Cosmo Garvin, What's She Doing in the Men's Jail?, Sacramento News & Review, February 13, 2003.
Luisa Espinoza fled Nicaragua because she
feared persecution as a transgender. Now, she says Sacramento jailers
have mistreated her, too.
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
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
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.
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
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.
"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
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.
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
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.
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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,"