Inmate's view from inside a therapeutic module used for group therapy at the California State Prison-Sacramento. (Julie Small/KQED)
Meghan Frederick says that after she began a process of gender reassignment five years ago, colleagues at the state prison where she works called her "freak" and "tranny" and locked her in a stairwell. The correctional officer is suing the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for creating a hostile work environment.
"I am isolated by my peers and that is quite scary," Frederick said. "Within a maximum-security prison we need and depend upon each other, my fellow officers, for support and camaraderie. And I seem to have lost that because of the transphobic environment that's endemic within this institution and in this department overall."
Frederick, 53, started working in the California State Prison, Sacramento in 2002. Then in 2012, when she began transitioning from male to female, she says the intimidation and abuse started.
“Each day going to work for Plaintiff became torture,” says Frederick's complaint, filed in Sacramento County Superior Court on May 30. It charges harassment and discrimination.
Prison officials denied all of Frederick's allegations in a response filed on Friday. The department is asking the court to dismiss Frederick's lawsuit.
Along with verbal abuse, Frederick says both officers and supervisors fail to address her by the correct gender pronoun.
"I am constantly mis-gendered by individuals that have known me for quite some time or whom I've corrected on a number of occasions," she said. "They delegitimatize my female gender. They don't recognize it. They don't respect it and I'm not treated like the other female officers. I'm constantly called sir."
Frederick's complaint says officers locked her in a sally port and stairwells on several occasions. She says she tried to get higher-ups at the prison to address the hostile work environment many times.
"I had a direct supervisor that told me that I was being overly sensitive," she said. "And I find that very difficult to take because here's my direct supervisor who's charged with making sure the other officers adhere to our zero-tolerance policy stating that Officer Frederick is overly sensitive. It sort of gives a green light to the other officers to continue with their hateful discriminatory behavior."
Frederick’s lawyer, Robert Boucher, said issues like this point to a failure of culture within the department.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is also facing a federal lawsuit from a prison psychologist who said she faced retaliation after reporting mistreatment of gay and transgender inmates.
Jeffrey Callison, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections, wrote in an email that he cannot comment on pending litigation. But he pointed out the code of conduct for staff and inmates.
3005. Conduct. (a) Inmates and parolees shall obey all laws, regulations, and local procedures, and refrain from behavior which might lead to violence or disorder, or otherwise endangers facility, outside community or another person. (b) Obeying Orders. Inmates and parolees must promptly and courteously obey written and verbal orders and instructions from department staff, and from employees of other agencies with authorized responsibility for the custody and supervision of inmates and parolees.
3391. Employee Conduct. (a) Employees shall be alert, courteous, and professional in their dealings with inmates, parolees, fellow employees, visitors and members of the public. Inmates and parolees shall be addressed by their proper names, and never by derogatory or slang reference.
While the California Department of Corrections has a workplace conduct policy that should have protected Frederick from harassment, Boucher said, some inmates and staff simply disregard it.
"In her [Frederick's] case, all CDCR's management, all the way up to the warden of that prison, their response to why didn't you do anything to help my client was, 'It's not my job,' " Boucher said.
Management failed to discipline officers who mocked Frederick, according to the complaint, and in 2014 prison management failed to inform Frederick about threats to her life from inmates.
From the complaint:
The kite [note] expressly named Plaintiff and stated that Plaintiff was to be killed on the yard. Defendant's protocol was to immediately notify the subject of such a threat in order that they could protect themselves, then to conduct an immediate investigation to ensure that the threat was not carried out. Such threats are supposed to be taken seriously because they often occur quickly, leaving little or no time for defense. However, Plaintiff did not learn about the threat for many weeks after it was made.
“Her safety is in jeopardy,” Boucher said.
Frederick said she is good at her job running a maximum-security housing unit and that she enjoys doing it.
"I'm not one to back down or run away because individuals want to bully me," she said. "I do a great job. I do it professionally. This is what I enjoy doing. And for the time being this is what I'm going to continue to do."
But Frederick said the bullying has taken both a psychological and financial toll. She is seeking damages for lost wages and emotional distress.