LGBT

Judges Rules Against Jail Whose Staff Systematically Sexually Harassed Trans Inmate

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Sandy Brown, who is transgender, spent 66 days in administrative segregation (solitary confinement), during which time she was repeatedly harassed by the staff at the Patuxent Institution, a mental health assessment correctional facility in Jessup, Maryland. She filed a complaint, and an administrative law judge has found that her rights were violated under the protections of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).

Brown was represented by the FreeState Legal Project, a civil legal aid organization that serves low-income LGBT people in Maryland. According to her attorney, Jer Welter, this is the first case in which a transgender inmate successfully found protection under PREA. “It’s a huge win,” he told ThinkProgress.

Patuxent is meant to be a temporary holding facility to allow for mental health evaluations of inmates. “Ordinarily these evaluations take 30 days at most,” Welter explained. “Ms. Brown’s went much more quickly, but she remained there actually until she filed this complaint.” Here are some of the ways Brown was mistreated during her time at Patuxent:

  • When she was strip-searched upon arrival, a female officer searched the upper part of her body, then a male officer searched the lower part of her body.
  • She was held in administrative segregation solely because she is transgender.
  • Over the two months she spent confined as such, she was only allowed recreation once.
  • Patuxant employees repeatedly taunted and harassed her. Sergeant Dawn Halsey, in particular, referred to her as an “it,” told her that she was not a real woman, and that she should kill herself.
  • Correctional officers would stare in her cell to gawk and giggle at her, threaten her, and call her names, leaving her in tears.
  • On at least one occasion, officers pulled back a curtain to stare at her while she showered.

“They didn’t see me for the human being I am; they treated me like a circus act,” Brown said in a statement through her lawyers. “I understand how animals at the zoo feel now. They gawked, pointed, made fun of me, and tried to break my spirit. These were people I’d never met, people I’d never done anything to.”

As Welter explained to ThinkProgress, “PREA mandates a policy of zero-tolerance of abuse of inmates.” Patuxent had no such policies on the books regarding the sexual abuse or harassment of transgender inmates, nor did any of its employees receive any kind of training with regard to PREA and its impact on transgender inmates. Thanks to the opinion by Administrative Law Judge Denise Oakes Shaffer, that will now change.

“Patuxent must promulgate comprehensive policies and institute mandatory training regarding transgender inmates, in compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act,” she ordered. “These policies are to include guidance regarding: strip search procedures for transgender inmates; housing determinations for transgender inmates; and appropriate interaction between correctional officers and transgender inmates.”

Brown was also awarded $5,000 for her mistreatment. According to Welter, it’s very unusual for inmates to be compensated when no physical violence took place.

It was only in 2012 that, after many years of deliberation, the Department of Justice finally issued the final guidelines for implementing PREA, passed in 2003. Those standards included specific protections for LGBT inmates, including the following cited by Shaffer:

  • Facilities shall not conduct cross-gender strip searches or cross-gender visual body cavity searches.
  • Facilities shall not search or physically examine a transgender or intersex inmate for the sole purpose of determining the inmate’s genital status. “A transgender or intersex inmate’s own views with respect to his or her own safety shall be given serious consideration.”
  • “Inmates at high risk for sexual victimization shall not be placed in involuntary segregated housing” unless no other accommodation can be made. In such cases, “an assignment shall not ordinarily exceed a period of 30 days.”
  • Inmates place in segregated housing must have access to the same programs, privileges, education, and work opportunities “to the extent possible.”
  • “The agency shall train all employees who may have contact with inmates on: How to communicate effectively and professionally with inmates, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, or gender nonconforming inmates.”
  • “An agency shall have a written policy mandating zero tolerance toward all forms of sexual abuse and sexual harassment and outlining the agency’s approach to preventing, detecting, and responding to such conduct.”

The number of ways Patuxent was out of compliance with PREA is obvious.

“What our client went through is really degrading conduct that really shakes the conscience,” Welter said. “The unfortunate thing is that I don’t think her experience is exceptional for transgender inmates.” Indeed, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 40 percent of transgender people in U.S. prisons from 2011 to 2012 reported experiencing sexual assault or abuse by either another prisoner or staff.

Welter also noted that inmates very rarely have legal representation for these sorts of internal grievances. This decision “points to the difference a lawyer can make.”

Despite the humiliation she experienced, Brown hopes this victory helps others. “To the other transgender and intersex women behind bars, don’t give up,” she said. “There is hope out there for us.”