McAllister and her cellmate ate dinner together and talked. “He seemed nice. I had no idea he would do what he did,” McAllister said.

McAllister placed a call to her partner, and the two had a quarrel. She returned to her cell upset about the argument. Then, she said, the other inmate began to stroke her hair and shoulders, as if trying to comfort her. “And then, all of a sudden, he just clocked me,” McAllister said, her voice becoming choked with emotion. McAllister said her first thought was to push the intercom button in her cell and call deputies for help. But, she said, the other inmate began to choke her and warned her not to push the button or else he would kill her.

Attorney Dani Williams, who is transgender, says jails need to rethink the way transgender inmates are housed.

Photo by Larry Dalton

“I tried to scratch him. I tried to scramble away from him,” McAllister said. But she eventually submitted because his grip on her neck was too strong. The complaint alleges that McAllister was then “savagely” raped, “repeatedly struck, choked, bit and sodomized.” Afterward, she said, she had bruises on her cheek and neck, as well as on her left nipple where her assailant had bitten her. She curled up on her bunk, no more than two feet from her attacker in the cramped space of their cell, and pretended she was asleep.

McAllister alleges in her complaint that after she reported the attack, deputies accused her of making everything up. But, after another flurry of phone calls from her family and friends to the jail, she eventually was taken to UC Davis Medical Center for an examination. Her lawyers say that examination indeed showed evidence of a rape, as does a report, including pictures of McAllister’s injuries, taken by deputies after the UCD examination. But the Sheriff’s Department has refused to turn over its report to McAllister or to her lawyers and argues that the information is privileged because now a complaint has been filed and a lawsuit is pending.

Sheriff’s Department spokesman Sgt. Lou Fatur said the alleged rape was being investigated internally and criminally and that it could be forwarded to the Sacramento district attorney soon for possible criminal charges.

Fatur insisted that any questions from SN&R be submitted in writing. At the time, he cautioned that many questions would not be answered because of the pending lawsuits. Several questions were submitted about the legal complaints as well as about general policy regarding the difficulty of housing transgender inmates. Fatur also was asked why the claims—regarding how the department treated inmates and allegations of criminal conduct within the jail—were being investigated internally, without an outside agency looking into them.

Sheriff’s Department officials refused to respond to the written questions. Fatur’s only explanation on the phone, before he hung up, was that department officials were unhappy with SN&R’s past coverage of problems inside the jail. Subsequent phone calls to Fatur, and to the office of Sheriff Lou Blanas, were not returned.

Espinoza is jumpy these days. During a recent jailhouse interview, through the thick glass of a jail visiting room, Espinoza visibly flinched every time a sheriff’s deputy strolled behind her, something deputies do frequently. She speaks English with some difficulty and has a habit of saying “exaaaaactly” in her thick Nicaraguan accent when she knows she is being understood.

Although inmates are allotted an hour to speak with any visitor, a sheriff’s deputy cut the interview with Espinoza well short of that, saying he had received instructions from “downstairs” to end the interview. All conversations on the phones inmates use to speak to visitors are recorded by the Sheriff’s Department.

Espinoza left Nicaragua in 1987, after meeting members of a nascent gay-rights movement in that country and becoming convinced that she would be happier in the United States. She lived legally for two years in New York, where she waited tables in restaurants, before moving to San Francisco. But, after a while, she stopped reporting to the Immigration and Naturalization Service and stopped working because of her illegal status. Espinoza had been living illegally in the United States for 12 years when she was arrested and convicted of selling marijuana. She only did 45 days in the county jail in San Francisco, but her felony sent a red flag to the INS, which was waiting for her when her time was done in San Francisco. Then, she entered the murky world of “indefinite detention,” while the immigration agency began its efforts to deport her to her birth country of Nicaragua.

Espinoza was told that the INS uses three jails in this area of Northern California to house detainees in cases like hers: Oakland, Yuba County and Sacramento. Espinoza was suffering from poor health at the time and asked to be sent to Sacramento because she was told that medical care was better and that she would be given a “special bed.” But Espinoza said she received poor medical care inside the Sacramento jail and that there was certainly no special bed for her. Espinoza, who is H.I.V.-positive, also has filed a federal lawsuit against the jail for improperly administering her medication.

She is fighting her deportation under the provisions of the International Convention Against Torture. Espinoza claims that she was arrested several times in Nicaragua under that country’s anti-sodomy laws and that she was beaten, tortured and once even sexually assaulted by police in Managua.

Jackie Tates says jailers set her up to be raped.

Photo by Dean Johansson

In the Sacramento jail, she found much of the same intolerance—what she describes as the “macho culture” that dogged her at home. Espinoza also said that jailers routinely refer to her with the derogatory term “he/she” and that her meals are left on the floor outside her cell, so she is forced to pick her tray up off the floor “like an animal” while non-transgender inmates are served in their cells.

Most of the time, however, Espinoza, like Tates, is now kept in almost total isolation, locked in her cell 23 hours a day, with only an hour out for “day room” time. She is in what jail officials call “t-sep,” short for “total separation.” It is generally reserved for inmates who have had disciplinary problems. But, in the cases of Espinoza and Tates, their isolation stems solely from the fact that they are transgender. They are told that t-sep is imposed on them for their own safety. The t-sep classification presents a paradox. On the one hand, jailers are acknowledging that they should do something to protect transgender inmates from predation by other inmates. On the other, it could be argued that transgender inmates are receiving unequal treatment simply because they are transgender. Both women complained that they are unable to talk to each other or to other inmates and that, aside from the grueling boredom of being confined to a single cell all day, in t-sep, they barely have enough time to shower and make phone calls.

Chris Daley, with the Transgender Law Center in San Francisco, said he isn’t sure that t-sep for transgender inmates is even legal. “It’s pretty much a joke. It’s simply penalizing someone for their gender identity,” he said.

Espinoza said treatment of transgenders in the San Francisco jail was remarkably different. There, she was housed in an area with other transgender inmates, all of whom had access to the day room and other recreation as well as opportunities to attend classes and drug-treatment programs. Never were they required to parade topless in front of non-transgender inmates.

Chief Jan Dempsey, who oversees all of San Francisco County’s jails, said that because of the danger of sexual assault, no transgender inmate ever would be housed in a general population setting. There are still bugs in the San Francisco system, though, said Dempsey. “There is more we can do, but we do try to treat people with respect,” she said.

San Francisco certainly has more experience with transgender inmates. There were more than 20 transgender inmates recently in the San Francisco jail. There, inmates also have the benefit of regular contact with supportive organizations, such as the County Human Rights Commission and the Transgender Law Center. Chief Dempsey said she was not aware of any sexual assaults against transgender inmates by other inmates. Unfortunately, the San Francisco County Sheriff’s Department has been thrown into turmoil by charges that a sheriff’s deputy sexually assaulted a transgender inmate. That deputy has been fired.

One of Espinoza’s attorneys, Dani Williams, who herself is a preoperative male-to-female transgender, said the Sacramento jail’s policy on housing transgenders is upside down.

“When I look at them, I see women. To boil it down to whether one has a penis is completely ridiculous,” said Williams. She suggests that transgender inmates who identify as women should be housed on the women’s side of the jail. When asked whether she felt female inmates would object to such housing, Williams said they might but that the policy would be much more protective of inmates’ safety.

“If we are going to err, we should err on the side of protecting people who can’t protect themselves,” she said.

Advocates for transgenders’ rights, and for prisoners’ rights in general, say many correctional institutions have trouble keeping transgender, gay and straight men from being sexually assaulted. According to the Stop Prison Rape organization, as many as 25 percent of all men in custody are sexually assaulted. Chris Daley, the attorney at the Transgender Law Center, said that statistics about sexual assaults and mistreatment of transgender inmates are almost nonexistent but that he had received dozens of such complaints in the past year alone.

Attorney Dean Johansson feels lawsuits pending against the jail are “just the tip of the iceberg.”

Photo by Larry Dalton

Like Espinoza, Tates also spent time in the San Francisco County Jail before coming to Sacramento, and she also found things very different in Sacramento. Tates has been in Sacramento’s jail for more than two years, while she’s been awaiting trial on charges that she wrote a death threat to Governor Gray Davis while she was in custody in San Francisco. Tates said she had been arrested in the past on charges of prostitution and possession of stolen property. She said that she isn’t guilty of making the death threat, contained in a letter that apparently made it past San Francisco jail officials, because she was temporarily insane. Her criminal attorney, Frances Huey, declined to be interviewed about the case.

Tates is, by far, the most feminine of the three transgender inmates who have filed complaints against the jail. She has big, bright eyes and a rounded face of soft lines, and her hair is done in rows of the smallest, finest braids. In casual conversation, she smiles a lot, as if she can’t help it. And people talking to her soon find they can’t help it either.

She got in trouble with Sacramento County Jail deputies over a piece of string she had used to tie back her hair, something she said she was never questioned about by sheriff’s deputies in San Francisco.

Tates said she angrily threw the piece of string down when a deputy ordered her to remove it. This small act of protest landed her on the jail’s seventh floor, which is reserved for “problem inmates.”

It was there, while Tates was in her cell reading one evening, that she heard the door to her cell unlock. Cell doors are controlled remotely by officers in control booths, far from the cells themselves. In order for the door to unlock, it would have to be unlocked by a deputy.

Tates said the cell door opened, and in walked another inmate who was much larger and more heavyset than she. He carried in his hands a manila envelope, Tates said. He shut the door behind him, pulled a stack of photos from the envelope and said, “This is what I do to people who fuck with me.” Tates said the photos showed a dead body on what appeared to be a slab table in what might have been an autopsy room.

“It was awful,” she said. “The body was all cut up and mutilated.” The intruder also pulled from the envelope what Tates described as a “container of some kind of grease.” Tates said the inmate then forced her to perform oral sex on him and then sodomized her.

She estimates that the rape lasted 30 to 40 minutes, at which point she heard a voice over the intercom in her cell. She said it was the voice of a sheriff’s deputy asking, “Are you done yet?” At that point, she said, the door unlocked again, and the inmate let himself out.

Again, jail officials would not comment about the complaint, other than to say it was under internal investigation. Jail officials have been quoted in one news report as saying they were confident that Tates’ claim that deputies facilitated the attack would be proven false.

Tates is convinced that the rape was a “setup,” and the complaint alleges that deputies allowed the other inmate into Tates’ cell intentionally to allow the rape to occur: “I have no doubt in my mind. They let him in here to do what he wanted to do.” But Dean Johansson, a lawyer filing the claims on behalf of the three women, admits there is little direct evidence that Tates was raped, other than her story. He believes additional evidence will come out in the discovery process, though. A jury also may be skeptical about why Tates waited so long, more than two years, to lodge a complaint.

Tates said she never reported the attack because doing so would have meant reporting it to the very people she believes allowed it to occur in the first place. Gradually, she said, people in whom she confided convinced her to tell her story. She said she agreed because she didn’t want her attacker or the jail to get away with what happened to her.

“At first, I was scared. I tried to erase it out of my mind because I just didn’t want to think about it,” Tates explained. “I started to blame myself, thinking that if I wasn’t transgender, this wouldn’t have happened to me.”

No matter the outcome of Tates’, Espinoza’s or McAllister’s cases, they likely won’t be the last stories of their kind coming from the Sacramento jail.

“I think there are going to be many more cases,” said Johansson. Since filing the three claims, he said, he has heard several disturbing accounts from other transgender inmates, and he now believes that deputies routinely put those inmates at risk by denying them protective housing. He is preparing to file a fourth claim on behalf of another transgender inmate who claims that deputies allowed her to be sexually assaulted.

“I’m amazed at how much anti-transgender behavior and just outright hate I’m coming across. This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Johansson said.