The women trapped in prison with their abusers: ‘They hold my life in their hands’

Latasha Brown sat at a picnic table in the visiting area of the California Institution for Women, just out of earshot of a guard standing watch. It was a hot morning in July and the 42-year-old spoke softly.

“There’s liberty in deciding not to live in fear any more,” she said.

Brown was speaking out for the first time about the sexual abuse she has suffered at the hands of correctional officers over her 21 years in California prisons.

Once she started talking, she couldn’t stop: there was the officer who watched her shower, the official who demanded sexual favors in exchange for legal help, the officers who forced themselves on her and then gave her small “gifts”. Brown says she has been sexually assaulted by at least five correctional officers during her time behind bars, and harassed by many more: “We’re not only prisoners in here, we’re women, and we’re reminded of that through widespread male violence.”

In May, one of those guards, the former officer Gregory Rodriguez, was charged with nearly 100 counts of sexual violence. Authorities say Rodriguez is suspected of harassing, assaulting and raping at least 22 women in custody from 2014 to 2022, though court records and testimony from women and their lawyers suggest his abuse extends beyond the criminal allegations. Rodriguez has pleaded not guilty to all charges, and his lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.

Five of the women who have come forward about Rodriguez say the abuse left them with lasting psychological distress that they’ve struggled to overcome in prison. They describe a system in which a lack of access to basic amenities like adequate food and hygiene products and regular family communication make them vulnerable to abuse by guards who promise privileges or threaten further restrictions. Abuse is so widespread it can feel inescapable and ordinary, women said, noting that they face immense pressure to stay silent, living with the stress of potentially lengthened sentences or solitary confinement if staff retaliate.

‘He groomed me’

Brown has been incarcerated for more than two decades, sentenced to 37 years to life for a murder she committed at age 15. She says was sexually abused as a child and again in county jail before she was sent to California’s women’s prisons. Brown has spent time at both CIW, an hour east of Los Angeles, and the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla, where Rodriguez worked.

Standing at the vending machines in the CIW visitors’ room, she selected a frozen pizza and a Starbucks coffee, luxuries she can’t get from the commissary: “It’s just these little things that make you feel more human,” she said.

Predatory guards take advantage of the lack of supplies and conveniences, making women dependent on them for items they either need to survive or simply to feel normal, Brown said: “As prisoners, our possessions are everything. What little we have is so important to us.”

Hear audio from Latasha Brown, who recorded remarks from inside prison for a legislative hearing on sexual violence:

Two officers who groped and assaulted her over the last decade would give her clothing to bribe her into silence, she continued, including bras and a bandana. One of the guards repeatedly fondled her at her prison job and then left her small presents in a trashcan not visible to cameras, she said. She remembers thinking of one of the guards as “generous”: “I’m deeply ashamed of it, but I also knew there was no recourse for us.”

Valerie*, an incarcerated woman in her 30s who says she was repeatedly abused by Rodriguez in 2014, said he at first presented himself as one of the kind officers. When she arrived at CCWF, she felt alone and was often by herself, she said.

“When I think about how he groomed me, it wasn’t that he was forceful in the beginning. He was just a friendly face, always asking me how I was,” she recalled. “We appreciate the nice staff, because they’re the ones that treat us like humans. He positioned himself that way. I thought he cared … when really I was just being manipulated.”

Over time, Rodriguez started sexually assaulting her in unmonitored areas, she said, and pressured her to tell no one, warning that if anyone else knew, she’d face trouble. He suggested that would make it harder to get parole, she said: “‘You don’t want to be in that position because you want to go home.’”

She said she wanted the assaults to end, but was terrified of retaliation: “At that time, I felt I was responsible for all of the abuse … I just felt trapped because I couldn’t talk to anybody.”

‘We can’t defend ourselves’

The case against Rodriguez has sparked outrage in California, but data suggests the women’s experiences are incredibly common. The last national survey of incarcerated people by the justice department, conducted in 2011 and 2012, counted roughly 47,000 people who had been sexually abused by staff in the previous 12 months, though the number is a significant undercount. The California department of corrections and rehabilitation (CDCR), which imprisons nearly 4,000 women, logged more than 800 complaints of staff sexual abuse across the state last year.

“They say it’s one bad apple, but it’s not,” said Brown. “The abuse of prisoners is widespread but has largely gone unacknowledged.”

man in red escorted by officers near CDCR vehicle

Brown said she was working as an aide for women with disabilities last year and was bringing a woman in a wheelchair into a parole hearing room when Rodriguez opened the door and rubbed his body on hers as she passed through – an assault he repeated on a second visit. She had not reported her previous assaults and didn’t want to disclose this one, either: “There is shame and stigma attached to being not just a victim, but a snitch. So I’ve learned how to fly under the radar and stay quiet. These people hold my life in their hands and I know the lengths they will go to cover up misconduct. I’ve watched officers turn a blind eye to the conduct of their peers or facilitate attacks on other inmates. All I know is how to survive.”

When abuse did become known, the consequences for women often were severe. Both Brown and Valerie say they were placed in solitary after staff found out about Rodriguez’s assaults on them. CDCR says women who report abuse are placed in “administrative segregation” for their safety and when no other housing options are available.

Selina*, who reported that Rodriguez sexually assaulted her and who has testified for the prosecution, said she lived with daily fear that more people would find out she was a whistleblower and that she would face retaliation or violence as a result; she does not talk to her prison counselor about what she’s been through. When any officer makes a snide remark at her or looks at her in a certain way, she panics, she said.

“The only thing they could really do to keep me safe is to get me out of here,” she said. “We can’t defend ourselves in here, because who is going to listen to us? We’re a number in here. We’re not treated like people. I just want to get home to my kids.”

‘I internalized my anger’

The psychological toll of repeated sexual abuse in prison can be severe. Survivors of sexual assault described an intense struggle with shame, anxiety, fear, depression, suicidal ideation and post-traumatic stress from living in an environment where abuse was normalized.

Compounding their challenges, many women who are incarcerated have already experienced trauma in their past. Studies in the US have found that 60% to 80% of incarcerated women experienced sexual violence or domestic abuse before they were jailed, making them especially vulnerable to revictimization.

Several survivors described severe discomfort in confined spaces and feeling scared when anyone gets too physically close – triggers that are impossible to escape in prison. Brown said she felt trapped in a state of “permanent alert” and “perpetual uneasiness”; when anyone approaches her from behind, even a cellmate who is not threatening, it makes her body jump and her heart race. Recently a supervisor whispered something to her while trying to be quiet, and it caused her to panic.

Brown said that when she read old journal entries talking of the abuse, “I feel so sad for her. I minimize the abuse to distance myself.”

Rita*, a 36-year-old woman who says Rodriguez assaulted her while she was incarcerated at CCWF, said that she had been sexually abused as a child and was so shaken and retraumatized by his attack that in the moment she almost physically fought back: “But instead I just shut down, because that was my coping mechanism when it happened to me as a child. And I felt like I was a child again.” She was recently released and has struggled at her first job post-prison, where she has to work in close quarters with male employees.

Overhead view of complex

Survivors have few or no outlets to process their trauma, said Amika Mota, executive director of Sister Warriors Freedom Coalition, a non-profit group that works with incarcerated survivors, including victims in the Rodriguez case. “So many incarcerated people have never had access to any mental health support, so they hold so much within.”

Mota recently testified about her own experience of abuse inside California prisons and is part of a newly formed CDCR committee focused on preventing sexual violence. “The narrative we are fed – that if you speak up, you are no good, you are a ‘snitch’ – it becomes so internalized. Not speaking up becomes like a badge that we wear. The impact is that you begin to choke on your own voice when you start to use it.”

“I really internalized that anger towards myself,” said Valerie. “I really did feel like I brought this on myself, and I tried to deny that it happened … I felt dirty and did not know how to get rid of that filth.” She eventually became an educator, teaching her peers about sexual assault policies, which she said helped her speak out and learn to set boundaries.

‘I will not bow down’

CDCR declined multiple interview requests over several weeks. A spokesperson, Terri Hardy, said in an email that the department “investigates all allegations of sexual abuse, staff sexual misconduct, and sexual harassment pursuant to its zero-tolerance policy and as mandated by the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act”. The policy “also provides guidelines for the prevention, detection, response, investigation, and tracking of allegations against incarcerated people”, she said.

Rodriguez’s arrest, Hardy added, followed CDCR’s internal investigation and referral to prosecutors: “The department resolutely condemns any staff member – especially a peace officer who is entrusted to enforce the law – who violates their oath and shatters the trust of the public.”

Brown, one of the first to speak publicly about Rodriguez, said she knew there were risks in coming forward, but that it was empowering to no longer stay quiet: “I am guilty of the worst of human behavior. But just because I’m in prison does not mean my body and my labor are interchangeable properties.” She also agreed to testify before a recent hearing of lawmakers and CDCR leaders. Although officials declined to allow her to speak live, an advocate read her remarks, in which she recounted the moment she learned of Rodriguez’s arrest.

“I did not celebrate because sure, when we experience harm, we want some accountability. Some justice, even,” she said. “However, I don’t think his punishment should be the final resolution because it’s an amplified response to just one person’s abuse, not a response to the systemic abuse. And until our lives matter, I will not bow down.”

*Valerie, Rita and Selina are pseudonyms to protect their identities as sexual assault survivors who fear further retaliation

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