SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – California’s corrections system retaliated against a prison psychologist who complained about unsafe working conditions and widespread discrimination against transgender inmates, the psychologist claims in a lawsuit.
Dr. Lori Jespersen sued the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in the Eastern District of California late Monday. Jespersen, who still works at the department’s California Medical Facility in Vacaville, claims being constructively demoted after complaining about a guard who endangered Jespersen’s life after trying to protect transgender inmates.
Jespersen, a self-described gender non-conforming lesbian who has worked for the department since 2008, says a female correctional officer, defendant Tia McDaniels, locked Jespersen alone in jail cells with dangerous inmates after Jespersen filed complaints about the guard’s misconduct.
McDaniels forced transgender inmates to strip naked in front of her and spouted derogatory comments like, “You’re no woman, you have a dick,” and “This is a men’s prison, you are not a ‘she,'” according to Jespersen’s complaint.
The prison psychologist claims McDaniels also encouraged inmates to assault Jespersen, saying to a group of prisoners as Jespersen passed, “Fat ass – I hate that motherfucking bitch,” and “She needs to be reminded of where she’s at.”
After Jespersen returned from stress-induced medical leave caused by the unsafe working conditions, the department demoted Jespersen to secretarial duties and never investigated or responded to the complaints, according the lawsuit.
Jespersen says the department’s failure to address transgender discrimination is emblematic of a larger problem within the institution, which had its health care system placed under federal receivership and its mental health services monitored by a special master after it was hit with two class actions – Plata v. Shcwarzenegger and Coleman v. Brown.
“CDCR regularly engages in data and information cover-ups to regain control from the federal receiver of certain prison sites and services,” Jespersen says in the complaint. “CDCR retaliates swiftly and sternly against whistleblowers, like Dr. Jespersen, who have refused to remain silent even when their own personal safety is threatened.”
Jespersen filed multiple complaints starting with one in July 2014 about three guards who “outed” and mocked a transgender inmate on Facebook in violation of health privacy laws. Jespersen later filed other reports about guards calling transgender inmates “shim,” making them strip naked to receive underwear, preventing transgender inmates from attending support groups, and intentionally leaving a shower door open to allow a gay prisoner of color to be assaulted by another inmate. Jespersen says the department failed to fully investigate or respond to all of her complaints.
“CDCR’s homophobic and transphobic environment stems from the violent, discriminatory, harassing and derogatory behavior of CDCR’s leadership, policies and practices, staff and prisoners, whose egregious behavior CDCR knowingly ratifies,” the complaint states.
The failure to protect transgender inmates or investigate abuses is particularly troubling, Jespersen says, because it is the group most vulnerable to sexual assault in prison according to a 2013 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics cited in the complaint.
In California, 59 percent of transgender prisoners reported being sexually assaulted compared to 4.4 percent of cisgender prisoners, according to a 2009 study by the University of California Irvine cited in the lawsuit.
“CDCR has a long, sordid history of committing and permitting systemic human rights abuses that are prohibited by law,” Jespersen says in the complaint. “This is particularly problematic considering CDCR is the second largest corrections facility in the United States.”
The department’s failure to address Jespersen’s complaints and its decision to effectively demote Jespersen has caused great emotional and physical distress, according to the complaint.
“Dr. Jespersen lives in constant fear of violence and harassment at work and at home. As a result of the discrimination and harassment, she has experienced emotional and physical distress including, but not limited to, anxiety, depression, sleep disturbance, weight gain, and teeth grinding. On a daily basis, Dr. Jespersen passion for life and profession has dissipated as she sits in a desk job unable to see patients or provide mental health care that she is licensed and trained to provide,” the complaint states.
Jespersen claims the department has violated their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and other state and federal anti-discrimination laws.
Jespersen seeks damages and an injunction ordering the department to implement programs to promptly respond to complaints of harassment, eliminate its discriminatory practices, and restore Jespersen’s job position and work duties.
The prison psychologist is represented by Felicia Medina, of Medina Orthwein in Oakland.
CDCR spokeswoman Vicky Waters said in an email that the department has not yet been served with the complaint, and that it declines to comment on pending litigation.