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Transgender Prisoners Face Sexual Assault and Discrimination at Pittsburgh Jail

Allegheny County Jail
Allegheny County Jail
Dylan Cowart,
Legal Fellow,
ACLU of Pennsylvania
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November 13, 2017

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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