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California Prisons Fail to Uphold Transgender Rights Despite State Law

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An illustration of a Black woman with her hair tied back in a bun. It's a side profile shot of her upper torso and face. She is trapped within enclosing walls and shadows surround her. Her face is solemn.
A recent state law aims to make prison safer for transgender people. But for many trans women it hasn’t worked out that way. (Anna Vignet/KQED)

Warning: There are descriptions of physical and sexual violence in this piece. Also, where legal names and chosen names differ, we’re using chosen names.

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yiaah Skylit had been stuck in solitary confinement at a maximum-security men’s prison for months when, in the fall of 2020, she got the news that gave her hope: Gov. Gavin Newsom had signed the Transgender Respect, Agency and Dignity Act.

Authored by state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), the law requires California prison staff to use the chosen pronouns of incarcerated people who are intersex or identify as nonbinary or transgender, as Skylit does.

It allows those incarcerated people to select a gender preference for the guards who search them. Most significantly, it mandates that prison officials, under most circumstances, honor requests to be housed at the type of facility — male or female — that aligns with the incarcerated person’s gender identity.

For six years, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation bounced Skylit from one men’s prison to another. At each, safety proved elusive. By 2020, she was isolated in a cell for her own protection after brutal attacks by people she was incarcerated with and, a lawsuit alleges (PDF), by guards.

The prospect of serving out her remaining sentence in a women’s facility seemed nothing short of a miracle.

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“For me, what it felt like was a sanctuary,” she said in one of several dozen interviews with KQED over the course of a year. “A place to be who you were meant to be without any retaliation, without any violence, without any judgment.”

Decades have passed since simply being LGBTQ+ was considered a crime and a mental illness. But bias and marginalization still lead to high rates of criminalization, especially for Black trans women (PDF) like Skylit. Once incarcerated, harsh prison conditions take a serious toll on mental health.

Studies (PDF), surveys (PDF) and federal data (PDF) show that trans women held in men’s prisons are sexually and physically assaulted at rates as much as 13 times higher than cisgender men. When they report assaults or fears for their safety, they’re often met with staff retaliation (PDF). It’s not uncommon for trans women to harm themselves — just to get to the safety of a prison mental health bed. Skylit had lived that, too.

The Transgender Respect, Agency and Dignity Act promised an end to those nightmares.

“No more having to hide in fear,” Skylit said. “No more having to be quiet about who I really am. I was excited. I couldn’t wait.”

This story is a result of a year-long investigation into the effectiveness of the legislation that aimed to reduce the trauma of transgender women in California’s prisons. KQED’s reporters interviewed a dozen incarcerated people and reviewed data along with several hundred pages of prison grievances, disciplinary records and legal filings. The reporting revealed that trans women like Skylit and many others transferred to a women’s prison under the new law have not found the sanctuary they were seeking.

For Skylit, the nightmares have only gotten worse.

Living with secrets

Skylit grew up in Compton. When she was 5, she and her siblings entered the foster care system after their mother suffered a mental health break. When Skylit was 14, her mother died by apparent suicide, and the following year, she said, “I tried to kill myself by running in front of a moving train.”

She was physically uninjured but sent to a psychiatric hospital. It wouldn’t be the last time she’d tried to take her own life.

In August 2020, as Syiaah Skylit sat in solitary confinement at Kern Valley State Prison for her own protection, transgender advocates launched a Change.org campaign urging clemency for her. She helped with the design of the artwork. (Courtesy of Syiaah Skylit, Micah Bazant and Freddie Francis)

Skylit is a slight 5 feet, 5 inches tall with a big, dimpled smile. As a teen and living as a boy, she was bullied for being a flashy dresser, for the way she carried herself. She experimented with a gay relationship, but it left her feeling “confused.” The adults in her life were religious and viewed LGBTQ+ people as sinners. Her brothers were gang members. She did what they asked of her, she said, because “I didn’t want to look weak.”

“I couldn’t come out and be myself around people like my family and my friends that I grew up with,” Skylit said. “I grew up in a hard-ass neighborhood. That ain’t about to fly.”

Still, she harbored a secret she never shared with her brothers, one even she didn’t fully comprehend.

“I would dress up. I would put makeup on. All I understood as a person was, ‘Hey, I like this,’” she said. “So if I like this, why is it so bad? Am I a bad person?”

A stint in juvenile detention didn’t stop Skylit from setting her sights on a bright future. She finished high school on time, enrolled in community college, worked multiple jobs and, for a while, paid her rent. But anxiety, depression and drug use interrupted her stability. She’d already been homeless once when, facing eviction in 2012, she and a friend robbed a convenience store in San Bernardino County. It yielded little, so they robbed a Los Angeles County jewelry store — and got caught.

At 22, Skylit was facing criminal trials in both counties.

Her first stop was a San Bernardino County jail, where she came out as gay to get to the relative safety of what was then called the “alternative lifestyles tank.” According to a class-action lawsuit (DOC), the conditions were distressing: discrimination by staff and denial of basic services. Skylit, under her legal name, was among the named plaintiffs. A settlement led to significant reforms (DOC). It was in that jail, she said, where she first learned to advocate for her rights, even in the face of retaliation.

It’s also where she first encountered openly transgender women and was blown away by their courage and joyful confidence. In their midst, Skylit said, she at last felt free of judgment, open to self-acceptance. Her next stop — a stint in the segregated LGBTQ+ tank at the Los Angeles County jail — only reinforced those feelings.

“That’s when I got a taste of all the ‘T’ and I was just living it,” she said of the ‘T’ for Transgender in the alphabet soup of LGBTQ+. “It was like discovering myself.”

She was sentenced to 16 years in prison. It may seem paradoxical, but incarceration gave Skylit breathing room to explore her gender identity. In court, she apologized to her robbery victims. Then, she made a promise to herself to use “every second, every minute” of her time inside “to really find out who I am. I mean, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I felt I had.”

Skylit entered California’s prison system for men in December 2015. Soon, she chose her new name. “Syiaah” is an acronym —  sexy, young, intelligent, ambitious, authentic and heroic. She picked “Sky” as “an inspiration to reach higher limits.” And “lit” is a nod to her hip-hop Compton roots “to be vibrant, live.”

“Put it together, it’s ‘I keep the sky lit’,” she said.

In keeping with the up-to-date medical (DOC) and psychiatric understanding of gender identity, the Transgender Respect, Agency and Dignity Act doesn’t require incarcerated people to be on hormone replacement therapy or to be interested in gender-affirming surgeries to be transferred to housing that aligns with their sense of safety. During Skylit’s early years in prison, that wasn’t the case.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation did consider such transfer requests. The federal Prison Rape Elimination Act had since 2012 forbidden the department from housing prisoners based solely on external genital anatomy. But the CDCR did it on a case-by-case basis, and the tiny number granted all happened to be for trans women who’d had gender-affirming genital surgery.

Not everybody wants that. Gender identity and gender transition are deeply personal. Skylit’s records show she declared her transgender identity on a special CDCR form about a year after arrival — and soon after started asking to be transferred to a women’s prison (DOC). That went nowhere. So Skylit worked to stay true to her transition, even as she was funneled through a series of men’s prisons.

“When I tapped into it, despite the long time I was facing, I was happy,” she said. “But that happiness turned into survival real fast.”

Met by violence

Almost immediately, Skylit’s gender identity and small stature made her a target. On several occasions, she said, correctional officers placed her in cells with large men who specifically requested her and then pressured her for sex. When she filed grievances in an attempt to switch cells or responded to physical assaults by fighting, she said, staff responded with Rule Violation Reports, known as RVRs.

“The more I would push back,” she said, “the more they would attack me with RVRs.”

Still, Skylit pressed on. She requested hormone replacement therapy, and by the time those treatments started, in 2018, she’d been moved to Mule Creek State Prison near the small Sierra foothills town of Ione. It’s one of a dozen or so facilities in the state designated as “transgender hubs.” That means, medical and mental services for trans prisoners are concentrated there, as are prison commissary items unavailable elsewhere, such as sports bras and makeup for trans women, and boxer shorts for trans men.

Skylit could finally stop MacGyvering her fashion looks. She could style her hair, wear makeup and earrings. On the prison yard, she said she found a sense of belonging with her trans sisters.

“We were out there,” she said. “Having fun, protecting each other.”

But even at men’s prisons designated as transgender hubs, trans women were mixed with cisgender men in common areas and their assigned cells. The truer Skylit felt to herself, she said, the greater the danger she experienced.

“Yeah, it’s OK to come out and you got a nice little outfit on, but guess what you just did?” she said. “You just called attention to yourself and now you have certain people who are making sexual advances towards you, and some of them don’t stop.”

Some of her trans sisters exchanged sex for safety. But even that was no guarantee of safety. Skylit wept while recounting how a close friend staggered out of her cell “with a huge gash in her skull, busted lip, trying to get out of the room that she placed herself in because she wanted to be herself. And she couldn’t complain to the officers, because they’re not gonna do anything.”

So Skylit found herself facing a soul-crushing choice between her safety and her identity. Skylit drew a line against assault. That meant more fights and more disciplinary write-ups. The hormone treatments caused muscle weakness, so she made another compromise. She began stopping and starting the medications depending on the danger she was facing.

“Either I’m gonna be who I wanna be or I’m gonna end up dead,” she said. “Girl, I can’t be dead and be myself at the same time.”

As a survival strategy it made sense, but abruptly going on and off hormones brings on acute mood swings. It also heightens gender dysphoria, a mental health diagnosis associated with distress a person can feel at being a gender other than the one assigned at birth. Skylit had experienced that for most of her life, as she hid her true gender identity, and it caused depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

As Skylit juggled these stressors, prison officials transferred her again — this time to Kern Valley State Prison, a maximum-security facility in the Central Valley town of Delano that houses some of the state’s most violent offenders. Among them, transgender advocates note, are gang members known to target LGBTQ+ people in prisons. That’s where she hit a new low.

According to Skylit and a lawsuit filed on her behalf (DOC), she was assaulted twice by incarcerated men and witnessed gruesome attacks on two other trans women. Terrified, she says she asked to speak to a sergeant about her safety concerns. Instead, she alleges, two officers followed her into her cell. One pulled down her pants, ran a baton along her bottom and threatened to rape her with it.

“And I’m just sitting there like this can’t be real,” she said.

That night, she drank from a bottle of laundry detergent in a desperate attempt to get sent to a mental health crisis unit. An officer stripped her of her clothes and left her lying naked in her cell next to the empty bottle. The next day, an officer pepper sprayed her at close range. Others beat her with batons. CDCR does not comment on active litigation. In legal filings, the named officers have denied wrongdoing.

Finally, Skylit said, a sergeant agreed to isolate her for her protection. That’s a common fate for trans women.

“It’s sad to be thankful for complete solitary confinement, isolation,” she said.

She would stay there for seven months.

Skylit had sought help from various attorneys. One responded. Jen Orthwein is a forensic psychologist who once treated transgender clients behind prison walls. They later co-founded a queer-owned law firm to challenge the harsh conditions they’d witnessed. Orthwein worked with other transgender advocates to launch a petition for clemency on Skylit’s behalf.

Meanwhile, with colored pencils and paper, Skylit got to work crafting a series of illustrated children’s books (DOC) featuring gender-non-conforming characters. Among them is a rainbow-colored kid named Unique, who is fully embraced by loving parents but bullied on the playground for delighting in toys conventionally meant for both boys and girls.

The project helped Skylit reimagine her traumatic past. She also hoped her books might make their way into the world and change the mindset of young readers “to where they’re not growing into hatred, but actually out of it.” She finished two, got started on a third. And that’s where she was when Orthewin gave her the good news. The Transgender Respect, Agency and Dignity Act was state law.

Scans of two pages of drawing and text from a hand written book.
Excerpts from ‘It’s a Colorful World.’ (Courtesy of Syiaah Skylit)

“It was like a prayer had been answered,” Skylit said. “Like, ‘This is it!’ This is going to be the beginning of Syiaah Skylit at her best, at completely being herself.”

New perils

Wiener’s bill was years in the making, and he’s quick to note that top CDCR officials were on board. They welcomed advocates to join a working group to brainstorm solutions to unsafe conditions and sought input directly from incarcerated transgender people. The Office of Inspector General detailed in a 2020 report (PDF) the painful responses to those surveys.

Laws in Connecticut, Rhode Island (DOC) and Massachusetts call for similar reforms, while New Jersey has made comparable policy changes in response to litigation. But advocates who helped craft California’s law say it is the most expansive.

Wiener said in an interview that he knew at the start that the magnitude of changes mandated by the law required patience and that it would take time to implement. More recently, though, he’s grown deeply concerned about the way his legislation has played out on the ground. Because, he said, even with senior CDCR management on board, “the culture in the individual prisons is just so challenging that it doesn’t translate.”

A group of people, most wearing the same uniform of blue shirts and pants, stand together holding signs and joined by a person wearing a suit helping to hold a banner reading "trans lives matter."
Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) attends CDCR’s first Transgender Remembrance Day in 2019, organized jointly by trans and cisgender incarcerated people. Wiener had already authored the bill that would become the Transgender Respect, Agency and Dignity Act, with buy-in from top CDCR officials. (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)

Officials chose the Central California Women’s Facility, or CCWF, in Chowchilla as the prison where all the trans women would go first. It’s a facility with a troubled history (PDF) when it comes to staff accountability.

Of a dozen CCWF prisoners interviewed by KQED, all said they heard correctional staff express hostility to the new law even before the transfers began, warning the cisgender population that fakers and sexual predators were heading their way.

Tasha Brown, a cisgender woman, said she heard guards say, “The doors were going to be open for people to come in to violate us, to rape us.”

Tomas Green, a transgender man, said he heard guards “telling women here that the trans women were men and that they were gonna get raped.”

Alexanne Danis, a cisgender woman, said she heard a lieutenant openly state that the transfers “don’t belong here, that they have to leave.”

Officers and fellow cisgender incarcerated people, Danis said, also spoke about driving the new transfers out, “saying that they were gonna stage stuff and that they were gonna make it sound worse than it was if anything did happen.”

Michelle Calvin was one of the first transgender women to arrive at CCWF. She helped work on Wiener’s legislation and has since transferred to the lower-security California Institution for Women. She heard the characterizations by staff that trans women were “gonna come over here and rape y’all and beat y’all up and take y’all stuff.”

The power to reverse the law, she heard officers tell incarcerated people, rested in their hands: “Take your house back. Take your prison back.”

Advocates who helped craft the law were well aware of this toxic environment. They say they pressed officials to allow them to hold a town hall at the women’s prison to defuse these narratives before the transfers began. It never happened.

Meanwhile, the trans women who began arriving in the first half of 2021 had no idea what they were stepping into.

Orthwein, Skylit’s attorney, was part of the working group that informed the new law and said key CDCR decisions around implementation proved harmful. The new arrivals were held in segregation for their first month. There, they were issued new prison identification numbers beginning with a distinctive two-letter combination. Instead of “some semblance of privacy about their transgender status,” which advocates had pressed for, this immediately outed them, feeding hostility and rejection.

CCWF houses people in dorms, as many as eight to a room. Without exception, the trans women interviewed by KQED said they have been refused entry to dorms by prisoners who viewed them as “men.”

On Skylit’s first day in the general population, in mid-July 2021, guards started writing her up for minor violations. Within a month, she was in solitary confinement, accused of having a consensual relationship with her cisgender female bunkmate.

Sex is against prison rules systemwide, but every CCWF prisoner interviewed for this piece said it’s extremely common, especially in women’s prisons.

“Yes, you’re not supposed to have sex but it happens. It’s natural and there’s nothing that’s gonna stop it from happening,” said Giovanni Gonzales, a transgender man who runs a group to educate peers about gender identity.

Relationships form quickly.

“At the end of the day, we’re humans,” Green said. “I’m not saying every relationship in here is just peachy perfect, no. You have a lot of relationships in here that are toxic — fight, argue. But that’s life in the free world.”

Still, while sex and intimacy may be universal, punishment is not.

Gonzales and Green said staff often turn a blind eye to cisgender women who couple up, especially if they express their gender in stereotypically feminine ways. If a transgender man is caught being amorous, they said, a rule violation is more likely. As for the trans women who were just arriving at CCWF, a harsher set of unwritten rules seemed to apply.

One cisgender couple in Skylit’s dorm had been having regular sex without consequence, she said. As Skylit was handcuffed and written up for her relationship, she asked an officer why she was going to isolation and the bunkmate wasn’t. He replied, “Because you’re a man and she’s a woman.”

At a hearing to discuss her situation, records show that Acting Warden Michael Pallares told her he would push to send her back to men’s prison. She claimed he was hostile, “calling me a predator, saying that I’m preying on women.”

In men’s prison, Skylit had lived in constant fear of sexual assault. Now she was cast as a sexual predator. Her disciplinary paperwork relied on “confidential sources” to suggest she was faking her status because she “displays very masculine behavior when with the inmate population.”

In isolation, according to grievances and a government claim filed by Orthwein, Skylit’s gender identity was undermined. She had trouble accessing her hormones and was denied a razor for 40 days straight. She grew a full beard.

“People screaming at me, yelling at me, calling me a man, and I need to go back to the men’s prison,” she said. “‘Look at the hair on yo’ face.’ [I was] pleading, pleading, pleading, ‘Please give me a razor, please give me a razor,’ and denied every time.”

A psychologist misgendered Skylit in a report, yet noted (DOC) that an extended stay in isolation would likely increase her mental health symptoms.

In the months that followed, Skylit was sent multiple times to a mental health unit for being suicidal. She was bumped up to a more intensive level of mental health care. Yet she remained in solitary confinement for eight months. Then, without explanation, Pallares released her to the general population.

Her freedom wouldn’t last.

‘What did you all do to our homegirl?’

Skylit’s time in isolation had taken a toll. On the yard, she said she made enemies when she responded to threats and harassment with aggressive posturing and language. She said she tried not to engage, hanging out and playing cards every day with a couple of other trans women and one cisgender woman who was sweet on her.

“We would hold hands,” she said. “We would hug, we would kiss.”

Prison officials aren’t supposed to penalize trans women more harshly for breaking rules that cisgender prisoners also break, like the one forbidding any behavior that could lead to sex. But the atmosphere around these relationships, interviews and records reveal, was tense and complex.

While some cisgender women feared or lashed out at the new arrivals, others were eager to partner with them. Of a half-dozen transgender women at CCWF who were interviewed by KQED, the five who have not had gender-affirming genital surgery, said they’ve been subject to sexual advances.

Meanwhile, a report (DOC) on the implementation of the new law commissioned by CDCR found that a “sexualized environment, including being sexually pressured or pursued,” was among the reasons given by transgender women who voluntarily returned to men’s prison. Other reasons included “hostile reception from staff or incarcerated individuals,” “false allegations to be removed from room” and “issues with getting hygiene items, such as razors.”

In men’s prison, Skylit said, consensual sex generally went unpunished. That made it hard for her to imagine just how much the bond with her new “bestie” would cost her.

On May 19, 2022, Skylit and her friends were on the yard drinking prison-made wine, disciplinary records show. Skylit and her girlfriend were kissing. A few minutes after Skylit went to use the porta-potty, she said, the girlfriend followed her in and started throwing up.

Skylit said she was holding her hair back when Calvin, one of the trans friends she played cards with, let her know a guard was approaching. Skylit stepped out and asked a couple of other people to check on the girlfriend.

They “opened the door and they say, ‘What did you all do to our homegirl? We don’t know what you two doing, we don’t know what’s going on over here,’” Skylit recounted. “And I said, ‘We just been drinking and she was in the thing throwing up.’ But now, it’s a commotion. It’s a crowd coming up.”

According to Skylit and two other witnesses, the girlfriend came out, and the guard scolded them. “She was like, ‘I’m OK bestie, I love you so much,’ and I hugged her and I walked away.”

Rumors about a rape started circulating. Skylit said she heard it “from like one or two people. It wasn’t big until the next day.”

By then, a fictional narrative had taken shape: In those few moments inside the porta-potty, Skylit had committed rape, while Calvin stood guard. To be clear, prison officials never accused her of rape or sexual assault. The girlfriend told them — and KQED — that it never happened. Still, the rumors proved to be Skylit’s undoing.

That next day, according to Skylit and five witnesses, as she was returning from a mental health appointment, she was roughed up on the yard by 12 to 15 incarcerated people who called her “nothing but a rapist.”

“They were surrounding me and pushing me and spitting on me and swinging at me,” she said.

KQED obtained video of the incident through a public records request. There’s no audio, but the grainy image shows Skylit, who had a pass to be on the yard, doing an about-face as a group of incarcerated people in civilian clothes approached her. One appears to throw liquid at her. A few shove and punch her. She gets agitated. At one point, it’s clear that she’s yelling. But she mostly keeps her arms crossed. She never hits back. Still, she is the only one punished.

As Syiaah Skylit, wearing a long-sleeved white shirt under her prison blues, walked through the yard at Central California Women’s Facility in May 2022, she was accosted by incarcerated people who accused her of being a rapist. Courtesy of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

She’d been out of solitary confinement for just four weeks. She went right back in — and she hasn’t come out in more than a year.

A sergeant who, the video shows, does not walk out to the yard until Skylit is handcuffed, wrote her rule violation report (DOC). He states that he heard her yell, “I’m gonna f- you bitches,” and a few variations on that theme. Then, using her legal name, he adds an editorial aside: “It should be known that when [Skylit] mentioned f-, [Skylit] was referring to sexual intercourse through rape.”

CCWF initially accused Skylit of “threatening the life of a prisoner,” and referred her to the local district attorney for felony prosecution. It didn’t stick. Ultimately, her writeup was reduced to “behavior which could lead to violence.”

In her defense, Skylit pointed to the video as evidence that she wasn’t the aggressor and that others had committed violence against her. Records show that the senior hearing officer called the video “irrelevant.”

CDCR does not comment on specific incarcerated people. Asked to respond to the behavior of the sergeant, it said state regulations forbid discrimination by staff and grant incarcerated people the right to be treated “respectfully, impartially, and fairly by all employees.”

Skylit was far from alone in experiencing false allegations. Of the trans women at CCWF interviewed by KQED, each said they had been similarly targeted by others who were incarcerated and even by staff. Most were sent to solitary confinement pending investigations. Some were already there when they said they were framed.

Fancy Lipsey, records show, spent seven months in isolation after she was physically assaulted by other incarcerated people. As soon as she got out, a cisgender woman “went over to the officers and told them that I touched her vagina and her breasts in the dayroom.”

They reviewed the video on the spot “and saw that I was nowhere near this woman.” Still, they told Lipsey they were taking her back to solitary confinement. That’s when she cut her wrists, ending up on suicide watch instead.

Calvin said she was punished after a roommate “went up to the program office and said I supposedly choked” another cisgender woman in their dorm in the middle of the night. The allegation came days after the alleged assault, which no one witnessed or reported at the time. Calvin said it took months to clear her name.

Tremayne Carroll, a trans woman who uses a wheelchair, said that after she rebuffed sexual advances from a cisgender woman, that woman yelled to guards that Carroll had sexually assaulted her. When that went nowhere, the woman changed her story and said the two had had consensual sex.

Freddy Fox, an intersex prisoner who identifies as a trans woman and goes by “Foxy,” said she landed in solitary confinement after being assaulted. Alone in her cell in the weeks that followed, she was verbally harassed and accused of sexual impropriety.

“They would allege that I had exposed myself, then I’d have to go to the cameras to show that I did not expose myself,” Foxy said. The officers would then reduce the write-up to a lesser violation, she said, “but it’s still a sexual misconduct! That was the go-to thing in 2021 when we first arrived.”

‘Porta-potty rapist’

Skylit’s case stands out in one crucial way: The false rape allegation went viral. Her chosen and legal names ended up all over the internet. One outlet called her the perpetrator of a “port-a-potty rape.”

That’s because, as soon as the Transgender Respect, Agency and Dignity Act went into effect, an anti-trans organization called the Women’s Liberation Front started working to roll it back.

In November 2021, it filed a lawsuit (DOC) in federal court alleging the law violates the constitutional rights of cisgender women by forcing them to be housed with trans women who still have male genitalia. Simply having them there, the pending suit alleges, “substantially” increases the risk “of sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape, and physical violence, and to psychological fear of such harms.”

The Women’s Liberation Front was looking for a villain. The rumors about Skylit fit its narrative perfectly. Even though there were no eyewitnesses, no prison investigation and a girlfriend who said the rape never happened (DOC), attorneys for the organization gathered hearsay declarations. The attorney handed them over to anti-trans websites and attached them to a motion in the legal docket (DOC), making the declarations public record.

On the tier in solitary confinement, the taunts of “porta-potty rapist” have been endless.

More on LGBTQI+ Rights

“I tell people, stop calling me that,” Skylit said. “Then, I’m a problem because I say things like, ‘Well, if I’m a rapist, then you a rapist,’ and then it’s like, ‘Oh, now he’s a threat, he’s arguing, he’s aggressive.’ I’m in a cage. By myself.”

Skylit said cisgender incarcerated people have threatened to stab her, even chop off her penis. They’ve done it in front of officers without consequence. Yet just about every time she has erupted with verbal threats, she is written up. Prison officials have used the outbursts, and the enemies she’s made, as justification to keep her in solitary confinement, labeling her a “threat to the management and security of the institution.”

Some prisoners in solitary confinement — what CDCR calls restricted housing — are allowed cellmates for company. Skylit has had to cell alone. Some are allowed onto an open yard. But Skylit was designated a potential threat to others, so she has had to exercise in a cage that’s about 12-by-8 feet, often surrounded by other incarcerated people who insult her. When she attends her mental health groups, she is among those who must sit in a cage the size of a telephone booth called a “therapeutic module.”

Multiple studies confirm how damaging long-term solitary confinement is to mental health. So it’s no surprise that Skylit has struggled. Records show she has harmed herself on several occasions, once punching the wall until her hand bled. After that incident, for a few weeks in August 2022, she was medicated against her will with high doses of antipsychotic drugs. Too drugged to mount a defense, she was found guilty of multiple rule violations.

A judge determined the prison violated her civil rights by force-medicating her. For Skylit, it was an important victory. But the whole experience eroded her faith in the prison mental health system. As the months ticked by, she went off all her medications — not just the hormones, but also the ones that treat depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Shattered trust

It’s important to note that many cisgender incarcerated people at CCWF with histories of sexual victimization were truly scared of the newly arriving transgender women. Some still are. The fear-mongering from staff and outside anti-trans groups has not helped. But those fears appear to be unfounded.

KQED requested discipline data from CCWF. In the two years after the new law took effect, staff did not issue a single rule violation for physical or sexual violence to the trans women who came over from men’s prisons.

Meanwhile, write-ups for violence were common in the rest of the prison population, including for fighting, assault and battery on prisoners and staff, and even inciting a riot. The data also show that the new arrivals under the law were six times more likely than other CCWF prisoners to be punished for behavior that could lead to consensual sex.

As it happens, there was a violent predator at CCWF. Allegedly, there was more than one and they weren’t transgender women. They were cisgender men, employees of the state.

In May 2023, as Skylit struggled to hold onto herself in her solitary cell, she heard the news that Gregory Rodriguez, a longtime guard at CCWF, was facing a 96-count criminal complaint for allegedly sexually assaulting more than a dozen incarcerated women over the course of years.

He’d been allowed to retire in August 2022 while under investigation. In addition to those charges, six women filed lawsuits under Jane Roe or Jane Doe pseudonyms against Rodriguez in federal court, contending he lured them to a suite of offices where there are no cameras and forcibly raped them. One of these alleged assaults took place on May 20, 2022, the same day that the crowd surrounded Skylit and called her a rapist.

CDCR settled those suits earlier this month for $3.7 million. More lawsuits have been filed alleging sexual assaults by CCWF employees. Four of the named victims are transgender women, Skylit among them. Her lawsuit (DOC) contends that Rodriguez and Pallares, the warden who called her a predator, each demanded sexual favors from her in the spring of 2022 “for the purpose of humiliating, degrading and demeaning” her.

“For him to have me come into that room, it’s just so dirty,” Skylit said. “I feel dirty.”

Pallares was demoted in January after the Rodriguez scandal broke. Currently, an associate warden at Pleasant Valley State Prison, he declined comment. Prison officials wouldn’t say whether Pallares was under investigation. But in a statement, officials said CDCR investigates all sexual assault allegations, and “resolutely condemns any staff member who violates their oath and shatters the trust of the public.”

The totality of Skylit’s experience has left her shattered.

“They come to my door every day asking me if I want to take my hormones. No, I don’t want to take no hormones,” she told KQED in March after 10 months of isolation. “I don’t even understand who I am anymore. I’m full of anger. Hatred, ooh, hatred is huge for me right now. I’m lost, I’m completely lost.”

Spending more than two years in solitary confinement means she hasn’t had access to the kind of programming that would earn her good-time credits and earlier release, like school, work and vocational training. She has never laid a finger on another prisoner or an officer, but her disciplinary write-ups have nevertheless added more than a year to her original 16-year sentence.

Prison officials are again recommending that Skylit be returned to a men’s prison. It requires a hearing that’s already been postponed for 17 months. She’s flip-flopped on whether to go back voluntarily. Being stuck in a box is destroying her, she said, and getting back into the general population may help her get out sooner. But with being falsely labeled a rapist, she’s terrified.

“They will kill me,” she said.

If she does end up back in men’s prison, she shared in an emotional phone call, she plans to keep her gender identity secret. To prepare for the possibility, she started working out so she could fight for her life. She sold her earrings. And she cut off all her hair. She’d been growing it out for more than eight years, ever since those trans women in county jail lit a fire inside her.

Making herself “bald-headed” as she said, was a painful act of surrender.

Skylit also threw away the trans-friendly children’s books she’d worked so hard to bring to life.

“I told myself, I’m not gonna get emotional or emo with this stuff no more,” she said.

A path forward

California’s law was meant to protect transgender women, but the culture at CCWF and rising anti-trans fervor all over the country have exposed them to new traumas. Implementation has been slow. A report (PDF) issued in late August by the current inspector general noted a “significant backlog” in transfer requests.

Of nearly 400 incarcerated people who’ve requested housing transfers under the law — the vast majority transgender women asking to move to women’s prison — more than 300 are still waiting for a committee to hear their case. Many live in daily fear of sexual and physical assault, said A.D. Lewis, an attorney who runs Trans Beyond Bars, a project for the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office.

A transgender man, Lewis regularly communicates with trans-incarcerated people.

The three dozen or so trans women who made it to CCWF — most during the first six months of implementation — are the vanguard. Many, like Skylit, have suffered. A small number have been transferred to the California Institution for Women, a lower security prison in San Bernardino County, where they say conditions are slightly better.

In a statement, CDCR said it is working to implement some of the changes recommended by outside consultants (DOC) earlier this year and is committed to providing “a safe, humane, respectful and rehabilitative environment for all incarcerated people, including the transgender, non-binary and intersex community.”

Advocates acknowledge that the cycles of harm continue.

“Instead of respecting trans people’s self-determination and prioritizing their safety, as the law requires,” Lewis said, correctional staff and other incarcerated people have used it “to put a target on trans peoples’ back.”

Shortly after prison officials received KQED’s questions for this story in September, CCWF revoked all phone privileges for Skylit and others in solitary confinement. In an email to KQED after the initial publication of this story, a CDCR official said the revocation of phone privileges was a policy change ending what had been a temporary, more liberal phone privileges policy instituted in the early days of the COVID pandemic.

Skylit’s attorney worries about the impact of the trauma on her future.

“These systems are so built to destroy people, and if they survive and get out, they’re not better and they’re often much worse,” Orthwein said.

In a letter sent in July 2023 to Newsom, nearly two-dozen advocacy and legal organizations pressing for better treatment for transgender, nonbinary and intersex prisoners urged clemency (DOC) for those who have experienced harm in prison.

Wiener, meanwhile, expressed deep frustration with the pace of implementation. In response to KQED’s findings, he said he was “horrified to hear how trans women are being treated in women’s prison, both by the prisons and by other inmates. The fact that they’re being treated harshly and slandered, called rapists when they’re not, it’s terrifying and we’re not going to just let this go.”

Lee Romney is a longtime journalist who spent 23 years at the Los Angeles Times. Jennifer Johnson is a former career public defender who helped launch San Francisco’s Behavioral Health Court. This reporting, supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the California Health Care Foundation, is part of a forthcoming podcast they’re co-creating. Called November In My Soul, it explores the way bias makes its way into our intertwined mental health and criminal legal systems.

This story has been updated.

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