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A New York county prison has settled a lawsuit brought by a transgender woman who claims she was subjected to sexual harassment and abuse and denied medication after being transferred to a men’s prison without warning.
Jena Faith, a military veteran who spent four weeks in Steuben County Jail in upstate New York while awaiting trial, says she was originally housed in the prison’s women’s facility, in accordance with her gender identity.
But she was later transferred, without warning, to the men’s facility because of her transgender status, despite being recognized as a woman in all aspects of her life, including on her official identification documents.
Objecting to her placement, and to the mistreatment and abuse she experienced following her transfer, she sued the county in 2019, alleging that her placement violated New York’s civil rights law, which prohibits discrimination based on gender identity.
The county, in conjunction with the New York State Sheriff’s Association, eventually decided to settle the case, agreeing to several changes to its policies regarding the search procedures, housing placement, medical care, use of pronouns, and grooming standards that pertain to transgender and intersex inmates.
Specifically, under the settlement, Steuben County agrees to house inmates consistent with their gender identity, require staff to acknowledge and treat prisoners according to their gender identity, with respect to pronoun use and searches, ensure access to gender-affirming clothing and toiletries, and ensure access to medically necessary care for transgender individuals.
The county also agreed to compensate Faith $60,000 for the harms she suffered following her transfer.
“I feel so relieved that the county is acknowledging the harm it caused me and taking steps to ensure this does not happen to anyone else,” Faith said in a statement.
“No one should ever be subjected to the cruelty and harassment I endured. Everyone housed in detention facilities deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, including transgender people. I hope my case will help others, not only in Steuben County, but also across New York and beyond.”
Bobby Hodgson, a staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union, one of two organizations that helped represent Faith in her lawsuit, said: “Across the state, transgender people are routinely and illegally held in facilities that are not consistent with their gender identity. This agreement establishes one of the strongest jail or prison anti-discrimination policies in the country and creates a solid framework that officials across the state should look to as they adjust their own policies to comply with the law.”
Nationally, transgender people are nearly 10 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the general prison population, with 40 percent of transgender people in state and federal prisons across the country reporting a sexual assault in the previous year, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.
Transgender women, particularly those of color, are also more likely to face discrimination in employment, housing, education, and health care, which may contribute to their incarceration and make them vulnerable to violence or negative health consequences.
While Steuben County’s settlement with Faith is not binding on any other counties, Andy Marra, the executive director of Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, which also represented Faith, believes it will send a message to other county jails that they risk costly lawsuits and potential financial losses in the form of settlements if they refuse to adopt policies that affirm the gender identity of transgender inmates.
“This settlement makes clear that law enforcement have a legal and a moral obligation to ensure the safety, health, and well-being of the transgender individuals in their care,” Marra said in a statement.
“Because of Jena’s courageous decision to challenge her mistreatment, jails and prisons here in New York and across the country now have a new policy standard to prevent future incidents of abuse and discrimination.”
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