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Transgender Inmate Wins Historic Case Against Prison Guards Who Assaulted Her

Thanks to the Prison Rape Elimination Act, transgender inmate Sandy Brown won her case against the prison guards who placed her in solitary confinement and told her to kill herself.
September 25, 2015, 5:20pm
Photo by Thomas Hawk/Flickr

Inmate Sandy Brown says she was put in administrative segregation after a routine mental health screening—just because she was transgender. Isolated 24 hours a day for 66 days, she said that on at least one occasion guards pulled back a prison curtain to watch her shower and encouraged her to commit suicide, court records indicate. Brown was serving a five-year sentence for assault at Patuxent in Jessup, Maryland—an institution with both men's and women's facilities—when she was placed in solitary confinement in 2014.

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On Thursday, Brown finally received justice for the guard's gross mistreatment, according to Reuters. A Maryland judge ruled in her favor, upholding Brown's claim that the guards subjected Brown to sexual abuse and did not follow proper housing guidelines. Reuters reports that Administrative Law Judge Denise Shaffer found that officials at the Maryland Institution violated Brown's rights under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which was passed in 2003 to prevent sexual assault in prisons, and that they repeatedly harassed her.

Internal emails referenced in the decision show that officials who knew Brown was coming to Patuxent made the decision that she would be put in administrative segregation solely "because she was a transgender inmate and posed a 'possible threat to the security of the institution.'"

"They didn't see me for the human being I am," Brown said in a statement released earlier that day. "They treated me like a circus act. They gawked, pointed, made fun of me and tried to break my spirit."

Patuxent had no policy in place mandating a zero tolerance towards sexual abuse or harassment of transgender inmates.

Shaffer mandated that the prison establish new policies for strip searches, housing, and guard interactions with transgender inmates. The prison was also ordered to pay Brown $5,000 in restitution for denying her recreational activities. Generally, in solitary confinement, an inmate is allowed an hour of recreational time a day. In the two months that Brown was placed in administrative segregation, however, she was only allowed one hour of recreational activity, period. After being brave enough to file an inmate grievance complaint, Brown was transferred to a different facility in April 2014.

"For non-punitive reasons, segregation denies transgender inmates the privileges afforded the general population," writes Christine Peek in a legal paper, Breaking Out of the Prison Hierarchy: Transgender Prisoners, Rape, and the Eighth Amendment, arguing against solitary confinement as a "solution" for the transgender inmate population. "Furthermore, even if segregation effectively prevented attacks by other prisoners, it does nothing to prevent attacks and harassment by guards, a significant source of the violence perpetrated on transgender prisoners," she continues—which is exactly what happened to Brown.

This [ruling] means that transgender people have real protections that they desperately need in prison.

Shaffer's ruling make's Brown's case the first successful lawsuit of its kind against a U.S. correctional facility. This means that the precedent-setting decision is a landmark in the fight for transgender rights in prison. "We hope that the process that we used to adjudicate this case is used to create a path that other states can use and follow to make sure PREA's intent is actually realized," Rebecca Earlbeck, Esq., an attorney on Brown's case told Broadly. Earlbeck works with the FreeState Legal Project, a legal advocacy organization in Maryland that seeks to improve the lives of low-income LGBT people in need of legal services.

Before this ruling, court documents state that each of the case's witnesses testified that "Patuxent had no policy in place mandating a zero tolerance towards sexual abuse or harassment of transgender inmates" and the facility's "employees had not received any training with regard to the PREA and its impact on transgender inmates."

"As far as what this means for transgender rights in Maryland, this means that transgender people have real protections that they desperately need in prison," Earlbeck continued. "This ruling forces the entire state correctional system to adopt clear policies for the treatment of transgender inmates and mandatory staff training on those policies.

Recalling how guards referred to Brown as "it" and violated her privacy, however, Earlbeck asserts that "this goes beyond just polices and training, but the ruling is certainly a vital step."