The California jail where women say guards and medics preyed on them

Former inmates at a Los Angeles county prison allege a range of sexual abuses by employees from overt assault to subtle misconduct made easy by the toxic power dynamics

In 2011, Michele Infante was incarcerated for close to six months at the Century regional detention facility in Lynwood, California, a small city adjacent to Compton and Watts. The facility is Los Angeles countys only jail designated for women and sprawls across an industrial zone in the shadow of the Imperial Highway.


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    Infante, now 58, says she was sexually assaulted and sexually abused by two different employees at Lynwood, as the jail is known locally.

    As she recalls, one day in late September 2011, after Infante had been at Lynwood for around five months, a deputy walked to the door of her cell and told her to come with him. He led her to what looked like an unused classroom in an empty wing of the jail, she said, pushed her against the wall and raped her.

    When I went back to my room, I just remember crying. I didnt get a shower for a couple of days, so I just felt so dirty and filthy, she said. She didnt have an extra pair of underwear to change into after the assault, and didnt tell anyone what had happened. I just felt so alone and isolated and like I deserved it somehow.

    Now an activist with the grassroots organization Dignity and Power Now, Infante has spent nearly every weekend for the past four years standing outside the main entrance to the Lynwood jail, talking to women just getting out about their experiences, how the deputies treated them, whether they were able to stay safe while locked up.

    Its not the physical force women may experience so much as what she sees as the toxic power dynamics between prisoners and deputies at Lynwood that Infante worries about. The emotional fallout from her own time in lockup has left wounds that affect her close to eight years later.

    Century
    Century regional detention facility in Lynwood, California. Photograph: Tobin Yelland

    I have moments of depression if Im alone and Im not thinking about my work, Infante said. It definitely comes up, especially when I outreach on Saturdays and Sundays over at the facility where I was sexually assaulted. Sometimes she will cry unexpectedly, she said, and sometimes she gets sick to her stomach recalling the assaults. Since her release nearly eight years ago, Infante said, flashes of her time at Lynwood still find their way into her thoughts daily.

    Sexual misconduct at Lynwood made headlines in the local news for close to two years. In September 2017 a Los Angeles county sheriffs deputy, Giancarlo Scotti, was arrested for sexually assaulting two female inmates (he is not the one who allegedly assaulted Infante). The following February, Scotti was criminally charged with sexually assaulting six incarcerated women between March and September of 2017. Since then, at least five women formerly jailed at Lynwood have filed federal lawsuits against Scotti and the Los Angeles county sheriffs department (LASD) alleging sexual assault, and his trial is scheduled to begin in September. Deputy Scotti remains on administrative leave without pay, according to an LASD spokesperson.

    When reached for comment, an LASD representative wrote that the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department expects all of its members to hold themselves to the highest ethical and professional standards at all times Any proven criminal, or other acts of misconduct that violate public trust, will not be tolerated and immediate appropriate remedies will be taken by the Department as permitted by law. The Department is committed to the prevention of all sexual assaults and abuse in our jails.

    Nevertheless, in March 2018, a leaked preliminary audit of the jails compliance with federal sexual safety laws cited serious and troubling allegations of sexual abuse and sexual harassment.

    Yet the kind of misconduct that doesnt make headlines is arguably as corrosive, and harder to track than the overt assaults. It is also more common. This misconduct shows up in the form of subtler, almost mundane encounters: the flirting in exchange for extra food, the exhibitionism in exchange for time outside ones cell, the connections that mimic warmth or even love, but are defined as sexual abuse under federal law.

    Leslie
    Leslie Schwartz: It wasnt even personal. It was just youre scum, youre one of the maggots in this place. Photograph: Tobin Yelland

    The majority of states, including California, have criminal statutes stating that inmates are not capable of consenting to sexual contact with detention facility employees, due to the obvious power differential; the guards have all the control in a locked facility. Their decisions determine where a prisoners time inside falls on the spectrum from survivable to hellish, and prisoners must make decisions accordingly as to whether to report harassment, tolerate it, or get what benefit they can from a deputys sexual interest.

    The power dynamics in prison

    Sexual misconduct doesnt mean the same thing to everyone, and that makes tracking it all the more difficult. The Prison Rape Elimination Act (Prea), a set of laws passed in 2003 which aim to increase sexual safety in lockup, deems any kind of sexual contact between an inmate and a corrections officer illegal, whether or not that contact appears to be consensual.

    But some prisoners who have regular sexual contact with deputies consider themselves to be in consensual relationships. Likewise, a woman who gets extra food or time outside her cell because of a deputys attraction to her has no incentive to report that arrangement.

    Tameshia Green, 32, was released in December 2017 after three years in Lynwood. In that time, she said, she never witnessed, experienced, nor heard about a sexual assault in the facility. But she described one guard who she says liked her, who would walk past her cell and tell her she looked good.

    It was kind of crazy, but I said, hey, I got to use what I got to get what I want, Green said. In exchange for extra food and other necessities, she would walk naked around her cell, making her body visible to the guard who praised her appearance. There was never any physical contact between them, she said.

    To Green, the officers alleged behavior didnt qualify as harassment, though the law is clear that it did.

    The bottom line is, given the power dynamics in prison, said Sheila Bedi, a clinical law professor at Northwestern University, given the absolute control that authorities have over the lives of people who live behind bars, there can be no consent in terms of what the law defines as consent and there can be no consent in terms of equal power in the interaction.

    The officers who are trading sexual acts for different types of favors, Bedi said, that often is a part of grooming that often is a first step toward physical contact. Weve seen that happen over and over again.

    Leslie Schwartz, who spent 37 days at Lynwood in 2014, said she observed a lot of what she called obvious, clear flirtations between women and staff, and noted that the female inmates who knew how to work it were able to secure certain privileges. On a few occasions, Schwartz said she was able to see a package from her husband waiting for her, but the deputy who should have given it to her immediately simply chose not to.

    It wasnt even personal, she said. It was just youre scum, youre one of the maggots in this place.

    Later in her stay, Schwartz contacted a roommate whom she described as cute and who was willing to flirt with the deputy in charge of distributing mail on her behalf. That way, Schwartz said, she was able to get her packages without delay.

    Schwartz, and several other women who spoke to me about their experiences at Lynwood, observed relationships between women and deputies that appeared to be consensual. Schwartz recalled a young woman and an older deputy who were in an ongoing relationship, and whom she once saw emerging hand in hand from the bathroom near the guards station on her module.

    They were always talking to each other, they were always together. Everybody knew, Schwartz said. It wasnt something they were hiding.

    April
    April Villestas: Its disgusting. The way [the deputies] treat us, its like were animals, were addicts, OK. But what is their reason for being disgusting? Photograph: Tobin Yelland

    April Villestas, 49, has done multiple stints at Lynwood, most recently in May 2015. She said that continuing sexual relationships between women and deputies were common, and that rendezvous would take place at night when most women were sleeping.

    The next day I would hear about how so-and-so got to be out all night with this male deputy, Villestas said. Ive been in a lot of those dorms. Its happening all over that jail.

    Villestas remembered one week in particular during her most recent stint at Lynwood. Several times that week, she said, during the day and during the night, deputies would allow one woman to visit her girlfriends cell privately, and would guard the door while the two women were alone together. Villestas noticed that the deputy who facilitated these visits during the night, a woman, would stand watching the two women through the window in the cells door.

    I believe that was her payment for allowing it to happen, Villestas said.

    After she was released from Lynwood, Villestas ended up at a rehab facility in Long Beach where one of the women in the couple was also staying. Villestas asked her if she knew that the deputy was watching her and her girlfriend when they were ostensibly alone together. Yes, the woman told her, but she didnt care. At least she got to be with her girlfriend. Besides, she said, she and the deputy liked each other, and she got special privileges because of that attraction.

    Villestas was floored.

    Its disgusting, she said. The way [the deputies] treat us, its like were animals, were addicts, OK. But what is their reason for being disgusting?

    Its hard to get people to care about women in jail

    Elizabeth Swavola, senior program associate at the Vera Institute of Justice, said that people tend to have the perception that women in lockup deserve punishment and harsh treatment, despite evidence that the majority of women are in jail for non-violent offenses and 30% have serious mental health issues.

    Its really hard to get people to care about women in jail, Swavola said. The #MeToo movement has really moved us forward as a society and shone a light on how pervasive sexual violence and abuse is. But I havent seen as much attention to women who are incarcerated.

    Recent, reliable data on women and jails is scarce, Swavola said, but the data that does exist suggests that the overwhelming majority of women who comprise the US jail population have histories of complex trauma, making them more vulnerable to abuse. A small-scale 2012 study by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, for example, found that 86% of women in jail have experienced sexual violence in their lifetimes, and that 53% have lifetime post-traumatic stress disorder.

    A preliminary audit report on Lynwoods compliance with Prea standards was leaked to the Los Angeles Times in April 2018. The report found that the facility met just two of 43 safety standards.

    On 12 February of this year, the Los Angeles county board of supervisors approved a $950,000 settlement for a former Lynwood prisoner who claimed that she was sexually assaulted by a deputy while inside.

    Beyond these glimpses into Lynwood, specific data on the extent of sexual misconduct there is difficult to obtain. For one thing, its unclear whether allegations of misconduct have been systematically recorded, an issue that perplexed the Prea field audit team during the course of their six-month investigation.

    The team noted several times in their 138-page report that their work was hampered by a lack of access to the data and documents they requested, including investigative, personnel, medical, and mental health files onsite, which is key to conducting a performance-based audit, the auditors wrote.

    I think that this department has always taken sexual abuse and sexual harassment very seriously, said Karen Dalton, the Prea coordinator for the LA county sheriffs department. She pointed out that the department itself requested the preliminary audit, knowing full well the report would paint a grim picture of sexual safety and Prea compliance at Lynwood.

    The effort to bring LA countys jail facilities into compliance with federal laws around sexual safety began in 2015, and has progressed considerably since the preliminary audit report was leaked last year, Dalton said. But those efforts have been hobbled by the fact that, until last November, Dalton was LASDs sole full-time staff person dedicated to Prea.

    The abysmal field audit report opened a lot of eyes, Dalton said, and resulted in an LA county board of supervisors motion last May to allocate more Prea staff to the sheriffs department. (One manager came on board in November 2018, and another began 1 April 2019).

    Underreported sexual assault is another obstacle in gauging the scope of sexual misconduct at Lynwood. Sexual assault is universally underreported, both inside and outside of correctional facilities, due to a fear of retaliation or of being disbelieved, or the stigma around being a victim of abuse, or a misplaced sense of guilt.

    Esther Lim, former director of ACLU Southern Californias Jails Project, believes that the majority of sexual misconduct at Lynwood goes unreported. When she conducted visits to the jail, Lim said, women were forthcoming about experiencing verbal abuse, but much less so about sexual assault.

    Because of the sensitivity around reporting [sexual misconduct], she said, we would sometimes hear, I dont feel comfortable telling you now, but maybe when I get released, I might.

    I honestly felt suicidal

    After her alleged rape, Infante stayed quiet for three or four weeks.

    Then one morning in October, Infante had a medical appointment to get an x-ray. When she was alone in the room with a medical staff person, she said, he unzipped his pants and started masturbating in front of her. Infante fled the room and spent the next several hours in her cell, trying to think clearly enough to figure out what to do.

    I couldnt take it any more, Infante said. At that point in time I honestly felt suicidal, and I had never been suicidal in my life before.

    So she waited a few more hours until the next time she was allowed out of her cell, picked a deputy she had never spoken to before, and approached him. She told him about the incident that had just taken place with the medical staff person, as well as the assault a few weeks earlier.

    How long have you been here? Infante recalled him asking.

    For about six months.

    Well, I think what happened is that you want to get out of jail so bad that in your mind, you fabricated this so that you could get out, said the deputy.

    No, Infante said she told him. I did not fabricate what happened. And if you dont believe me, she remembered adding, when I get out, I will go to the San Gabriel Valley Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, and I will let them know what happened.

    The chutzpah Infante showed in making that threat worked in her favor. That same night around 2am, Infante said, she was awoken by a deputy tapping her on the shoulder and calling out her name. She knew what was happening. She was about to be released, less than 24 hours after reporting the sexual abuse to a deputy.

    While she was being processed out, she said, no one asked her about the sexual assault allegations she had made to the deputy earlier. I believe that they were hoping that they would release me and I would never want to come back and talk about it.

    Infante was free, but she didnt feel free. She still doesnt.

    Original Article : HERE ; This post was curated & posted using : RealSpecific

     


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