It didn’t take long for Meghan Frederick to feel the harassment she feared would come when she told her fellow correctional officers at a Sacramento prison that she identified as a transgender woman.
Her peers had known her for a decade as an athletic man who’d left a career in finance to join the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
One colleague greeted the news of Frederick’s gender transition by openly declaring, “back in the day we would never let someone like (Frederick) work in the prison, we would have run them out of here,” Frederick remembered.
Five years later, Frederick says, her colleagues are still rejecting her identity as a transgender woman.
Some refuse to address her as a woman. Others ignore her.
Last year, she said, someone vandalized her car three times in the prison parking lot. And, in 2014, prison staff did not inform her that an inmate had threatened to kill her.
She’s now suing the department, alleging that prison officials have discriminated against her, retaliated against her when she filed internal complaints and subjected her to a hostile work environment.
“My transition is half a decade old now. It’s part of who I am and part of who I am as an officer. The fact that these things are still going on, it makes me feel helpless in this environment,” she said.
The corrections department has not yet responded to the lawsuit in court, and its representatives declined to comment on the case.
Frederick filed her lawsuit in a period when the corrections department is revising policies that dictate how its officers interact with transgender inmates. This year, it’s considering allowing transgender inmates to possess earrings and cosmetics, as well as updating procedures that determine where those inmates are housed. The changes follow a 2015 federal lawsuit that compelled the department to pay for an inmate’s sexual reassignment surgery.
This month, a prison psychologist in Vacaville filed a lawsuit against the department charging that correctional officers retaliated against her after she advocated for transgender inmates. Frederick followed news about that lawsuit and said she has also noticed correctional officers mistreating transgender inmates, such as refusing to address them as female.
Frederick’s “lawsuit is yet another example of how deeply violent our prison systems are to transgender people – even their own employees. For transgender people who are incarcerated, this is just a small window into the ongoing abuse and assault that define life inside, in violation of their constitutional rights,” said Flor Bermudez, legal director of the Transgender Law Center. Bermudez’s organization also has sued the corrections department to advocate for transgender inmates.
Frederick, 53, is believed to be one of two openly transgender correctional officers working in state prisons. Julie Callahan, founder of the group Transgender Community of Police and Sheriffs, said others likely work for the department but have decided not to identify themselves because they may fear being shunned by the co-workers.
“The biggest issue most of the officers have is they just want a chance to earn a living,” said Callahan, a transgender woman who is a former San Jose police officer. “Most of us are high-functioning. When we transition, other people view us in a lower way. We tend to be the focus of complaints by staff, and to be honest a lot of them are unwarranted.”
“When you walk into a room and people don’t acknowledge your presence, and then they leave the room. It’s all those stares and guffaws,” said Hauwert, a Navy veteran who has worked at San Quentin since 2007 and identified as a transgender woman since 2012.
“My strategy has been for the last several years to try to roll with it and hope that things get better, and they are getting better, but it’s slow going,” she said.
Frederick, of Sacramento, went to work for the corrections department in 2002. She said she was drawn to corrections after her career in finance because she grew up in a military family that valued public service, and she wanted a job that required her to be “physically fit, tactically trained and mentally alert.”
“I still like the job of law enforcement. I take a lot of pride out of it,” she said.
She began to explore her identity as a woman in 2008 and found a sense of peace with herself. She was “finally feeling congruity in how I felt inside and out.”
A knee injury in 2009 placed her on disability and kept her out of the prison until 2012. By then, she had decided to complete her gender transition.
She returned to work in October 2012 wearing a wig and earrings. She told the prison administration that she identified as a transgender woman and expected to be addressed as female.
Within days, she said, she heard colleagues comment on her appearance and overheard another officer insult her on an intercom.
By December of that year, she noticed that officers delayed her movements around the prison. They’d keep her waiting for five minutes or more before allowing her to pass through electronically controlled gates. Over the years, another officer locked her in stair wells several times, according to the lawsuit.
In April 2013, a sergeant attempted to force Frederick to comply with the prison’s dress code for male correctional officers. She had to show him her prison identification for him to relent, the lawsuit says.
That year, Frederick said in her lawsuit that she was handed undesirable assignments more often than her colleagues, such as inspecting inmates’ feces for contraband.
Colleagues, it said, referred to her as “tranny,” “freak” and “fag” behind her back.
The lawsuit says another joked openly that “Frederick looks like he has (his) Halloween costume on,” and “Guess who I am going as for Halloween? Frederick.”
Frederick filed complaints about the remarks with the prison’s equal opportunity office and with its administrators. She felt they did not take her seriously.
She began to fear physical harm in March 2014 when she learned that an inmate had threatened to kill her. Prison administrators knew about the threat for weeks and did not tell her, according to the lawsuit.
Normally, threatened correctional officers are interviewed and separated from inmates who’ve declared an intent to hurt them. That didn’t happen. She reported the lapse in protocol, and had a supervisor threaten to change her schedule by giving her a less desirable shift.
That year, Frederick said in her lawsuit that correctional officers undermined her in front of inmates by referring to her as a man and insulting her.
“The inmates are very intuitive, and they can tell when staff isn’t backing you up,” she said.
More recently, Frederick said she’s returned to her car at work to find flat tires and a smashed window. This year, she’s still correcting co-workers when they refer to her as “sir.”
The stress has taken a toll her, leading her to miss work with unpaid sick days. She estimates that she lost tens of thousands of dollars in wages over the past two years. She’s represented by the Sacramento’s Bohm Law Group, which last year won a $1.1 million verdict against the corrections department in a case that centered on a Folsom State Prison dental assistant who was threatened by a co-worker.
“I have woken up in the morning crying, with panic attacks, because I have to re-enter an environment that has perpetrated so much hate and misery in my life,” she said. But, “I have to say, when I put on that uniform and step through those gates, I have to be on point, I have to stay focused because lives depend on me being on my A game.”
She said she filed the lawsuit because she did not want to be “bullied” by the department.
“It’s who I am,” she said. “I’m Meghan Frederick, female officer. I expect to be treated like that. It’s where I find joy in my life, happiness and peace. I am female, and I expect to be addressed that way.”