A Transgender Woman Is Suing Massachusetts After It Refused To Put Her In A Women's Prison

by Lani Seelinger
Phil Walter/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The transgender community has been in the news for positive reasons lately, like the success of several openly transgender candidates winning their races in the 2017 election. However, they still face an uphill battle for recognition and civil rights on many fronts — including in prison. A transgender female inmate in Massachusetts is suing the state's corrections department for holding her in an all-male prison against her will, where she says she's been subject to physical and emotional abuse. The Massachusetts Department of Corrections has not commented publicly on the lawsuit, and Bustle has reached out for comment.

The prisoner, identified only as Jane Doe, alleges that correctional officers and other inmates have groped and taunted her during her time at the prison facility. She reported to the prison as a woman, but the Massachusetts Department of Corrections said that she could not be placed into an all-female facility until she had had gender reassignment surgery. She has not had the surgery, but she is 53 years old and has been living openly as a woman and receiving hormone therapy for almost 40 years.

GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders' (GLAD) transgender rights project is the group representing her in her legal struggle. If they succeed, she would become the first transgender woman in Massachusetts to be placed with other female prisoners.

The suit doesn't just request that the Massachusetts Department of Correction move the prisoner to an all-female facility. If they win, corrections officers would have to address her as a woman, and only female officers would be able to strip search her. The lawsuit claims that being in an all-male prison, she is forced to be strip searched by male guards, and both the guards and the other prisoners allegedly harass her for being a "wannabe woman." GLAD is arguing that living in this situation constitutes a violation of her rights, and that she should be treated just like any other woman — whether or not she's had gender reassignment surgery.

“In 2017, it is a total shame that this state—with so much broader policy recognizing the humanity of transgender people—doesn’t recognize that humanity in our correction system,” said Jennifer Levi, director of the Transgender Rights Project at GLAD, to the Boston Globe. “They’re serving time for underlying offenses, but they’re not supposed to be punished for being transgender. That’s wrong.”

The woman is being held for a nonviolent drug offense, the Boston Globe reports, but the lawsuit argues that she's being punished in a way that goes far beyond the crime that she committed.

The woman isn't alone in suffering abuse and harassment as a transgender inmate. A study conducted in 2011-12 found that transgender prisoners suffer sexual abuse at a rate 10 times higher than the general prison population. A movement of transgender prisoner advocacy has been working to address issues like that, and a victory in this case would represent a significant step forward.

“It’s the next thing coming down the line in the evolution of how we think about transgender people locked up and their options,” said Valerie Jenness, a sociologist at the University of California who studies transgender prisoners, speaking with the Boston Globe. “Historically, prisons have used a genital basis to determine housing and now there’s starting to be a discussion of [if there] could there be alternative ways of doing this.”

Other organizations working on equal rights for transgender prisoners include the Transgender Law Center, which recently pushed for a bill in California that would make it easier for transgender inmates to change their names and gender on their official documents in California, and the National Center for Transgender Equality.

The overarching goal of all of these projects is to gain equal protection — and therefore a sense of safety and security, which is severely lacking right now — for transgender prisoners. Winning this case would mean a huge positive change for the woman in question, but it would also be a big step forward for the whole advocacy movement.