Vacaville gay, transgender inmates abused by prison staff, who punished whistleblower, lawsuit says

A prison psychologist said she was trapped alone and without access to a safety alarm in a housing unit with a convicted rapist because she reported numerous cases of gay and transgender prisoners being mistreated and abused at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, according to a federal lawsuit. Photo: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations.

A prison psychologist said she was trapped alone and without access to a safety alarm in a housing unit with a convicted rapist because she reported numerous cases of gay and transgender prisoners being mistreated and abused at a state prison facility in Northern California, according to court documents.

“We believe abuse against gay and transgender prisoners is rampant and systemic, and when people whistleblow, the retaliation is systemic as well,” said attorney Felicia Medina.

RELATED: Incarcerated LBGTQ youth held longer, suffer more sexual abuse than heterosexual peers


In a federal lawsuit, Dr. Lori Jespersen said she filed dozens of complaints, starting in July 2014, with her superiors, including chief psychiatrist Joan Gerbasi, that detailed numerous incidents of gay and transgender prisoners being abused, humiliated and intimidated by employees and other prisoners at the Central Medical Facility, a male-only, Vacaville prison medical facility run by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Those reports of abuse and mistreatment were ignored by Jespersen’s supervisors, and Jespersen was retaliated against for raising them, according to the lawsuit.

Jespersen, 41, who identifies as a lesbian, has worked with the corrections department since 2008 and at the Vacaville prison since 2009.


Officials at the prison created a “hostile work environment” and violated state whistleblower protection laws by punishing Jespersen after she reported the misconduct, according the lawsuit.

Jespersen experienced “emotional, mental and physical distress” caused by the retaliation and took a doctor-ordered medical leave in June 2016, but was pressured to return early, according to the lawsuit. When Jespersen returned, she allegedly was demoted to a desk job without direct patient contact.


A dozen defendants, including 10 employees at the California Medical Facility, are named in the lawsuit:

  • California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
  • Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Scott Kernan
  • Warden Robert Fox
  • Associate wardens Dan Cueva and Steve Pryor
  • Chief Executive Officer Jackie Clark
  • Chief Psychiatrist, and Jespersen’s direct supervisor, Joan Gerbasi
  • Investigative Services Unit Lt. Anthony Lee
  • Investigative Services Unit Officer Felix Hopper
  • Senior Psychologist, and Jespersen’s direct supervisor, Joseph Dintino
  • Custody Department Capt. Thomas Huntley
  • Officer Tia McDaniels

Bill Sessa, a spokesman with the corrections and rehabilitation department, and Elizabeth Gransee, a spokeswoman with the California Correctional Health Care Services, the federal program that oversees the state’s prison health care, said they don’t comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit was filed August 14 in Sacramento at a federal court for the Eastern District of California, the Robert T. Matsui U.S. Courthouse.


Apart from monetary damages, which are unspecified, Jespersen’s attorneys, Felicia Medina and Jennifer Orthwein, said the psychologist wants her lawsuit to compel the corrections and rehabilitation department to improve the safety of gay and transgender inmates, who, according to studies, are raped frequently.

Researchers at UC Irvine, for example, reported that transgender inmates are 13 times more likely to be raped than the general population.

Also, a Justice Department survey revealed that 40 percent of transgender inmates said they were sexual abused or assualted in the last year by another inmate or prison staff.


Here are some claims from Jespersen’s lawsuit

After Jespersen filed a report of a transgender inmate being mistreated by a correctional officer, Office Tia McDaniels locked Jespersen alone in a housing unit with a convicted rapist and no access to a safety alarm.

After Jespersen filed a complaint on behalf of a transgender inmate, McDaniels locked Jespersen by herself in a housing unit with two prisoners and no access to a safety alarm.

  • A gay inmate was assaulted and battered by another prisoner because a correctional officer left a shower door unlocked.
  • McDaniels prevented transgender inmates from attending a therapy group and insulted them. The McDaniels reportedly told the transgender women, “You’re no woman, you have dick,  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 forced transgender inmates to strip in the open and denied them privacy screens.
  • Three prison employees “outed” a transgender inmate by disclosing personal information about her on Facebook. The prison employees referred to the inmate as “he/she” and “that thing.”

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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