BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – Discrimination at the hands of a progressive rehabilitation center left a transgender woman in long-term solitary confinement at an all-male supermax prison, the former inmate claims in a new lawsuit filed with help from attorneys working pro bono.
Thirty-two-year-old Sabrina Wilson says she has identified as female since age 14, when her name was Sabire, and started hormone therapy two years later.
Living in an all-male prison population was “hell” because of transphobia and harassment from other inmates and prison staff, Wilson told Courthouse News in an email sent through her attorneys. She hopes her lawsuit will make the Phoenix House and its director “regret their actions.”
Arrested in March 2008 for drug possession, Wilson accepted a plea agreement to enter a treatment program rather than face prison time. An assistant district attorney arranged for her to receive in-patient treatment at Phoenix House, which Wilson chose because it represented itself as gay- and lesbian-friendly.
On Christmas Eve, the day after her arrival at an induction unit in Brooklyn, the center’s director, Sydney Hargrove, allegedly called Wilson in for a meeting.
“At this meeting, Hargrove suggested to Ms. Wilson that her transgender identity was an issue,” the complaint states. “Hargrove asked Ms. Wilson whether her hair was ‘real.’ When Ms. Wilson told him that she was wearing a wig, Hargrove said, ‘You’re not allowed to wear that in here.’ In fact, at least one other female resident in the program wore different wigs regularly.”
“Upon information and belief, Phoenix House had no official policy for residents on hair or makeup,” the complaint continues.
Hargrove allegedly told counselors not to let Wilson sit with female clients during meetings or wear high heels. The counselors told Wilson that Hargrove was concerned that the shoes would make her trip, but allowed several other clients to wear them “every day.”
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 residents could discuss gender issues associated with addiction. Two or three residents allegedly complained, however, about Wilson’s inclusion.
“Rather than explore the issue, or explain to these residents that their objections were not valid – any more than would be objections based upon an individual’s status as a member of some other protected category, such as race or national origin – the counselor summarily kicked Ms. Wilson out of the group, telling her that she had to leave and could not join the female group,” the complaint states.
Hargrove allegedly told Wilson, “You belong in the male group, and that’s the group you are going to attend. You have to be in the men’s group, period… You should adjust.”
Wilson says she later won over the residents who had voiced their concerns, and they joined a 38-person strong petition to keep her in the program.
Nevertheless, Hargrove allegedly refused to back down. “Your recovery is not an issue here,” he said, according to the complaint.
“We can’t suit your needs as a transgender in our program,” he allegedly added, before kicking her out of the program.
“Ultimately, as a direct and proximate result of this discrimination, Ms. Wilson relapsed into drug use, failed to complete her drug treatment requirement, and was again incarcerated for a period of two and one-half years,” the complaint states.
She served several months of that term at Southport Correctional Facility, an all-male, supermax prison. During her incarceration in early 2011, Wilson filed a pro-se federal complaint against Phoenix House.
A paralegal helped her research and write legal briefs from the prison law library, she told Courthouse News.
In August, she beat the center’s motion to dismiss the case.
Winning the right to sue in federal court was “bittersweet, and I was a little shocked,” Wilson told Courthouse News in an email. “It made me realize I had some rights and that I have a good case.”
Weeks later, she was released from prison, and voluntarily dismissed her case to retain counsel with Housing Works, an AIDS charity that has handled several prominent cases involving transgender bias.
Wilson’s attorney Ignacio Jaureguilorda told Courthouse News that his client did “an absolutely amazing job litigating this pro se,” but she had a stronger case to press in state court.
Wilson demands $2 million in punitive damages and mandatory sensitivity training at Phoenix House.
Housing Works settled a similar case in Rawles v. The Educational Alliance, in which a homeless transgender woman, who was shut out of housing, received an undisclosed award. The nonprofit also agreed to implement systemic changes to benefit transgender residents.