February 5, 2018 was a momentous day for LeslieAnn Manning. Exactly five years prior, on February 5, 2013, the 51-year-old trans woman says she was raped while she was incarcerated at Sullivan Correctional Facility, a men’s prison located about two hours north of New York City. From that point onwards, she fought to gain recognition for the harm she had endured — a struggle that finally came to fruition on the 5th. In a settlement with the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), Manning was awarded $100,000 in damages.
It’s a historic sum—one of largest amounts ever awarded for a failure to protect case involving a trans prisoner alleging rape or sexual assault, and also the first settlement paid to a New York state prisoner for sexual abuse, according to Manning’s attorneys. For the plaintiff and her legal team, though, the money is just the beginning.
“I would hope that this will cause the Department of Corrections to take the safety of LGBT prisoners seriously, and to do what they are required to do under the law,” said Susan Hazeldean, who directs the Brooklyn Law School LGBT Advocacy Clinic, which litigated the case alongside the Civil Rights Clinic at Cardozo Law School. “The safety of people like Ms. Manning, who are transgender in prison, will not just be an afterthought.”
Contacted by email about Manning’s litigation, DOCCS declined to comment. The settlement states that the sum offered to Manning is in no way an admission of liability.
Manning first arrived at Sullivan in August 2012. Shortly afterwards, she was given a job working as an assistant to an educational instructor. Her daily tasks focused on helping inmates with disabilities: typing letters for the blind and making coffee for those with hearing or sight impairments, handing out papers, and a bit of math tutoring. The position required her to work in an area of the prison known as Sublevel E—which, according to the complaint, was not properly patrolled or subject to video surveillance, enabling prisoners to come and go as they pleased.
According to the complaint, Manning repeatedly told the educational instructor it was dangerous for her to work in the sublevel, but he said there was nothing he could do about it. On February 5, 2013, he asked her to take some paper to an inmate in a classroom. After Manning entered the classroom and gave the inmate the paper, the complaint states, he approached her from behind, grabbed her neck “with such force that she was unable to scream or resist,” and raped her.
“All the defendants were responsible for security in the sublevel, and all the defendants knew Ms. Manning was a transgender woman."
According to the complaint, DOCCS later disciplined her alleged attacker—who had sexually abused an inmate at another prison before transferring to Sullivan—by placing him in solitary confinement. Manning, too, was isolated from the general population, but ostensibly for her own benefit: Shortly after she reported the rape, she was transferred into protective custody (PC), a form of segregation from general population that often amounts to solitary confinement. Prisoners in New York and across the country who report rape are often placed in PC, sometimes against their will, in order to keep them “safe.” Transgender women across the country are also frequently placed in PC on the basis of their gender identity.
For incarcerated survivors, being placed in isolation can exacerbate the trauma of the assault. “Psychological trauma of being locked in a cell for 23 hours a day is pretty traumatic,” Manning told Broadly in a statement released through her attorneys. “You feel like the walls are closing in around you.” While she was on the PC, she added, she was offered no counseling other than someone from the prison’s health department speaking to her from the door of her cell. (She was later allowed to receive rape counseling over the phone.)
To this day, the complaint says, Manning frequently wakes up in sweats, with her heart racing, racked by nightmares.
Manning’s lawsuit was first filed in January 2015, about two years after the assault. In the complaint, her attorneys argued that officials at Sullivan — including the superintendent, captain, and three junior staff members — had violated Manning’s Eighth Amendment rights by being deliberately indifferent to her safety.
Eighth Amendment claims in the prison context are particularly difficult to prove because claimants need to establish “state of mind:” that prison officials knew about that an individual was at risk of harm but opted not to act. According to the facts alleged by Manning’s attorneys — which are strenuously denied by DOCCS — it appears that prison officials were well aware of Manning’s vulnerabilities, yet still failed to protect her.
As early as 2008, advocacy groups warned state prison officials that Manning would be unsafe in an all-male facility, according to court documents. Four years later, Manning herself informed DOCCS of the unique risk of harm she faced, in a lawsuit she filed challenging the state’s refusal to permit her to wear feminine undergarments. (That case was settled in 2013.)
“All the defendants were responsible for security in the sublevel, and all the defendants knew Ms. Manning was a transgender woman based on her file and letters that had been written advocating for her,” said Paige Maier, a second-year law student at Cardozo Law School who worked on the suit. (In legal filings, the defendants emphatically stressed that neither Sullivan’s superintendent nor any other prison officials “acted willfully or maliciously in disregard of plaintiff’s constitutional rights.”)
But even if Manning hadn’t advocated for herself so strenuously, her team argues, prison officials can’t claim ignorance. Almost 25 years ago, in Farmer v. Brennan, the Supreme Court recognized the vulnerability to violence that transgender women face on the inside, and the responsibility of prison officials to provide safe and humane conditions of confinement.
Congress has also sough to protect prisoners from sexual violence, including by passing the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) in 2003. A 2009 report issued by the PREA Commission identified transgender women as having a heightened risk of assault.
Today, PREA requires correctional facilities to evaluate transgender and intersex prisoners on a case-by-case basis before deciding whether to house someone in a male or female facility. The prisoner’s own views with respect to her safety are supposed to be taken into consideration, and it’s expressly prohibited to make housing determination based solely on the individual’s external genital anatomy.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than one-third of transgender people locked up in prisons and jails experience sexual assault—the highest rate of any demographic group studied. Letting transgender women be housed in women’s facilities would drastically reduce their risk of harm, advocates say. But New York doesn’t actually adhere to the letter or the law—nor does nearly any jail or prison across the country, according to attorneys who work in the field.
“They just don't do what they are supposed to do,” said Hazeldean of the Brooklyn Law School LGBT Advocacy Clinic, “and I don't get any indication that it going to change, at least in the near future.”
Indeed, Manning may have won her settlement, but New York State has yet to fully recognize her as a woman. Today, she is housed at Wende Correctional Facility, a men’s prison that is located just outside of Buffalo. “Wende is better than where I was before, but there is still harassment from [corrections officers] and comments made about my sexuality,” she said. “Comments made like, ‘Is it a man or is it a woman?’ but if I try to report it they deny making these comments.”
Asked if there was anything else she wanted to say, Manning expressed gratitude to her legal team and urged others to follow in her path. “I want to put accolades in for all the hard work the students have done over the years to accomplish this. Also, I want to say how important it is to never give up, to always fight for what is right, and to never be silent.”