Internal documents reveal sexual abuse at California women’s prisons

Central California Women's Facility

A state prison inmate incarcerated at the Central California Women’s Facility was awaiting her group therapy session on Aug. 23, 2017. She stepped backward in her cell toward the door, where Correctional Officer Israel Trevino waited with waist restraints.

As he attached the chains, he reached down with both of his hands “to grope and fondle her buttocks,” according to an internal investigation that led to Trevino’s firing.

The inmate, whose name was redacted in reports, angrily asked what he was doing.

“You have a big butt,” Trevino replied.

Who is releasing police personnel files and who is not

This wasn’t the only time Trevino sexually abused an inmate in his custody, according to the investigation’s findings.

The former correctional officer, who was responsible for escorting inmates from their cells to their appointments and to the shower, tried to pull up a woman’s shirt and put his hand down her pants on an unspecified date in 2017, investigators for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation found.

That inmate said Trevino squeezed her buttocks over her clothing while escorting her and tried to get her to expose her breasts and vagina.

“Come on, show me something," he pressured her, according to the records.

Trevino was investigated after an inmate complained about the groping to her prison social worker, who reported the allegation.

Prison officials fired Trevino in 2018 for sexual misconduct. He had worked at the women’s prison for over a decade and had been formally warned for making sexually harassing comments to inmates, according to records from the Office of the Inspector General for California prisons.

A look at the 40 inmates who have died at Santa Rita

Attempts to reach Trevino for comment were unsuccessful.

Prison system spokeswoman Dana Simas responded in a written statement that officials moved to protect incarcerated women when the 2017 allegations surfaced.

“Trevino was barred from entering the secured perimeter of the prison to prevent further inmate contact during the pendency of the investigation,” Simas wrote.

The department fired at least six male correctional officers for sexually abusing women in their custody between 2014 and 2018, according to internal records released to KQED under a new state transparency law and court filings.

Some groped the inmates, others engaged in oral sex or intercourse. The disciplinary records, which are still incomplete, provide a first-ever glimpse into how the prison system deals with sexual exploitation by its officers.

The names of the women involved are redacted in the records, and two named witnesses did not respond to requests for interviews.

Women sue Santa Rita over humiliating treatment

While the number of dismissals for sexual misconduct are extremely rare among the roughly 26,000 correctional officers who work at California prisons, inmate advocates say sexual abuse by staff is more rampant than the records show because few officers get reported or investigated.

Amika Mota is trying to change that. She spent most of a nine-year prison sentence for vehicular manslaughter at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, north of Fresno in the Central Valley. She said she and other incarcerated women put up with sexual advances because they depended on correctional officers for access to clean laundry, phone calls, tampons, time out of their cells and other basic needs.

“There’s not a bone in my body that ever felt attracted to any of these officers or felt like any of the words we spoke were true.” Mota said. “It was just this survival technique to play along.”

Officers can also write up inmates, which can result in extending a prison sentence.

One officer in her housing unit, who Mota declined to name, demanded that she write sexually explicit letters to him. She also described an officer who expected to see women without their clothes on.

“He would be really appreciative if during count we were in our bras,” she said.

Mota said she never reported any harassment, fearing retaliation.

She joined the San Francisco Bay Area-based Young Women’s Freedom Center after she was released in 2015. She’s now part of a new movement called Me Too Behind Bars, working to expose sexual abuse of people in prison and jail.

“What does it mean to feel constantly harassed, where they think it’s consensual and we think it’s not but we can’t ever say it?” Mota said.

The state’s inmate population includes nearly 5,000 women, about 4% of the 124,000 prisoners in the system.

State prison officials say they have been trying to improve conditions for female inmates in recent years, including enforcing a zero-tolerance policy for sexual misconduct.

“All sexual violence, staff sexual misconduct, and sexual harassment is strictly prohibited,” prisons spokeswoman Simas wrote in an Oct. 11 email.

The state prison system also investigates and tracks all allegations of sexual assault and harassment by staff, including correctional officers, to comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act. In 2018, 337 staff-on-inmate incidents were reported in California prisons.

Investigations substantiated just three of those allegations.

Independent probes into the culture in women’s lockups have found that these formally reported allegations likely only capture a fraction of the abuse and harassment of incarcerated women by prison staff.

The Prison Law Office, which monitors conditions for inmates as part of a settlement in a decades-old federal class action lawsuit, has interviewed hundreds of women at the Central Valley prison and documented their complaints for the court.

The firm reported in 2016 that out of a random sample of 80 women, nearly all had experienced sexual abuse or harassment while incarcerated. A second round of interviews turned up similar complaints, often at the hands of the same officers. The firm faulted a culture of bigotry and sexism at the prison.

“It was a constant stream of verbal sexual harassment or misogynist statements,” attorney Corene Kendrick said, “kind of cat-calling at its highest level.”

A lot of women complained the prison officers constantly addressed them as “bitches” or “hos,” Kendrick said. “When they'd make the announcements on the P.A. system, you know, it'd be ‘Hey bitches, time to go to lunch’."

Sexual abuse of female prisoners isn’t confined to a single facility, records obtained by KQED revealed. Four correctional officers in the state’s other major women’s prison -- in Southern California -- were also fired in recent years for sexual misconduct.

In 2017 alone, three officers at the California Institution for Women in San Bernardino County had sexual contact with inmates in or near their housing units.

Officer Robert Darrow was working an overtime shift in a housing unit on May 12, 2017, when he pulled one of the women responsible for cleaning and mopping the dorm into a broom closet, according to a transcript of a preliminary hearing in a criminal case against him. He closed the door, bent her over, pulled down her sweat pants and sexually assaulted her, an investigator testified.

The encounter lasted only three minutes, according to the testimony, because Darrow heard a noise outside the closet and stopped.

In that same month, Officer Tony Garcia sent all the women in a housing unit to breakfast, but one. The woman performed oral sex on him in her cell and later provided DNA evidence of the encounter to internal affairs investigators.

A third case involved Officer Stephen Merrill entering the cell of two female inmates at 3:30 a.m. on Oct. 30, 2017, and groping them.

An investigation found, “As inmate (REDACTED) stood by the door facing the inside of the cell, she bent over and you inserted your right hand from behind her into her underwear. You grabbed her buttocks.”

The other inmate then faced the inside of the cell and bent over. Merrill reportedly also groped her from behind. The disciplinary decision released by prison officials doesn’t provide further details about the incident.

Under state and federal statutes, inmates cannot consent to sex with prison guards. Sustained findings of sexual misconduct by a correctional officer will result in dismissal, according to prison policies, and can be grounds for criminal prosecution. All three correctional officers at the Southern California women’s prison were fired and charged with felony sex crimes. Attorneys representing them did not return requests for comment.

Merrill and Garcia took plea deals, according to court records. Garcia served two days in jail and was placed on probation. Merrill’s two-year prison sentence was suspended as he completes three years of probation. He was also sentenced to less than a year of county jail time, eligible for work and weekend release.

Prosecutors in the case against Darrow argued he had “a history of being investigated for sexual activity with inmates,” according to a preliminary hearing transcript in the case. But the San Bernardino County district attorney suddenly dropped the charges against him in March of this year. Deputy DA Lisa Mann, who prosecuted the case, declined to answer any questions.

Some officers are never even charged, though.

In Israel Trevino’s case from the Central Valley prison, it took officials eight months to dismiss him for sexually abusing inmates. He was fired in April 2018.

Prison officials never referred Trevino for criminal charges -- due to insufficient evidence for criminal charges, according to a spokeswoman. That’s despite investigators’ findings that he repeatedly groped women in his custody.

“The Central Region Criminal Investigation team, after a full review of the material recommended the case instead be opened as an administrative investigation,” spokeswoman Simas wrote.

The Office of Inspector General for California prisons monitors all investigations of sexual assault and harassment by officers and issues public reports.

In Trevino's case, the Office of the Inspector General noted several deficiencies in the prison's investigation. A prison investigator "scheduled case conferences and critical witness interviews for when he knew the OIG would not be available, and only cooperated after the OIG elevated the issue to his supervisor," according to a 2018 inspector general’s discipline monitoring report.

The office's case review also faulted the investigation for failing to substantiate that Trevino was dishonest "when he denied that he made inappropriate, derogatory and sexually harassing comments to inmates."

“We have no authority to tell the department, 'You have to do what we think you should do,'” explained Inspector General Roy Wesley. “Our power is to write about it and to bring transparency to the public because otherwise nobody knows what happens in these things.”

Inmate advocates would like California to create another oversight body with more teeth.

They also agree with the Prison Law Office’s recommendation that CDCR hire mostly female correctional officers to work inside the women’s housing units.

All of the male officers fired for sexual misconduct inside California women’s prisons in recent years had access to areas of the housing units where women are changing. Federal law mandates that male officers announce their presence upon entering those areas, but otherwise does not restrict their presence.

Attorneys with the Prison Law Office think prison officials could prevent a lot of abuse by cutting off that access.

“Washington Department of Corrections at one of their women's prisons made it a requirement that only women apply for certain positions working inside the housing units where the women live sleep and bathe,” said Prison Law Office attorney Kendrick.

The California prison system has been moving in that direction, according to spokeswoman Simas. A greater percentage of jobs in housing units are designated for female officers only, and the prison system is pushing to recruit more women.

Currently women make up roughly a third of officers at the two main female prisons in the state.

Mota is still working to turn her experience in prison into an instrument for change.

Thinking about the years she was scrutinized and objectified in prison by officers who considered her “their girl” makes her anxious and shaky.

“It's not the rules, or the regulations, it's the culture,” Mota said. “How do you deeply affect this culture that's existed for so long where it's ‘normal’ and ‘OK’ to do this?”