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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Anonymous

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

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Krisamtha

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)

Anonymous

How do you get all records of what transgenders actually went to jail for (as in the crimes THEY COMMITTED AGAINST OTHERS) almost completely removed from the internet? I say almost because I found some mention of his record of drug and theft charges going back to 2001. As well as mention of his mental problems. He is a big guy - no woman should have to share a cell with a biomale, mentally ill, criminal regardless of what they male thinks he is. Maybe he should focus more on improving himself as a person in order to stay out of jail and less on trying to fit the stereotype of a woman (being incarcerated IS NOT a stereotype of womanhood, btw).

Anonymous

So transmen should be sent to male prisons, right? I bet the inmates will love that, especially if 'he' hasn't changed 'his' genitalia yet.

How about we accept that they are in prison for a reason and consider this to be part of their punishment?

AmericanMe

I don't understand the mind of a transgender person, but I also don't understand people who want to tear down other Americans. Rape is bad, um-k, and no matter who you are, you deserve to not be raped (with the exception of pedifiles). As a mostly conservative American, I find it hard to explain what might make a person change themselves like that, and especially to my children who's minds are so innocent. That being said, I see that we use our political views to spread hate, (from both sides of the fence.) and for what? So we all can sit behind our computers and feel like we one up each other. Is this the true american legacy ? Is this who we all really want to be? This whole page is just sad, top to bottom. I am sorry this happened to that person, and I am sorry that the people commenting on this can't communicate as adults.
SO SAD!

Tom Graham

Imagine what would happen to a trans-man, who was actually put in a male prison. The trans-man would be raped over and over do to the availability of a vagina in a male prison and eventually they would beg the system to place them in a female correctional facility. This is where the transgender rubber meets the road. Are we going to treat all transgenders equally? If we place the trans-woman into a female prison then we MUST place all the trans-men in male prisons. That is the only fair thing to do. But is it justice? Transgenderism is a body dysphoria, just like people with no arms believing they have arms, people with sight identifying as blind, and anorexic people identifying as fat. You would never EVER support an anorexic persons "identity" by calling them Fatty McStuffin and suggesting they get liposuction. You WOULD have compassion for them, and ENCOURAGE them to get the help they need to accept they are not what they identify as. And putting them in a prison that doesn't match their sexual organs is a gross miscarriage of justice, justice does not require that we as a society pay for the anorexic to have liposuction or event to accept their "identity" as a fat person.

Anonymous

There are two genders. You cannot put men claiming to be a woman in a woman’s prison - you will end up with pregnancies in prison. A lot of prisoners lie to manipulate the system. Before ACLU defends these people who are making such claims, they should go work in a prison to see what these people are really like. Psychiatrists and psychologists failed their jobs in not diagnosing these people with body image disturbance and manipulative behavior when this all started. Lawyers are so far left and illogical- just looking for notoriety and money. The government failed these people by closing the State Hospitals.

Anonymous

There are two genders. You cannot put men claiming to be a woman in a woman’s prison - you will end up with pregnancies in prison. A lot of prisoners lie to manipulate the system. Before ACLU defends these people who are making such claims, they should go work in a prison to see what these people are really like. Psychiatrists and psychologists failed their jobs in not diagnosing these people with body image disturbance and manipulative behavior when this all started. Lawyers are so far left and illogical- just looking for notoriety and money. The government failed these people by closing the State Hospitals.

Anonymous

If I do not see my comment here, I will talk to a lawyer regarding my 1a rights being suppressed by the ACLU

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