MANHATTAN (CN) – The Phoenix House drug rehabilitation center must stand trial against a transgender client who says she has to spend 2 1/2 years in a supermax, all-male prison because the program kicked her out, a federal judge ruled.
Sabire Wilson was arrested for drug possession in March 2008 and later accepted a plea agreement to enter a drug-treatment program rather than face prison time. She said that she selected Phoenix House because it represented itself as gay- and lesbian-friendly, and she told the admissions counselor that she was biologically male.
The counselor allegedly told Wilson she could sign up for the Brooklyn branch of the Phoenix House, as long as she used male dormitories and bathrooms. Wilson agreed on the condition that staff let her dress and appear female.
Wilson stayed at the Phoenix House’s location at 50 Jay Street, which specializes in career training and offers courses at its Beyonce Cosmetology Center, founded by pop superstar Beyone Knowles and her mother, Tina Knowles.
After impressing counselors with her progress, Wilson said they made her a resident structure senior coordinator.
Then, in early January 2009, a senior counselor invited Wilson to participate in a new group for women where clients could discuss gender issues associated with addiction, according to the complaint.
But Wilson said she was forced out after some other participants complained. Phoenix House director Sydney Hargrove, a co-defendant in the lawsuit, allegedly told Wilson that the counselor should have put her in the male group, and he initiated proceedings that would ultimately kick Wilson out of the treatment center.
“During this meeting, Mr. Hargrove stated to me that he did not have any doubts about my recovery or progress, he just feels that my being transgender and being in the appearance of a woman was going to cause problems at Phoenix House with other residents, and that he doesn’t feel that Phoenix House could suit my needs,” Wilson wrote in her complaint.
Later, however, the women who had complained warmed up to Wilson, she said.
“After the group ended I spoke with the female residents and found out that there were only 2 or 3 females who had an issue with me attending the group because they never experienced being around a transgender before me,” Wilson wrote.
Thirty-eight men and women in her unit eventually signed a petition calling Wilson a “valued member of this unit,” who has “earned the respect of the community.”
Wilson submitted this handwritten appeal as an exhibit in her civil complaint.
Unmoved, the director allegedly told Wilson that his decision was final, and informed her that the New York District Attorney would discharge her to court if she could not find another program to accommodate her.
Wilson said this discrimination caused her to suffer depression, low self-esteem, paranoia, a relapse of her drug addiction and ultimately another misdemeanor. She is currently serving a 30-month sentence at Southport Correctional Facility, a supermax, all-male prison in Pine City, N.Y.
She sued Phoenix House and Hargrove earlier this year, alleging multiple counts of civil rights violations and false advertising from the self-described gay-friendly rehab center. She initially sought $5 million in damages and transgender care and sensitivity training for all Phoenix House staff.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Denise Cote allowed Wilson to seek injunctive relief forcing the Phoenix House to accommodate her, under New York Human Rights Law and Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871.
But Cote rejected her bid for money damages, tossing false advertising claims on the grounds that Wilson was not a consumer but a prisoner ordered into the program by the state.
A Phoenix House spokeswoman said federal privacy laws prevent her from commenting on Wilson’s case, or even confirming that whether Wilson received treatment at the rehab center.