Lawyers say transgender prisoner was 'set up' after making #MeToo complaint

C. Jay Smith, who's serving 25 years to life at San Quentin, could face 10 more years behind bars after she made a sex abuse complaint, her lawsuit says.
By Nico Lang and Kate Sosin

California prison officials are staring down yet another lawsuit from a transgender woman who says she was abused in custody.

C. Jay Smith, 59, filed a federal lawsuit last Monday alleging that staff members at San Quentin State Prison, just north of San Francisco, refused to investigate reports she had filed after having been sexually abused and that they retaliated against her. Smith alleges that the campaign went so far that guards falsely accused her of serious violations, potentially adding 10 years to her sentence.

C. Jay Smith.Medina Orthwein LLP

A 36-page complaint filed in U.S. District Court for Northern California claims that staff members at the prison "used threatening and coercive tactics to try to get her to withdraw her allegations."

"Ms. Smith's case demonstrates that the 'Me Too' movement and the protections it has provided to women needs to also find its way to the violence and state-initiated torment transgender people face behind CDCR's prison walls," the suit says, referring to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Smith has lived almost her entire life as a woman, according to the complaint. She knew she was transgender at 10 years old and started to transition as a teenager, the suit states. But after she was sentenced to 25 years to life with the possibility of parole, she has spent the entire term — now more than two decades — housed in men's prisons.

Her complaint alleges that from the time she arrived at a CDCR Reception Center in 1998, officers "allowed multiple men in custody to rape Ms. Smith repeatedly over four consecutive days." Research has found that sexual abuse of transgender women in prison, especially those housed in men's facilities, is not uncommon: A 2010 study published in Justice Quarterly, which was cited in Smith's complaint, found that 59 percent of trans women in men's lockup facilities had experienced at least one instance of sexual assault.

The 1998 assaults weren't the only time Smith says she was a victim of sexual violence. Smith said she was again violently raped in 2013, shortly after she arrived at San Quentin, by an unknown assailant who "attacked from behind," according to the lawsuit.

Not knowing the identity of her attacker "caused her to subsequently experience even more severe symptoms of PTSD," the complaint alleges, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Ms. Smith has been the target of indecent exposure and lewd sexual acts by many men in custody," her complaint states. "She has also been verbally harassed and called homophobic and transphobic slurs by staff — including medical and custody staff — on numerous occasions. The repeated sexual assaults and harassment aggravated Ms. Smith's PTSD, resulting in her placement in outpatient or inpatient mental health treatment for the majority of her incarceration."

Smith said she became the target of a campaign of harassment by officers at San Quentin when she tried to speak up about the violence. Her cell was "ransacked" and guards left the doors open to allow "other people in custody to steal her property," the lawsuit says.

"Defendants then caged Ms. Smith like an animal, verbally berated her, threatened her with physical assault, sexually harassed and assaulted her," the complaint alleges, adding that she was targeted with false reports of rules violations.

Among them was a charge of possession of a deadly weapon after officers reported her for having a graduation statue in her cell, her complaint says. The statue, she claims, had been a gift from a friend years earlier as motivation to complete her GED program. If she is found guilty, Smith could face 10 more years behind bars.

According to the suit, the "campaign of torture and retaliation" alleged against Smith "sent a message" to transgender women who are sexual assaulted in prison: "Do not report sexual violence or safety concerns or you, too, will be targeted."

Smith's lawsuit partly hinges on the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA, a 2003 law to stop sexual assault behind bars. It requires state prisons to house transgender prisoners case by case with either men or women after asking them where they would feel the safest. It also mandates that prison staff members immediately report and document knowledge or suspicion of sexual harassment or assault.

Smith's attorneys, Jen Orthwein and Felicia Medina, argue that cases like Smith's illustrate why many transgender survivors do not report sexual assault behind bars.

The CDCR "knows that there's widespread PREA violations, and what it does is it uses [disciplinary] process[es] against folks who are the most impacted, such as C. Jay, who is a transgender woman of color, because she reported sexual assault," Medina said in an interview. "She was set up."

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Smith is at least the sixth transgender or gender-nonconforming prisoner to have sued the state or its officials in recent years. Candice Crowder, a trans woman, sued in 2017, alleging that guards isolated her in solitary confinement after she reported having been raped at Corcoran State Prison. Crowder's case was settled for an undisclosed sum. Isaac Medina, a trans prisoner at Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, sued the state last year claiming that corrections officers regularly sexually harassed and threatened him. The case is ongoing.

Three gender-nonconforming people sued the state in November 2017, alleging that the CDCR refused them medical treatment and denied them the opportunity to file grievances after they were sexually assaulted. An amended complaint was filed in 2019, and the case is still being adjudicated.

In a statement to NBC News, a spokesperson said the department "cannot comment on pending litigation."

"CDCR is committed to providing a safe, humane, rehabilitative and secure environment for all people housed in the state's correctional facilities and has policies, practices and procedures in place regarding the screening, housing and treatment of incarcerated transgender people," Deputy Press Secretary Terry Thornton said in an email. "CDCR maintains a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment, sexual violence, and staff sexual misconduct. This policy applies to all offenders, all CDCR employees, all volunteers and all contractors."

Thornton said the department "has not been served with this lawsuit."

Data show that transgender people face extraordinary rates of violence in prisons and jails. A 2015 report by the Justice Department found that 35 percent of transgender prisoners said they had been sexually assaulted by staff members or other prisoners in the past year. And an NBC News investigation this year found that of 10 trans women interviewed at the California Institution for Men in Chino, nine reported having been sexually assaulted while incarcerated.

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