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Black Transgender Woman Who Survived Rape And Box Cutter Attack Sues California Prison Employees

Candice Crowder, a 35 year-old black bisexual transgender woman, was violently raped, placed in solitary confinement, and attacked with a box cutter by her ex-boyfriend while incarcerated in California state prisons, according to a lawsuit filed against employees of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

The lawsuit was filed on Crowder’s behalf by Medina Orthwein LLP, a queer-owned public interest law firm that is based in Oakland, California.

Crowder alleges she was deprived of her right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. She also alleges that her due process rights were violated because prison staff failed to implement standards established by Congress under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) in 2003.

According to one of her attorneys, she seeks “not only to vindicate her rights, but to amplify the silenced voices of those in the #MeTooBehindBars movement.”

Jennifer Orthwein, an attorney representing Crowder, said, “The culture really is to target and blame transgender women for their vulnerability in men’s prisons. There is absolutely no accountability when officers use a person’s transgender identity and expression as a means to harm them.”

As detailed in a complaint filed in federal court, Crowder was beaten by guards at the Northern Kern State Prison “within months of entering CDCR in January 2015.” It says she was attacked by guards after she expressed “safety concerns over being housed with a prisoner who was openly transphobic.” The beating resulted in bruises, a seizure, and permanent scars, and she was denied medical attention.

In August 2015, according to the lawsuit, Crowder was transferred to the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility. Authorities confined her with a prisoner who verbally abused her and “pressured her to perform sex acts on him.” She endured this for two weeks until a transgender prisoner helped Crowder so she was transferred to another cell. However, around a week later, Crowder was back in the cell with a prisoner who was abusing her.

Crowder was violently raped on September 13, and as a result, she “suffered severe anal fissures from the attack that still cause discomfort and pain today.”

When she reported the rape to correctional officers and tried to obtain medical treatment, her requests were allegedly ignored. Only after she reported the rape to her psychologist was an investigation initiated under PREA.

The lawsuit mentions Crowder wanted charges to be brought against the prisoner who raped her. She demanded medical attention, however, investigators allegedly told her it was “unnecessary because the incident had occurred four months prior.”

Her injuries were not treated until late 2016. When she finally received an update on the “investigation” in November 2018, Crowder apparently learned it was closed 1-2 days after the incident.

The lawsuit further alleges that prison staff used “rules violation reports” (RVRs) to retaliate against her for complaining against officers and expressing safety concerns about her confinement in a cell with someone who had sexually abused her and made her fear for her life.

Beginning in October 2015, Crowder was put in solitary confinement for around nine months. Each time she was released, the guards found a new justification for putting her back in isolation.

The lawsuit claims she was put in solitary confinement on October 10 because of an RVR issued by the officer to whom she reported her rape. He allegedly refused to take action.

Although California is in the process of phasing out the Sensitive Needs Yards (SNY) because of their failure to protect prisoners from death, the state designated special prison areas to protect prisoners, like gang informants, cops convicted of crimes, and sex offenders.

Crowder has spent portions of her imprisonment in the SNY, and in December 2015, staff released her from isolation to a yard in the SNY with the prisoner who raped her. After she complained about risks to her safety, Crowder was put back in solitary confinement.

Remarkably, on April 4, 2016, five days after another stretch in isolation, she was put back in solitary confinement because of “confidential information” that suggested she was “targeted for assault” due to her “known sexual behaviors inside dorm/living areas inside the housing unit.” The fact that she was a vulnerable transgender prisoner led the prison to classify her as a “threat to the safety and security of the institution, staff, and inmate population.”

“Staff complaints are consistently dismissed indicating no policies or procedures were violated,” Orthwein said. “This is because it is okay to place transgender prisoners who express safety concerns in solitary and justify it by claiming they pose ‘a threat to the security and management of the institution.’”

“I can’t tell you how many times I have seen this reasoning used in the solitary placement records of transgender prisoners,” Orthwein added.

Crowder was transferred to multiple facilities between July and September 2016. The retaliation apparently persisted as she was sent to North Kern State Prison, where she was beaten by staff. Then, on September 15, she was moved to the California Medical Facility.

***

There was a new problem for Crowder at the California Medical Facility. Her ex-boyfriend was incarcerated in this facility. He allegedly threatened to kill her while they were in the gym if she did not leave her wife.

She immediately reported the threat to prison staff, and staff apparently knew this person had a record of violence in the facility. But one of the defendants, Sergeant Santos, dismissed her complaint, suggesting nothing could be done because she had not been physically attacked.

Two days later, on September 19, Crowder was attacked with a box cutter while sitting at a table in one of the facility’s dining halls.

The complaint recounts how a correctional officer stood around 35 yards away and witnessed the brutality. Her head, face, neck, ear, and hands were sliced by the cutter.

Crowder saw two other officers a bit further away, who stood there and did nothing to stop her ex-boyfriend from ripping her body apart.

In order to make one of the officers stop the assault, Crowder apparently ran toward the officer closest to her. He threw her to the wall while she was “bleeding profusely” and forced her into handcuffs. One of her ears were “hanging partially from her head.”

Correctional staff were in the way of medical personnel who needed to give her emergency treatment. They apparently insisted that she had to be questioned now in order to get back to “business as usual.”

“These employees’ line of questioning implied that Ms. Crowder’s gender, specifically her transgender “lifestyle” and femininity, caused and warranted the assault,” the complaint alleges. “ Ms. Crowder was asked questions along the lines of, ‘What did you do to him to deserve this?” and, ‘Did you try to flirt with him?’”

Crowder was told she made herself a target because she “chose” to present herself as a woman.

Eventually, prison staff permitted her transit to Northbay Vaca Valley Hospital. She was given 63 stitches and 14 staples on her head. The severe harm led to a 60 percent loss of hearing in her right hear. She also now has severe chronic lower back pain, limiting the work assignments she can accept in prison.

The staples and stitches resulted in keloids, which are raised scars that can grow much larger than the wound that was responsible for the scar. This causes her constant “stabbing pain.” She needs surgery to remove the keloids, but prison authorities have denied her access to medical treatment.

After she received staples and stitches, the prison put her in solitary confinement.

“During this critical time for her physical and mental health following the assault, Ms. Crowder was trapped in a filthy cell without access to cleaning materials or showers and was isolated from her support network within the prison,” according to the complaint.

The attack, as well as solitary confinement, led Crowder to suffer from several seizures while in isolation. She did not have anyone with her who could call for medical treatment, and she was only permitted to leave her cell when her stitches needed to be cleaned.

Asked if Crowder’s cruel treatment is common in California Prisons, Orthwein replied, “I have worked with dozens of transgender women in CDCR as an attorney and a psychologist. Candice’s experience mirrors nearly all of their experiences, and her claims don’t nearly cover the extent to which the discrimination and harassment permeate the entire culture, from mental health and medical care to the correctional staff’s and the administration’s treatment of LGBTQI people.”

“Her persistence and ability to keep her legal claims viable have resulted in retaliation most people would not have endured though. She is incredibly resilient,” Orthwein asserted.

“I am not alone in this struggle. Transgender prisoners are systematically abused behind prison walls,” declared Crowder. “I refuse to be silenced while correctional staff harm me and my community.”

Crowder was eligible for parole in July 2018. Yet, the RVRs she was issued in retaliation for reporting that she was not safe and was raped were deemed serious enough to keep her from release.

“I believe she can be reassessed for early release again this year, but it seems the earliest she may be free would not be for at least another six months, and she could be incarcerated until mid-2022,” according to Orthwein.

Crowder is in pain and suffering. Yet, she is willing to risk further retaliation if some justice may be achieved.

As she wrote in an email to her attorneys, “I know that shining a light on my story will put CDCR on edge and that I will face backlash because of it, but it needs to be done and I am glad to be a front runner for change.”

Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Illinois. (Jim Larrison on Flickr)
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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."