Rojas, 39, spent 15 years as a gender nonconforming (GNC) prisoner who endured abuse from guards. Finally, in the last year of the sentence at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), the largest women’s prison in the state, Rojas decided to fight back by documenting abuse, filing grievances and forcing the state to respond.
After being released in 2017, Rojas moved to Los Angeles and helped launch the #MeToo Behind Bars campaign. Rojas also was a leader in a lawsuit accusing guards of civil rights violations--including physically attacking trans and GNC prisoners, locking them in “isolation cages” when they reported abuse, and denying them medical treatment.
“We were sick of it. We weren’t going to let the officers abuse us anymore,” Rojas, who uses a single name and the pronoun they, said in a story published October 8, 2020 by The Guardian. “We organized on the inside.”
Rojas said guards routinely tormented transgender and nonbinary prisoners, “mocking their bodies, threatening sexual violence and sometimes physically assaulting them.’’ Another thing that stood out to Rojas was the sheer number of queer, trans and GNC people in prison.
“There were roughly 4,000 people incarcerated at CCWF, eight people in a room, and every room had at least two trans and GNC folks, There were even more queer folks. It’s crazy because we all come from the same communities. It felt like every queer person from these small communities ends up in prison. It’s then when you realize, damn, we’re targeted. ...We’re criminalized for being us!”
Rojas described guards treating queer, trans or GNC prisoners like they were not human, constantly seeking out ways to humiliate, ranging from the minor irritation of mis-gendering to more serious abuse such as being handcuffed behind the back in painful positions and frog-marched bent over while guards made sexual jokes or threatening rape. Receiving numerous bogus disciplinary charges and being strip searched in a room full of taunting male officers were other forms of special treatment they received.
Why did the prisoners accept the abuse in silence for so many years? Shame, according to Rojas.
‘‘You feel shame. You want to keep it a secret. It’s hard to tell your family and each other, because you don’t want to be the punchline, you don’t want folks to hear about it. You just try to keep quiet so it goes away. But it doesn’t ever go away.”
Rojas said organizing from inside the prison was difficult. Guards could retaliate and “cut off all your pipelines — they stop your mail, rip up your pictures, it’s horrible.”
They could also label anyone meeting in groups of more than three a “gang” and place them in isolation. But Rojas and others worked around the restrictions, secretly helping one another to organize, document abuse and file grievances.
Rojas knows of recent reforms within the prison system, such as policies requiring guards to use to correct pronouns and allowing trans prisoners to dress in gender-appropriate clothing but believes reform is not the answer.
“Gender-based violence isn’t going to end when you fire certain officers or put certain officers in jail,” Rojas said. “This is the system and this is how it works, and even if we change things a little bit, the problem is not going away. The violence comes from these systems.”
Rojas said the COVID-19 pandemic exposed that the government does not care any about prisoners’ lives and called upon the governor to release prisoners who have served more than 20 years or who are over age 60 or have less than two years remaining on their sentences. That would allow social distancing for the remaining prisoners.
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