Metro Weekly

Female transgender inmate sues Colorado Department of Corrections for mistreatment

Woman claims she was raped twice in prison custody -- and then retaliated against for reporting it

Photo: opus2008 / Flickr

A black transgender female inmate in the custody of the Colorado Department of Corrections is suing the department for repeatedly harassing and attempting to intimidate her in retaliation for complaining about how transgender inmates are treated in prison.

Last week, Transgender Law Center and co-counsel from the law firm of King & Greisen LLP filed an amended complaint on behalf of Lindsay Saunders-Velez, a 20-year-old inmate who initially sued the CDOC over its treatment of transgender inmates in custody.

The now-amended lawsuit claims that agents of the CDOC singled out Saunders-Velez for harassment and carried out a coordinated campaign of intimidation in order to force her to drop her lawsuit.

According to her lawyers, Saunders-Velez was neglected and abused by her parents and sexually assaulted as a child. She bounced around the foster care system, eventually being pushed out of school and placed in a youth correctional facility for females, in keeping with Colorado’s policy allowing transgender juvenile offenders to opt to live with people of the same gender identity as them.

Saunders-Velez was later charged and convicted of felony menacing after throwing a chair during a therapy session and resisting a guard who tried to restrain her. She subsequently violated parole by attempting self-harm, which landed her in a men’s prison. In July 2017, she filed a lawsuit asking the court to place her in a different facility, for fear of being raped, assaulted, and harassed by male inmates.

The court rejected her motion, placing her in the Buena Vista Correctional Facility in Chaffee County, where she was raped in December 2017, according to the news website Westword. She was later moved to the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility in Cañon City. But after a guard claimed he’d seen her kiss another inmate — something she vehemently denies — she was placed in a cell house known as the prison’s “punishment pod.”

Saunders-Velez and her lawyers appealed to the court, asking not to be moved to the “punishment pod” for fear of rape and assault. The judge said that her attorneys had failed to prove there was imminent risk that Saunders-Velez would be placed in danger, and rejected their request. In April 2018, hours after the judge’s ruling was handed down, Saunders-Velez was raped for a second time while in CDOC custody.

Afterwards, her story spread rapidly through the media, and reporters began questioning prison officials about what was going on in the facility. The warden at CTCF, Mike Romero, held a meeting with five other transgender women at the facility, and arranged for a Denver Post reporter to interview them along with Saunders-Velez.

During the interview with the reporter, the five women labeled Saunders-Velez a “snitch” for reporting her rape, and accused her of lying about it or “asking for it.” In exchange, they received preferential treatment. Romero then had subordinates assign Saunders-Velez to the same cell house occupied by the other trans women, where she was subjected to daily harassment and ridicule.

According to the amended complaint, when Saunders-Velez refused to withdraw her lawsuit, Romero and other officials took other retaliatory actions against her. Those actions included disciplining and eventually transferring an inmate who was one of her few supporters within the prison, barring her from meeting with lawyers or other visitors, rejecting her requests to be placed in protective custody, and eventually placing her back in the “punishment pod” — despite suffering from PTSD from the rapes — as forms of retaliation.

Saunders-Velez’s lawyers have subsequently amended the complaint to document these forms of retaliation, in the hope that a judge will finally take action to stop the CDOC’s ongoing campaign of intimidation against their client while her lawsuit moves forward on the merits. 

“Our client was sent to an adult men’s prison because she resisted being restrained by a male guard after throwing a chair during a therapy session,” her attorney, Paula Greisen, said in a statement. “For this crime, she has now suffered three rapes and had her very existence as a woman consistently and violently denied by the state of Colorado. Lindsay has suffered enough.”

“The time to honor and lift up Black trans women’s lives is now. This year alone, we have lost at least 14 Black trans women in a crisis of transphobic murders. At the same time, our governments are incarcerating hundreds of Black trans women in men’s prisons, subjecting them to daily abuse and threats of further physical and sexual violence,” added Isa Noyola, the deputy director of Transgender Law Center. “We will not rest until we have justice for Lindsay, and for all Black trans women.”

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