Metro Weekly

Second transgender inmate claims D.C. Department of Corrections kept her in the dark about her housing options

Courtney Phillips says prison officials never informed her that she could request a transfer to a women's unit for her safety.

Courtney Phillips, corrections, trans, inmate
Courtney Phillips – Photo: ACLU of DC.

A second transgender woman in the DC Jail has come forward, claiming she was denied a hearing to determine whether she would be housed in a unit consistent with her gender identity.

In a new declaration filed as part of an ongoing lawsuit against the D.C. Department of Corrections on Tuesday, Courtney Phillips, a transgender woman in DOC custody, claims she requested, but was never granted, hearings with the DOC’s Transgender Housing Committee.

The committee, which is comprised of corrections staffers, a doctor, a social worker, a mental health clinician, and members of the local transgender community, is empowered to make recommendations about housing assignments for transgender inmates in DC Jail.

Under the old DOC policy, which was in place prior to June of this year, transgender prisoners were housed based on their genitalia, which, in most cases, was determined by their assigned sex at birth.

The exception to the rule was transgender individuals who had received a THC hearing and a recommendation from the committee that they be housed in a gender-affirming unit — so long as the warden of the DC Jail signed off on the recommendation. If a gender-affirming housing assignment was denied, the prisoner could be placed in “protective custody,” or solitary confinement.

Sunday Hinton, another transgender inmate in DOC custody, sued the department, arguing that its transgender housing policy was unconstitutional and discriminatory, and made it known that she wished to be placed in a women’s unit within DC Jail due to fear for her personal safety if she was housed with a male cellmate. 

In response to the lawsuit, the Department of Corrections later moved Hinton to a women’s unit, and in June, issued a new policy requiring all transgender prisoners to be held in protective custody upon intake until they receive their regular housing assignment, which ostensibly will take into account an inmate’s gender identity.

But Hinton’s lawyers said the new policy does not eliminate the issues raised in their initial lawsuit, namely the use of solitary confinement, which can have detrimental effects on a player’s mental health. Additionally, they said they knew of at least three transgender inmates, who, like Hinton, never received hearings before the Transgender Housing Committee, even though they requested them. Phillips is one of those prisoners.

By bringing the court’s attention to Phillips’ situation, Hinton’s lawyers hoped to provide evidence that the DOC is discriminating against multiple prisoners, and therefore should have their challenge to the policy certified as a class-action lawsuit. That’s why they submitted Phillips’ declaration, along with a motion requesting class certification and requesting preliminary injunction to stop the DOC from carrying out or enforcing the policy that is being disputed, to Judge John Bates, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

On Tuesday, Bates granted the motion submitted by Hinton’s legal team. The Department of Corrections now has until Sept. 7 to respond to that ruling.

See also: Transgender inmate who claims she was abused in prison gets moved to women’s facility

In her declaration filed today, Phillips, who has been incarcerated in a men’s unit for a year, said she learned of the DOC’s policy change in July from Rachel Cicurel, a lawyer at the Public Defender Service, which, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia, is representing Hinton in the case. Phillips says she was never informed by anyone besides Cicurel about the new housing policy.

After learning about the new policy, Phillips requested a hearing before the Transgender Housing Committee so she could change housing units, but never heard back from DOC officials. She requested a hearing a second time, asking to see Ms. Reid, a member of the committee, so she could request a hearing. On August 16, an official knowns as Ms. Brooks, the Prison Rape Elimination Act coordinator, visited Phillips unexpectedly. Phillips told Brooks that there was another prisoner in her unit who, on several occasions, flung homophobic slurs and verbal threats at her, and moved to strike her before being stopped by a correctional officer.

Brooks then told Phillips that her problems with the other inmate were a PREA issue, but when Phillips again requested a THC hearing, Brooks said she could only deal with the PREA issue, and would email Ms. Reid’s supervisor to set up a THC hearing. However, Phillips has not received any word from Reid. She later discovered — after another inmate passed along a rumor — that a form for requesting a THC hearing was on tablets for prisoner use, but, again, was never alerted to the existence of the form, either by prison officials or any electronic notification.

In a supplemental declaration, Phillips again reiterated that DOC officials failed to inform her that she could request to be placed in a women’s unit, and recounted the difficult situation she faces in prison, having to deal with abuse and harassment lest she be singled out for harm for “snitching.”

“My housing situation with men is just as dangerous and harmful to my mental health as it was a month ago. I feel unsafe, like walking through a dark alley knowing there is a threat on your life and you cannot see it,” she wrote. “Frequently on my unit, men gawk at me, stare at my body, masturbate in front of me, and threaten my life. These experiences remind me that I can be attacked at any moment.

Prison corridor – Photo: Matthew Ansley, via Unsplash.

“I do not report these issues or concerns living with the men because doing so would further compromise my safety,” she continued. “If I reported specific issues with the men or concerns of violence, I would either remain stuck in my unit at CTF with other men or be placed against my will in protective custody. In either situation, I would be even less safe than I am now. If I stayed in my CTF unit with the other men, I would be at further risk because I would be labeled a snitch. If I were forced into protective custody, the isolation and loneliness would ruin my mental health, making me more likely to experience psychosis and self-harm. Because of my mental health needs, protective custody is not an option.”

Phillips, like Hinton, is also critical of the revised policy’s reliance on solitary confinement for all transgender individuals upon intake as they wait for a gender-affirming housing assignment, noting it could create problems for transgender inmates in the future.

“I am concerned that the new policy for trans people at intake treats us worse than cisgender inmates. I am concerned that the new policy would force trans people into involuntary protective custody for any amount of time, but I am especially concerned that the policy would force trans people into protective custody for longer than a week,” she wrote in her supplemental declaration. 

“Regardless of how long someone stays in protective custody, placement in protective custody at all means carrying that label, which indicates to staff and other inmates that you are either weak or cooperating with the police,” she concluded. “Also, I do not believe protective custody keeps us safe. I know several trans women who were sexually assaulted in the DOC while held in protective custody.”

See also:

U.S. marshal claims he was fired for defending lesbian deputy who was being harassed

Mormon student says “f****ts go to hell” while ruining LGBTQ chalk art

Washington State man convicted of hate crime for transgender teenager’s murder

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