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Prison Psychologist Sues State for Retaliation After Reporting Mistreatment of LGBTQ Prisoners

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A sign outside the California Medical Facility, a state prison facility in Vacaville. (Adam Grossberg/KQED)

A prison psychologist says she was locked in a unit alone with a convicted rapist because she reported repeated cases of mistreatment and abuse of gay and transgender prisoners at a state prison facility in Vacaville.

In a federal lawsuit filed in California's Eastern District this week, Dr. Lori Jespersen says she lodged dozens of complaints with her superiors starting in July 2014 detailing numerous instances of abuse, humiliation and intimidation of LGBTQ prisoners at the hands of employees and other prisoners at the Central Medical Facility, a prison medical facility run by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

"CDCR employees still frequently make homophobic and transphobic comments expressing their hatred for members of the LGBTQ community, which includes CDCR employees like Dr. Jespersen," the suit says. Jespersen is a genderqueer lesbian.

The lawsuit alleges that CDCR staff and administrators created and allowed a hostile work environment and retaliated against Jespersen.

A spokeswoman said in an email that the CDCR does not comment on pending litigation.


Prison employees outed an inmate as transgender on social media, forced transgender prisoners to strip, prevented inmates from attending an LGBTQ support group and "assisted prisoners in beating and otherwise abusing gay prisoners on the basis of their sexual orientation and perceived gender nonconformity," the lawsuit alleges.

"Over the years of seeing this, she's come to the place where she really wants people to be held accountable," said Jennifer Orthwein, one of the attorneys representing Jespersen. "She wants to see a culture change, and she wants to be a part of that culture change."

Reports of abuse and mistreatment were ignored by Jespersen's supervisors, according to the suit, and Jespersen was retaliated against for raising them.

The lawsuit alleges that one correctional officer repeatedly encouraged prisoners to attack Jespersen and otherwise put her in danger.

Officer Tia McDaniels locked Jespersen in a unit alone with a convicted rapist in late 2015, the lawsuit says.

Three months later, McDaniels again locked Jespersen in the unit without correctional officers or access to an alarm, the lawsuit says, "this time with two prisoners."

Earlier this year, Jespersen says she overheard McDaniels telling a group of prisoners that "she needs to be reminded where she's at," allegedly referring to Jespersen.

In addition to McDaniels, the lawsuit names as defendants CDCR Secretary Scott Kernan, California Medical Facility Warden Robert Fox, associate wardens Steve Pryor and Dan Cueva, Jespersen's supervisors in prison mental health, two prison investigations officers and a CDCR captain.

Jespersen says she experienced "emotional, mental and physical distress" because of this retaliation and took a doctor-ordered medical leave in June 2016, according to the lawsuit. She says she was pressured to return early from that leave, and that when she returned she was demoted to a desk job without direct patient contact.

"This case really has the potential to shine a spotlight on what is the key barrier to making progress to protecting vulnerable inmates in these facilities," said Shannon Minter, the legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, "and that is this prison culture of silence and retaliation."

A 2009 study by researchers at UC Irvine found that transgender prisoners are more than 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the general population.

"This is a systemic problem that California has been slow to address," Orthwein said.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons released a "Transgender Offender Manual" in the waning days of the Obama administration outlining how facilities should work with transgender prisoners and requiring additional training for prison staff. Jespersen's lawyers say one thing they would like to see come out of this suit is additional training requirements for state prisons and an independent oversight body to ensure the fair and accurate reporting of mistreatment against LGBTQ prisoners.

"One of the things CDCR has failed to do is really train and hold accountable correctional staff for colluding with other prisoners to act violently towards LGBT folks, as well as act violently towards them themselves," Orthwein said.

Minter, of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, says because of the culture of silence and the threat of potential retaliation against whistleblowers, cases like Jespersen's are exceedingly rare.

"It almost never happens that a prison staffer is willing to put themselves out the way that this woman is doing," he said.

This suit comes a week after Minter's organization helped five transgender service members file a lawsuit against President Trump over his tweet saying that transgender people would not be allowed to serve in the U.S. military.

Read the complaint below.

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