|TOMAS OVALLE / THE FRESNO BEE|
|Prison spokesman Terry Thornton said that Sherri Masbruch was placed in the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla for safety reasons because transgender male-to-female inmates could be preyed upon in a male prison.|
Richard Masbruch brutally raped and tortured a Fresno woman in 1991. Today, in a case that may be the first of its kind, he lives in a women’s prison.Masbruch, who was reclassified by prison officials as a woman after he castrated himself, is the focus of an inmate complaint that says Masbruch is a danger to other prisoners at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla.
In recent years, the prison system has given female hormones to Masbruch, helping Masbruch transition from man to woman, said his brother, Craig Masbruch. Prison officials would not confirm whether Masbruch received such treatment, but said the prison system provides hormone treatment to some transgender inmates at taxpayers’ expense.
Officials said that in March they transferred Masbruch, 41, to Chowchilla after he was reclassified as a female.
There are dozens, and possibly hundreds, of California prison inmates who are classified as men but consider themselves women, state prison officials said. Those inmates are housed in men’s prisons.
Masbruch appears to be the only transgender prisoner who has been transferred from a men’s to a women’s prison, or vice versa, they said.
And Masbruch may be the only male inmate in the United States who has been reclassified as a woman while in the prison system, one expert said.
“I have never heard of that happening before,” said Chris Hensley, a Tennessee criminal justice professor who studies inmate sexuality.
Masbruch could not be reached for comment because California prison policy restricts interviews with inmates.
California prison officials say decisions about where to house transgender inmates are made on a case-by-case basis. Generally, the decision is based on whether an inmate has male genitalia, prison spokesman Terry Thornton said.
While imprisoned in Texas on theft charges between 1991 and 2005, Masbruch — for reasons that are unclear — made several attempts to castrate himself. He finally succeeded, using acid he found in a prison kitchen, Craig Masbruch said.
He said surgeons who were paid by the Texas prisons system helped heal his brother’s wounds, but did not perform a sex-reassignment operation. That would have violated prison policy, a Texas prison official said.
In 2005, after completing his Texas sentence, Richard Masbruch was transferred to California Medical Facility in Vacaville to begin his sentence for the rape he committed in Fresno. The prison is reserved for inmates who need special medical care.
During the next 2 1/2 years, Masbruch received hormonal treatment but did not undergo sex-reassignment surgery, Craig Masbruch said.
“He’s not actually 100% female,” he said. “I guess you could say he’s 90%.”
Nevertheless, California prison officials say they consider Masbruch a woman. A recent photo shows Masbruch has long hair, shaped eyebrows and other feminine features. Masbruch now goes by the name Sherri Masbruch.
Masbruch’s transition to CCWF has not been smooth. In October, prison officials put her in segregation for violating prison rules.
Once released from segregation, Masbruch will be placed in a single-person cell but will still be allowed to interact with other inmates, prison officials said.
“We want them to assimilate; we can’t treat them differently, ” Thornton said, referring to transgender inmates.
She said Masbruch was placed in the women’s prison also for safety reasons because transgender male-to-female inmates could be preyed upon in a male prison. Thornton said other transgender inmates in men’s prisons also are at risk, but are not allowed to transfer to a women’s prison because they are still anatomically male.
At least one CCWF inmate doesn’t feel safe with Masbruch around. Patricia Wright, 57, is serving a life sentence for murder. She filed a grievance last month that says she is “experiencing constant panic attacks at the mere thought of this male inmate” and that Masbruch’s presence violates her “right to be housed with only women.”
“His DNA still reads and shows him to be a male, that of which God made him,” Wright’s grievance states.
Prison officials said Wright’s grievance is under review. Wright could not be reached for comment because of the prison system’s interview restrictions.
An abusive childhood
Richard Masbruch grew up in New York and Texas with two younger brothers and had a troubled childhood, said Craig Masbruch.
Their mother later wrote a letter to a judge that said Richard Masbruch’s father repeatedly hit him on the head and sexually molested him.
In 1984, Masbruch was convicted in Texas of arson. Seven years later, at age 23, he joined Craig Masbruch in Fresno to work for a roofing company.
On April 2, 1991, Richard Masbruch went to a small apartment complex near First Street and Shaw Avenue in Fresno, pretending that he wanted to sign a lease, according to court records. He forced apartment manager Mary Koop, then 45, at gunpoint to lie face down on the kitchen floor and hog-tied her with a telephone cord.
When Koop’s 68-year-old mother, Marietta Koop, came downstairs, Masbruch tied her to a kitchen chair, blindfolded both women, and started searching the house for money and jewelry.
Then he spliced together several electrical cords, plugged them in, and shocked Mary Koop’s leg and Marietta Koop’s arm, causing both women to scream.
Masbruch later raped and sodomized Mary Koop and threatened to kill her and her mother if they called police.
Koop, who has been unable to work or live a normal life, was shocked to learn that her attacker is now housed with women.
“That’s unbelievable, just unbelievable, ” said Koop, now 62. “Women should be worried. I would be worried.”
Koop’s mother suffered permanent injuries from the torture. She died five years later of brain cancer.
After raping Koop, Masbruch fled to Texas, where he was arrested less than a week later for theft and burglary with the intent to commit a sexual assault. He was convicted in November 1991.
Meanwhile, it took more than a year for California authorities to determine that a fingerprint left in the Fresno apartment belonged to Masbruch. Fresno police tracked him down at the Texas prison and brought him to Fresno in May 1993, where he was convicted of rape, robbery and torture in Fresno County Superior Court.
In a letter to the judge, Masbruch said he was repeatedly sodomized while in the Texas prison and had contracted AIDS.
He also said he had “great remorse” for his crime and asked for forgiveness. His letter read: “In an attempt to make amends with my conscience, I have tried to castrate as well as remove my male sex organ.”
He said that two attempts were unsuccessful and that surgeons repaired the damage.
The letter continued: “I personally think that my so-called self-punishment is only a part of showing true remorse. Even the Bible says that if your right eye sins; pluck it out, and if your right hand sins; cut it off.”
Despite his pleas, a judge sentenced him to life in prison. But first, Masbruch had to serve the remainder of his Texas prison sentence.
There, his attempts at self-castration continued. Sometime in 2000 or 2001, he succeeded in castrating himself, Craig Masbruch said. He’s not sure if his brother was truly overcome by guilt or if he suffers from some form of mental illness.
“I don’t know what’s going through his head,” Craig Masbruch said. “The only thing I can think of is if you’re incarcerated so many years and went through all that … maybe he was so downgraded as a man that he felt better as a woman.”
Prison officials say California offers hormone treatment to transgender inmates only if they already are receiving treatment when they enter the system.
Masbruch was transferred directly from the Texas prison system, where hormone treatment is not offered to inmates unless they pay for it themselves, Texas prison spokesman Jason Clark said.
Craig Masbruch said he doesn’t know when his brother first started taking hormone treatment. He said his mother often sent Masbruch money, which could have been used for hormone treatment while he was imprisoned in Texas.
Richard Masbruch first told family members about the treatment after being transferred to California.
Neither Texas nor California prison officials said they could comment specifically on Richard Masbruch’s medical treatment.
Hensley, the criminal justice professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said it is uncommon for inmates to receive hormone treatment while in custody “considering that a lot of prisons are overcrowded and health care is already a major issue.”
When deciding whether to put a former man into a women’s prison, officials must balance the safety of the individual with the safety of the prison’s general population, Hensley said. Masbruch’s case is especially difficult.
“Of course, rape is a crime of power more than anything,” Hensley said. “Even with him being incarcerated, he could potentially rape a woman if the urge is still there.”
But, he added, “If they place him in a man’s prison, he’s at more risk for rape himself, which leaves them open to lawsuits.”
In 2006, a transgender inmate at Folsom State Prison who took female hormones was raped by a male inmate. She sued seven prison workers, saying they failed to protect her from her sexually aggressive cellmate. A jury trial ruled against her, but a state appeals court reinstated the lawsuit last month and the matter remains unresolved.
One solution, Hensley said, is to set aside a unit at one prison that would only house transgender inmates. Some county jails have such units, he said.
But Shannon Minter, a San Francisco attorney who sits on the board of the New York-based Transgender Law and Policy Institute, said the California prison system appears to have handled Masbruch’s case well.
“What we need to do is get past people’s knee-jerk assumptions and fears and biases and look at this from a reasonable, scientific point of view,” he said. “It’s very easy to accommodate transgender prisoners and house them according to their gender identity.”
Craig Masbruch said he is unsure about where to imprison the person he calls his “brother/sister. ” He said he’s OK with Richard Masbruch staying in a women’s prison for now.
“He’s neither [a man nor woman], so how can you classify him?” Craig Masbruch asked.
As for the grievance filed by inmate Wright, Craig Masbruch said he understands her concerns: “You can tell her I feel just as uncomfortable about it as she does, but he’s my brother, or sister, or whatever.”