The State Worker

California prison psychologist alleges guards locked her in with a convicted rapist

In this Aug. 17, 2011, photo, correctional officers keep watch on inmates on the recreation yard at Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, Calif.
In this Aug. 17, 2011, photo, correctional officers keep watch on inmates on the recreation yard at Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, Calif. Associated Press file photo, 2011

A California prison psychologist has filed a lawsuit against the state alleging she was threatened and demoted after she reported mistreatment of gay and transgender inmates at a correctional facility in Vacaville.

On two occasions, psychologist Lori Jespersen alleges, a correctional officer locked her in a confinement area with dangerous criminals after she filed complaints on behalf of transgender inmates at the California Medical Facility.

“The shocking nature of (the corrections department’s) retaliation against Dr. Jespersen – trapping her in units with notoriously dangerous prisoners, soliciting prisoners to harm her, and more” compelled her to take a one-month leave from her job in 2016, the lawsuit says.

Jespersen, 41, has worked for the corrections department since 2008 and at the Vacaville prison for the past eight years. She is a married lesbian who claims that the prison subjected her to a hostile work environment, illegally retaliated against her and violated state whistleblower protection laws by punishing her after she attempted to report misconduct.

Representatives for the corrections department and the federal program that oversees California prison health care declined to comment on the lawsuit because they had not seen it. The lawsuit was filed late Monday at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California.

Jespersen’s attorneys, Felicia Medina and Jennifer Orthwein, said the psychologist wants her lawsuit to compel the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to better protect gay and transgender inmates, who according to studies are more likely to experience unwanted sexual contact in prison than the general population.

Jespersen wants “to fight for members of her community that are being horribly treated and abused at the CMF. For her, this is about seeing people be held accountable,” Orthwein said.

The lawsuit describes a number of incidents in which Jespersen believed prison employees were complicit in the abuse of gay and transgender inmates. It says she attempted to report the incidents to prison officials and to outside state departments but believed her complaints did not receive appropriate attention.

Her allegations include:

▪  A correctional officer failed to lock a shower door in March 2016, which enabled a prisoner to rape a gay inmate.

▪  An officer in June 2016 prevented transgender inmates from attending a therapy group and insulted them. The correctional officer reportedly told the transgender women, “You’re no woman ... your breasts can’t give milk and you will never have a man” and “I don’t agree with your lifestyle and I never will, and this is a men’s prison, you are not ‘she.’ ”

▪  Correctional officers have compelled transgender inmates to strip in the open and denied them privacy screens. Correctional officers also have used derogatory language around transgender inmates.

▪  Three prison employees in July 2014 “outted” a transgender inmate by disclosing personal information about her on Facebook. The prison employees referred to the inmate as “he/she” and “that thing,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit describes two instances in which Jespersen said she feared physical harm after reporting alleged misconduct. In one, she was locked in a housing unit with a convicted rapist after she filed a report of a transgender inmate being mistreated by a correctional officer.

In the other, she was locked in a housing unit with two prisoners a day after she filed a complaint on behalf of a transgender inmate. In both cases, she was “unsupervised, alone and without access to a safety alarm.”

Jespersen also reported that a correctional officer insulted her in a manner that was intended to provoke violence against her by inmates. In one instance, the correctional officer allegedly told inmates, “She needs to be reminded where she’s at.”

Jespersen took a leave of absence in June 2016. When she returned, she was given a desk job where she does not work directly with inmates, the lawsuit says.

Adam Ashton: 916-321-1063, @Adam_Ashton. Sign up for state worker news alerts at sacbee.com/newsletters.

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