Transgender Prisoners Face Sexual Assault and Discrimination at Pittsburgh Jail

Photo: Allegheny County Jail

Prison is a traumatic experience. For transgender women, it’s magnitudes worse.

Jules Williams, a transgender woman, suffered sexual and physical assault and harassment multiple times while detained at the Allegheny County Jail between 2015 and 2017 in Pittsburgh. Even though she is a woman, which the state recognizes on her identification card, Ms. Williams was processed and incarcerated with men.

Last week, the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the Law Offices of Timothy P. O’Brien sued Allegheny County on behalf of Ms. Williams for the numerous traumas she suffered after the jail’s officials and guards refused to house her with other female prisoners during these periods of incarceration. The jail administration’s indifference to the threats Ms. Williams faced as a transgender prisoner violated her rights under the Constitution by failing to protect her from harm.

While Ms. Williams was in their custody, jail officials put her and other transgender women in holding cells with 10 to 15 men for as long as 72 hours while awaiting transfer to a cell in the main area of the jail. They also routinely violated their own (inadequate) policies by holding her and other transgender women in cells with male prisoners even though jail policy requires trans prisoners to be housed in single cells.

Ms. Williams’ ordeal demonstrates the serious and harmful deficiencies in the jail’s practices.

Jules Williams at a press conference at the ACLU of Pennsylvania
Jules Williams (center) at a press conference at the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

After an arrest in September 2015, Ms. Williams found herself in a holding cell, where she was harassed and humiliated by other prisoners and corrections officers alike. She was so frightened that she requested protective custody — basically a form of solitary confinement — because she feared for her safety.

But protective custody turned out to be anything but safe for Ms. Williams. Corrections officers put her in a cell with a male inmate who repeatedly raped her over the next four days. Ms. Williams continually begged to be moved; she told staff she was being assaulted; she cried for help. But her pleas were ignored.

The jail and its staff not only failed to protect Ms. Williams, they also exacerbated her trauma and even put her at greater risk of harm with their own discriminatory actions. Guards called her “faggot” and “freak show” and referred to her as “s/him.” They forced her to shower in the presence of male prisoners and corrections officers and put her in a transparent-walled “suicide cell” when she experienced post-traumatic stress from the sexual assault. Once inside, they removed her clothes and left her naked in front of male prisoners and staff while they searched for an anti-suicide smock called a “turtle suit.”

Ms. Williams experienced trauma that no one deserves — trauma that violates her constitutional rights. But she is not alone. Due to discrimination in housing, education, employment, and family rejection, 21 percent of transgender women have spent time in jail or prison, according to a 2011 survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. The Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics found that trans women are nine times more likely than other prisoners to be victims of sexual harassment or assault. The federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) recognizes that, “Being transgender is a known risk factor for being sexually victimized in confinement settings.”

PREA also mandates that transgender prisoners be assigned to male or female housing on a case-by-case basis that gives “serious consideration” to the prisoner’s sense of where he or she would be safest.

Yet jails and prisons around the country, including Allegheny County, have failed to meet their obligation to protect trans prisoners from abuse and assault by placing them in unsafe conditions. That’s why we’re going to court — to vindicate the right of Ms. Williams and other transgender people to have their gender identity acknowledged and to be free from emotional and physical abuse while incarcerated.

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Kristin B.

No, actually it doesn't matter. Let me ask a question do you not think that there are women in prison and jail who committed violence sexual, or physical against other women? Cisgender women aren't keeping trans women from the female gender though. In fact, a lot of feminists, and women support trans women in their womanhood, and are very welcoming. Also most trans women on average aren't very big, and really what's the difference between a 6 foot trans women, and a 6 foot cisgender woman? I also want to point out that a recent LGBT study on IPV found that female on female rape\sexual assault is 33%, so it's not like women are incapable of sexual violence, or physical violence against other women. How is a trans woman who has committed physical, or sexual violence against other women any different from cisgender women who do it? The argument has emotional appeal, but logically it just doesn't hold up. Also no matter what trans women are going to be the minority in a female prison\jail, and are not going to be wielding any kind of power. At a minimum any trans woman whose been on HRT for 6 months, and or has had SRS should be housed with other women. A trans women on HRT especially after 1 year physically isn't going to be any stronger than any other woman her size, and she definitely isn't going to be experiencing a male sex drive. There's just no real way to keep trans women safe in prison\jail, and to do so would cost a ton of money.


Yes women can and do commit rape but that doesn't mean its ok to lock a woman in a jail cell with a biological male. Also, the only reason it looks like women support trans "women" is that the media isn't showing us how the rest of the women in the USA feel about it. Women have filed lawsuits to try to stop trans"women" from legally forcing their way into our gender and those women were not all alt-right Christians, either. The 3rd wave feminists don't speak for the majority of women in the USA even if they claim too.


It is disgusting how little empathy for other human beings that is being spewed here! Rape victims deserve support not victim blaming! How does someone's gender identity affect anyone else??


Have you seen how vicious trans "women" get when real women dare say that it triggers their PTSD from rape and molestation to have bio-men in the public restrooms and locker rooms with them?

Kristin B.

Have you seen how vicious trans "women" get when real women dare say that it triggers their PTSD from rape and molestation to have bio-men in the public restrooms and locker rooms with them?

Trans women aren't "women" they are just women. Yeah did you also see how upset women who have been victims of sexual violence get when other women try to use sexual violence as a reason to discriminate against trans women. It's also not about men trying to take anything away from women, or to intrude on their spaces, or gender\sex for the very simple fact that trans men exist. They use areas that are for men only. Are they intruding on male only spaces, and are they trying to take the male gender? Trans women aren't pretending to be women. They aren't crossdressers, or drag queens. Everyday of their lives they have to deal with all the same societal issues that cisgender women do. Plus for a lot of them they also have to deal with negative societal issues around being transgender, and even more so if they are also a racial, or religious minority.


If you want the female gender norms then take them and apply them to your own gender. From now n men can have the gender norms that include wearing dresses and heels, putting on make-up, eating disorders, being meek and submissive, and etc. Merry Christmas! None of that makes anyone a woman but you are certainly welcome to the harmful stereotypes. Now that the stereotypes are dealt with we are back to biology and people can be jailed according to the body types they were born with.


The ugly inhumane comments by people on here are sickening. You deserve NASTY karma.


So what nasty karma did the victims of 9/11 deserve? Or Hurricane Katrina? I can go on and on...

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How many mass shootings do we see, almost daily? And why exactly haven’t pigs like this been a target yet? It would probably be the only time people actually genuinely appreciate the actions of a crazy person. Like if you’re going to kill anyone, kill people that deserve to die, like these monsters. The prisoners may have raped her, but the pigs pushed it to happen. Yeah what we get is some white crazy for you shooting babies in the head at point-blank range. While the cops like this continue to breathe. That’s America for you. (Cops like this are the reason church shooter was able to do what he did. There were soooooo many opportunities for them to arrest him for long long periods of time, but they didn’t. He almost killed his son, yet he was still a free man. Now you tell me white supremacy isn’t in the legal system)


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