Attorneys representing at least 170 female transgender inmates in Colorado prisons have filed a class action lawsuit claiming that the Colorado Department of Corrections has discriminated against them and exposed them to unsafe situations.
The lawsuit, filed by Transgender Law Center and King & Greisen LLP, claims that because the Department of Corrections has housed transgender females in male prisons, they have been subjected to sexual harassment, physical violence, and rape due to their gender identity.
“Housing these inmates with men invites sexual predators to victimize the women and that is in face what is happening,” Greisen told Colorado Public Radio.
She added that the department’s policies violate the Colorado Constitution and the state’s civil rights law, which prohibits discrimination based on a person’s gender identity.
“[M]any of the transgender women we have talked to live in constant fear that they will be sexually assaulted and that no matter how much they complain, no one cares,” Greisen said in a statement. “We have worked hard with the CDOC to implement some changes, and we applaud the efforts that the State has taken to date — but the vast majority of transgender women in Colorado prisons are not protected. The time to protect all these women is now.”
The lawsuit also argues that the department needs to make “drastic” improvements in how it houses and treats transgender inmates, including ensuring they receive appropriate medical and mental health care.
“Right now there are around 170 transgender women who Colorado incarcerates with men. Thousands of transgender women are locked up in men’s prisons around the country, and as a result, they are often subjected to horrifying abuse,” Shawn Meerkamper, a senior staff attorney with Transgender Law Center said in a statement. “We’ve filed this lawsuit as an urgent reminder that when the state takes away someone’s freedom, they take on the responsibility for their well-being and safety.”
The lawsuit follows a settlement between the office of Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser and transgender inmate Lindsay Saunders-Velez, who sued the Department of Corrections after alleging she was raped at a men’s prison in Cañon City.
Saunders-Velez was awarded $170,000 and has since been released from prison as part of the agreement, but the settlement did not require the department to make any policy changes regarding the housing or treatment of transgender people in its custody.
The Colorado Department of Corrections has declined to comment on the lawsuit, but released a statement to Colorado Public Radio saying it has spent years developing policies to ensure fair treatment of transgender people.
“The corrections environment presents unique challenges,” the statement said, “but we work every day to find the best possible balance between the desire to protect the dignity of all offenders, with the need to ensure their safety.”