Transgender Inmate Wins Sexual Abuse Lawsuit against Maryland Prison Officials

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Sep 30, 2015

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An administrative judge in Maryland ruled that a state prison violated federal regulations by mistreating a transgender inmate housed in the facility.  The ruling was a unique victory for a transgender inmate alleging harassment at the hands of prison guards, and may set the tone for future legal action by similarly situated inmates across the country.

Maryland Judge Rules in Favor of Transgender Inmate in Harassment Lawsuit

Maryland inmate Sandy Brown filed a lawsuit against officials at Patuxent Institution in Jessup, Maryland alleging the facility failed to comply with the federally required standards of protection owed inmates from sexual abuse.  Brown, who is biologically male but identifies as female, is serving a five-year sentence for assault, and in 2014 she was placed in solitary confinement for 24 hours a day for 66 days after receiving a routine mental health screening.  According to her complaint, guards watched her shower and encouraged her to commit suicide because she is transgender.  In a statement to the press, Brown said of the prison guards, “”They didn’t see me for the human being I am.  They treated me like a circus act. They gawked, pointed, made fun of me and tried to break my spirit.” 

Under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) all prisons that receive federal funding – which includes Patuxent Institution – are required to provide mandatory training to corrections officers about proper humane treatment of transgender inmates.  According to Administrative Law Judge Denise Shaffer, the officials at Patuxent had not only failed to satisfy those standards but had subjected Brown to sexual abuse through voyeurism and restricting her activities. 

Although Brown requested $75,000 in damages, Judge Shaffer ruled that the institution only owed her $5,000 in damages for denying her access to recreational activities afforded other inmates.  Despite only receiving a fraction of the damages award she sought, Sandy Brown’s lawsuit serves as an important success for transgender inmates filing lawsuits under the PREA.

Maryland Transgender Lawsuit Establishes Precedent for Inmate Remedy

According to Brown’s attorney, Rebecca Earlbeck, the case is the first successful lawsuit filed by a transgender inmate who alleged violations of the Prison Rape Elimination Act.  Although the PREA has forced prisons across the country to improve education and training about transgender issues, there has not been a case of a transgender inmate using PREA to win monetary damages or other relief from sexually abusive behavior or prison officials.  While Sandy Brown will not walk away from the lawsuit wealthy, Judge Shaffer’s ruling will have an impact beyond the individuals involved in the case.

In addition to ordering prison officials to pay Sandy Brown $5,000 in damages, Judge Shaffer commanded that the institution improve its training and oversight of managing transgender inmates.  In response to the ruling, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services adopted Shaffer’s ruling earlier this month and has set new standards for state prisons in order to comply with federal requirements of transgender inmate treatment.  Beyond the borders of Maryland, the ruling may provide opportunity for other transgender inmates who allege similar abuses at the hands of prison officials.

Legal Ramifications of Maryland Transgender Inmate Lawsuit

In response to Brown’s legal claim, Maryland state officials argued, among other things, that the PREA does not provide transgender inmates with a private cause of action that would entitle them to legally mandated relief.  In response to that point Shaffer wrote in her opinion, ““I note that the Grievant is not pursuing a private cause of action in this grievance, rather, the Grievant is asserting… that PREA is…intended to provide her with ‘a procedural benefit,’ that the law, regulation, policy or procedure was violated by Patuxent employees, and that the violation ‘prejudiced’ the Grievant.”

In her ruling, Shaffer found that the PREA does not need to provide a private cause of action, but instead exists as the mechanism for defining prejudice against transgender inmates by identifying benefits that they are owed under federal law.  This portion of the ruling could have a significant impact on future lawsuits filed by transgender inmates, or any inmate alleging PREA violations, because it offers a legal pathway to individual relief under a federal act that may not otherwise provide for a private cause of action.

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