A federal appeals court ruled last month that a 55-year-old woman’s lawsuit against a Florida prison can proceed. Medical officials wrongly concluded that Fior Pichardo de Veloz was transgender and housed her with men because she was taking hormone replacement therapy for her menopause. Indeed, they seemed almost eager to discriminate against her for being transgender.
Pichardo had filed a suit, but a federal judge had dismissed her claims that she was unconstitutionally treated while in custody. She appealed, and last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed that dismissal and concluded that she had a valid case against the nurse and doctor who arbitrarily changed her gender designation.
As described in the decision, the incident played out back in 2013. Pichardo, a prominent lawyer and elected city official from the Dominican Republic, had flown to Miami to be with her daughter upon the birth of her grandchild. Upon arrival, however, she was arrested on an outstanding warrant.
Upon being taken into custody at the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center, a female officer strip-searched Pichardo and “did not notice anything abnormal,” giving her the orange uniform female inmates wear. Because of her history of high blood pressure, Pichardo was also sent to the medical unit for evaluation. There, Nurse Fatu Kamara Harris, who had not yet interacted with Pichardo, insisted to an officer that she thought Pichardo might be trans because of her use of hormone replacement therapy.
Base on this suspicion, Harris proceeded to directly ask Pichardo if she was female and if she had “female parts.” Pichardo was then examined by Dr. Fredesvindo Rodriguez-Garcia, but she did not undress for any part of the examination. Though her medical pre-screening assessment classified her hormone replacement pills as “Menopause Medical,” Dr. Rodriguez-Garcia also assumed she was transgender.
He then asked her if she had all of her “sex parts,” to which she replied that she had all of her genitals and had not had any surgery on them. He never asked Pichardo if she was a woman, a man, or transgender or whether she had male or female genitalia. He also didn’t ask why she was taking hormones because it was “a difficult question to ask.”
Nevertheless, Dr. Rodriguez-Garcia changed her chart to indicate that she was a “male on hormonal treatment transgender” and “could go to the general [male] population.”
Following the examination, which Nurse Harris wasn’t even present for, she told the officer that “everything fell out,” insinuating that Pichardo had male genitals. The officer insisted she believed Pichardo was female — particularly given she had been strip searched. Harris gave the officer an addendum that identified Pichardo as: “Transgender, male parts, female tendencies.” Yet another officer called to the unit inquired further whether Pichardo had been physically examined, and Harris simply replied, “She’s a man.”
As a result, Pichardo was transferred to Metro West, a male correctional facility, where a female officer said, “You are a woman. Good luck if you are alive tomorrow.” Pichardo was surrounded by 40 male inmates who harassed her, calling her, “Mami, Mami.” She was too terrified to use the restroom that she urinated on herself.
At the family’s urging, Pichardo was strip searched again at Metro West. According to the complaint, several male corrections officers were present and laughed at her, and someone even took pictures of her while she was undressed. Only then was she confirmed to be female and separated from the male population.
Though Pichardo is not transgender, the story shines a bright light on the harassment transgender women face in the prison system, as well as how dangerous it is to house transgender women with men.
Across the country, transgender people in prison and on parole are fighting for proper medical care and the right to identify with their gender identity. Many are subjected to mistreatment, including arbitrary solitary confinement. Transgender people are also exorbitantly more vulnerable to violence and sexual assault compared to the general prison population.
Moreover, the Trump administration recently rolled back protections that ensured transgender people could be housed according to their gender identity. This summer, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documentation about this change, but the Department of Justice and Bureau of Prison failed to produce records. As a result, the SPLC and Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit last month to compel this documentation.
Pichardo’s suit is as yet unresolved, but her story speaks to the kind of prejudice and mistreatment that is all too common for transgender people. Even if she had been a transgender woman, it would have been equally as improper to make such comments about her body and just as dangerous to house her in a men’s prison.