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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If the law finds you guilty. If the law finds it necessary to reduce your rights. If the law makes you vulnerable by housing you in a place without your consent with dangerous people, the law needs to guarantee your basic safety, security, and human rights at all times no matter how questionable your gender is or your crime was.

Men get raped i...

Men get raped in jail. It happened to me too and I don't understand how this is a trans issue. If I ever went back and I could choose to go to either a men's jail where I could be raped again or a woman's jail where it won't I would choose the latter BUT do we really want to put women in that position to be assaulted by men they are locked up with.

What Most Decen...

...But Too Afraid To Say Out Loud:
“Thanks, liberals for ruining the USA!”

Different anonymous

This article predates the Trump Administration's revision of the Transgender Offender Manual to dictate that transgender prisoners be housed in facilities corresponding to their "biological sex," which they refused to define. Now HHS is defining that term to mean sex assigned at birth - by the doctor who glances casually at the baby's crotch.

Certain deplorables who have commented here have certainly celebrate this news. However, I would like them to consider the situation of many transsexual women (born male, transitioned to female) who have undergone sexual reassignment surgery so that they could meet the criteria to be legally female -- some of them precisely for the reason that they would never face the nightmare scenario of being locked up in prison with MEN, realizing that some law-abiding, tax-paying citizens can run into a bad cop and get arrested just for being who they are. Some of these are people with high tech jobs and advanced degrees. These transsexual women have breasts (naturally grown, just like the rest of womankind) and vaginas. And the Trump Administration is going to throw them into cages with MEN if they are so unfortunate as to run into a transphobic cop who wants to punish them for being trans.

Is that fair?

Honestly, and I mean this very seriously, even IRAN treats transgender people better than this! And for this, we should feel deeply ashamed.


I think that maybe u shouldn't change your gender, God made u whom he want u to be. God doesn't make gender identity mistakes. I wouldn't want someone born a male locked up with me and am a female. Maybe they should have there own jail site so that it doesn't get in the way of others.


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