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From Dee to Patti: Transgender Women Fighting Back Against Sexual Assault in Detention

Chase Strangio,
Deputy Director for Transgender Justice, ACLU LGBTQ & HIV Project
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March 26, 2014

Imagine how scared you would be if you were taken into custody by the police and told repeatedly that you are not who you know yourself to be. You are already afraid and the process is out of your control. You want to at least be kept safe while you are in custody, but officers ignore your pleas.

Eleven years ago, Patti Shaw was arrested by the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) in D.C. and held in the custody of both the MPD and the United States Marshal’s Service (USMS). Even though she repeatedly told officers that she is a woman and that it was not safe for her to be housed in the men’s areas of the police station and holding areas, and even after she showed them her government-issued identification that classified her as female, she was held with men and searched by male officers. Officers looked on as other detainees, “called her names, were lifting up her skirt, exposing their penises and masturbating in front of her, and reportedly sexually assaulted her.”

Though the abuse she suffered was documented by Amnesty International and in the D.C. press, nothing changed. Ms. Shaw again experienced harassing and violent treatment while in the custody of the MPD and USMS on three occasions between 2009 and 2012. As in 2003, officers again claimed that there was no mechanism for updating the gender associated with Ms. Shaw’s police record and therefore, that they had no choice but to treat her as male – that they are simply not responsible for the fact that she was groped by other detainees, urinated in front of by an officer, and had a thick liquid thrown at her while detainees masturbated.

But this time Patti is fighting back against the harassment and violence she experienced in custody. She filed a lawsuit alleging violations of her constitutional rights. Now on appeal, the government defendants are arguing that Ms. Shaw’s rights were not violated. They claim that there is no way they could have known that a transgender woman would be vulnerable to harm if placed in men’s holding areas and cellblocks.

We disagree.

Today, we filed an amicus brief in Patti Shaw’s case as part of our ongoing efforts to end the abuse that transgender people experience in the custody of police departments and corrections agencies.

The Court should follow clear law that officials cannot meet their constitutional obligations by placing vulnerable individuals in an obvious path to harm. The Court should also find that Ms. Shaw’s clearly established constitutional rights were violated – constitutional rights that were set forth in the seminal case of Farmer v. Brennan. In that case Dee Farmer, a young transgender woman who was sexually assaulted while in the men’s general population of a federal prison, brought a lawsuit against the officials who failed to protect her and ended up before the Supreme Court (represented there by ACLU attorney Elizabeth Alexander).

The Court ultimately allowed Ms. Farmer to proceed with her lawsuit despite the claims of the officers that her rights were not violated” Like Dee before her, and many others since, Patti is standing up to a system of injustice in which transgender women are particularly vulnerable. Her bravery enables the next person coming through MPD and USMS custody to imagine the fight to survive.

In a letter to CeCe McDonald on the eve of CeCe’s release from prison, writer Janet Mock reflected, “Because of you, CeCe, I know that there are others, and like Angela Davis before you, your story is an example of the injustice of our culture of incarceration, racism, misogyny, and much more. Because of you, CeCe, I know our lives are worth fighting for.”

We support Patti in her message to others about the dignity of transgender women in custody.

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