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.
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.