Lawsuit Breaks Ground for Transgender Supermax Inmates
MANHATTAN (CN) - A nonprofit lawyer has been tapped to pursue claims against a drug-treatment center whose alleged discrimination led to the incarceration of a transgender woman in an all-male, supermax prison, court documents show.
In March 2008, Sabire Wilson was arrested for third-degree drug possession and later accepted a plea agreement to enter a drug-treatment program rather than face prison time.
Wilson, who identifies as female, said she chose Phoenix House because it represented itself as gay- and lesbian-friendly. Once there, however, the program's director Sydney Hargrove allegedly told Wilson to leave because her "being transgender and being in the appearance of a woman was going to cause problems."
After Wilson was expelled, the court sent her to the mid-level security prison Mohawk Correctional Center on Dec. 15, 2009. She stayed there, and filed an amended complaint against Phoenix House in January, for over a year until she allegedly spit at a prison doctor.
A two-page "Inmate Misbehavior Report" detailing the alleged incident gives no indication of anything other than spitting and yelling.
The following month, Wilson was transferred to Southport Correctional Facility, a supermax, all-male prison.
A gay rights advocate told Courthouse News say the spitting allegation does not justify the "shocking, punitive" response of sending Wilson to Southport, in Pine City, N.Y., where she spent 23 hours a day in solitary confinement.
Less than two weeks before Wilson's Aug. 11 release, a federal judge granted her permission to sue Phoenix House in federal court for housing discrimination.
National Center for Lesbian Rights legal director Shannon Minter called Wilson's victory "groundbreaking."
"This is a very important case, and I think it is the first decision of its kind," Minter told Courthouse News. "I don't believe there have been any cases like this brought."
"She has basically been subjected to dehumanizing and torturous treatment because she is transgender," Minter said, referring to solitary confinement.
A 2009 New Yorker article, "Hellhole," explored the movement to define isolation as torture, and Psychologists for Social Responsibility have called supermax prisons "cruel, unusual and inhumane" in an open letter opposing the confinement of alleged WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning.
Minter, a transgender man, echoed this sentiment.
"Being put in isolation for extended periods of time is incredibly psychologically damaging," he said. "People literally lose their mind."
Minter added that a disproportionate number of transgender inmates get thrown into isolation, "sometimes under the guise of 'protecting' them."
Citing the study "Safety and Solidarity Across Gender Lines," Minter disagrees with the premise that solitary confinement can protect transgender prisoners from inmate violence.
"Transgender people are able to find alliances and support [with other inmates]," Minter said. "In isolation, no one sees what's going on. There's no support. They're sitting targets for guards to sexually abuse them."
That study, authored by New York University Assistant Professor Gabriel Arkles, discusses several cases of guards abusing transgender inmates in detail.
"Over the years, transgender people in prison have fought for their rights, often through bringing pro se law suits that have shaped the course of constitutional law," the study states.
A footnote describes the case of Dee Farmer who made international headlines 17 years ago by winning a Supreme Court battle against the Terre Haute, Ind., warden who allowed Farmer to be repeatedly raped and beaten by other inmates. Farmer acquired HIV from the sexual assaults, and her case was the first time the Supreme Court ever addressed prison rape.
Minter thinks Wilson's lawsuit can also be influential.
"This gives us another powerful tool against treatment facilities that discriminate against transgender people," he said.
Despite the boost to her case in August, Wilson dismissed her pro se complaint to enlist the help of Armen Merjian, a senior attorney at the prominent AIDS charity, Housing Works, according to a recent court order.
In 2004, Housing Works a represented a homeless transgender woman who allegedly was excluded from a housing facility in Rawles v. The Educational Alliance.
The parties settled the case for an undisclosed monetary award and an agreement to implement anti-discrimination reforms.
In Wilson's original lawsuit, she sought $5 million in damages and transgender sensitivity training for all Phoenix House staff.
Merjian confirmed that Wilson came to Housing Works for legal assistance, but he would not say whether they planned to move forward with a new complaint.
Supermax prison rules prohibit contacting inmates by phone or email. Inmates can be reached by regular mail, which can get delayed pending inspection by the guards.
Courthouse News has not received a reply to a letter it sent Wilson by overnight mail shortly before her release from Southport.