Sister Warriors' response to CDCR's Report to the Legislature on Sexual Assault Response and Prevention


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A sexual abuse response and prevention working group was created by the Budget Act of 2023 (SEC. 176., Item 5225-024-0001) to identify best practices for whistleblower protections and trauma-informed care and support for survivors of staff sexual abuse within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). The working group was composed of several community-based advocacy organizations, including ones led by formerly incarcerated people, and produced a report making recommendations to address the crisis of violence within CDCR facilities. The report is the result of interviews with over 700 incarcerated people and emphasizes the critical need for reform in how sexual assault and harassment cases are handled within the state’s carceral system.

CDCR also published its own Report to the Legislature, “Sexual Assault Response and Prevention,” in March 2024. This document is meant to respond to that report and direct readers to the appropriate section of the working group’s report.

It is important to note that many of the improvements or implementations referenced in CDCR’s report were made by CDCR as a result of court-monitored and ongoing litigation with the Prison Law Office and Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld. For example, CDCR’s implementation of body worn cameras and video surveillance was the outcome of protracted litigation. (See Armstrong v. Newsom, 58 F.4th 1283 (9th Cir. 2023); Armstrong v. Newsom, No. 94-CV2 02307 CW, 2021 WL 933106 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 11, 2021); Armstrong v. Newsom, 484 F. Supp. 3d 808 (N.D. Cal. 2020).) To the extent CDCR “completely overhauled the staff misconduct process,” as it claims, it was largely due to court orders. See id. The external monitoring that CDCR is currently working on with the Bureau of Justice Statistics is mandated by the federal court in Armstrong v. Newsom, Case No. 4:94-cv-02307 (N.D.Cal.). These improvements were made by CDCR in the course of pending lawsuits with the Prison Law Office and not in collaboration with our working group. 

On the Working Group Process

The working group met regularly over the course of seven months to produce the community report. The group continually sought feedback from CDCR staff. All concerns raised by CDCR about the recommendations were considered, and the recommendations were reworked to address those concerns. CDCR had the opportunity to share its ongoing efforts, alternate recommendations, and concerns in the group report, but after the group report was completed, CDCR informed the working group of their decision to publish a separate report instead. This is our response to the content of CDCR’s report, which does not reflect the seven-month efforts of the working group.

Despite these challenges, we hope to continue working with CDCR to implement the recommendations made in our working group report.

On “Protections for Sexual Assault and Harassment Whistleblowers Inside Prisons or Otherwise in the Department’s Custody”

Body Worn Cameras and Audio Video Surveillance System

Body-worn cameras are used inconsistently and are frequently turned off. We make recommendations to ensure that the use of cameras is effective at discouraging and monitoring abuse (see report page 48-49). 

The use of fixed surveillance cameras is also limited to certain spaces. The officer who was recently  charged with sexual abuse of incarcerated people took his victims into areas without surveillance cameras to avoid video evidence.

Retaliation Headquarters Review

As demonstrated by the continued prevalence of staff sexual abuse in carceral settings (see report page 9), compliance with federal PREA standards is not enough to prevent abuse. 

Retaliation is insidious and difficult to track (see our recommendations around whistleblower protections starting on report page 43). We also recommend improving the tracking method described in CDCR’s report so that it tracks more forms of retaliation (see report page 47). Even then, more proactive measures to stop retaliation before it occurs are needed, as we recommend. 

Our report explains the limitations of the various methods of reporting staff abuse and the lack of trust in these processes (see report pages 37-43). 

We also discuss the difficulties often experienced in connecting with victim advocates  (see report pages 29-31 and 34-35). We received reports that the posters displayed in prisons are often missing or out of date.  Support hotlines are often difficult or impossible to access, feel unsafe because of fear of surveillance, and would not necessarily provide meaningful support (see report pages 32-33). Incarcerated individuals also reported that they did not feel they had adequate access to this information on their tablet or in other forms (see report pages 30, 33, and 54, as well as our recommendations for education throughout).

Technology and Policy Implementations for Body Searches

For a population with an incredibly high rate of history of sexual abuse and trauma (see report page 9), the use of strip and body searches is a major source of trauma. We heard many reports of strip searches being used by staff (often female) to sexually abuse incarcerated people; it was also used as a form of retaliation against family members in visiting. There is no meaningful oversight of the strip search process, leading the working group to make detailed recommendations in our report (see report pages 45-47). We also heard reports about trans incarcerated people not having their wishes respected regarding the gender of the staff person performing their body searches.

It is well known that controlled substances and contraband enter prisons primarily through staff members (see articles about  prisons in Pennsylvania, Missouri, and New Mexico). If CDCR’s priority is preventing the smuggling of controlled substances, we recommend that they focus on the lack of oversight of prison staff rather than relying on ineffective policies that (re)traumatize the people they are supposed to be rehabilitating.

On “The Process for Handling Allegations of Staff Misconduct that Specifically Involve Allegations of Sexual Assault and Harassment”

Zero Tolerance Policy

While certain members of CDCR leadership may take zero-tolerance policies seriously, it is clear that this is not shared among staff and all leaders; staff sexual abuse continues, and members of facility leadership have been reassigned following evidence of their complicity in abuse.

The Office of the Inspector General (OIG), tasked with independent oversight of CDCR, regularly reports that complaints made by incarcerated people are usually not sufficiently investigated by CDCR (see OIG’s publications page). We make recommendations about investigation policy that would allow incarcerated people to feel safe participating in investigations (see report pages 37-43) and provide oversight to ensure that investigations are up to appropriate standards (see report pages 49-50).

Mechanisms to Report Misconduct

We make recommendations focused on ensuring that the reporting process works as intended (see report pages 37-41).

External Monitoring

We make recommendations to improve the efficacy of external monitoring  (see report pages 49-50). We plan to continue engaging with CDCR on the recommendations to improve the processes involved in handling reports.

Restricted Housing Unit Updates

In our report, we discuss concerns around harmful or retaliatory housing placements and how abusive staff can still misuse even updated CDCR policies (see report pages 43-45). 

On “Access to Trauma-Informed Supports for Incarcerated Survivors”

Increased Communication and Awareness with Incarcerated Population

As part of the working group’s research, we directly spoke with around 700 incarcerated individuals at town halls at both of California’s women’s designated prisons, in person, through email, phone, and written communication. In these town halls, without the presence or monitoring of staff, incarcerated individuals shared with working group facilitators that the unsurveilled time to speak freely about these important issues was very valuable. They also hoped that these opportunities would continue and allow them to build and connect with community-based support organizations in the future (see report pages 35, 55, and 64).

Both the working group and a feedback group of currently incarcerated individuals recommended including currently and formerly incarcerated people during staff trainings and in community conversations with staff about these topics (see report pages 19-21 and 56-57).

Regarding visits by leadership to the prisons, currently incarcerated individuals have regularly expressed to us that staff act professional and respectful during special events and visits and return to abusive behavior when they are no longer being observed (see report page 56). 

Both the working group and a feedback group of currently incarcerated individuals made recommendations regarding the expansion of the Peer Educator program. These included recommendations around roles, recruitment, and resources needed to effectively connect the incarcerated community with the resources and support they need (see report pages 30-31 and 55).

Collaboration with Community Based Organizations

The working group members are committed to continuing the work to ensure that incarcerated people are connected with trauma-informed support and identify policy changes that would promote the safety of the people incarcerated in CDCR facilities. 

Health Care Efforts

Individuals incarcerated at CCWF and CIW indicated to us that virtually all ob-gyn examinations were performed by one or more male staff. While there may be 50% women employed as medical staff, that has not been the case for ob-gyn exams recently. A female-identified ob-gyn should be the default due to the common history of sexual trauma held by incarcerated women and trans people (see report pages 24-25 and 60). We have previously discussed with CDCR leadership the need to hire a female-identifying gynecologist at CIW, given over a decade of reports of abuse filed on the ob-gyn who’s  only recently under investigation, and we hope that is their plan for the pending hire.

Staff Training

The working group and currently incarcerated feedback group both made recommendations to improve the efficacy of staff training, including introducing formerly incarcerated co-facilitators and increasing the participation of currently incarcerated people (see report pages 19-21 and 56-57).

Inclusion in CDCR’s California Model

The currently incarcerated population of CCWF raised concerns about some of the harmful effects of the implementation of the CA Model as well as skepticism about whether it will actually bring about the necessary change needed to end the culture of violence in CDCR (see report page 57). We share that skepticism and hope that future visions of public safety in California focus on a reduced dependence on incarceration (see report page 15).

On “California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Proposed Action Plan”

We look forward to implementing this subset of our recommendations, which CDCR has identified in their action plan. We also hope that CDCR will  work in good faith with community-based advocacy organizations to address the additional concerns and recommendations laid out in the working group’s report, which are all critically important to changing the carceral environment that perpetuates sexual violence.



Sister Warriors Freedom Coalition
Just Detention International
Justice First


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