Suit: Transgender inmate placed in cell with convicted rapist, sexually assaulted

The lawsuit alleges multiple MDOC staff members ignored the inmate's pleas for help, accused her of lying, and mocked and laughed at her


By Tresa Baldas
Detroit Free Press

DETROIT — A transgender female prisoner says she repeatedly begged not to be housed with a convicted rapist, but was forced to share a bunk with him anyway — and then got raped within 24 hours, according to a new federal lawsuit filed against the Michigan Department of Corrections.

The lawsuit alleges that multiple MDOC staff members ignored the inmate's pleas for help, accused her of lying, and mocked and laughed at her as her bunkmate called her slurs while other inmates taunted her. After her attack, one officer was half asleep when she went to her for help while another two prison officers were watching movies on a computer, the suit states. The Free Press does not generally name victims of sexual assault.

MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz declined comment, citing agency policy not to discuss pending litigation.
MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz declined comment, citing agency policy not to discuss pending litigation. (Photo/Junfu Han of Detroit Free Press via TNS)

"The fact is — prisoners have a constitutional right to be protected from sexual abuse. And it is not good enough that a guard or a staff member can just laugh off someone’s request for help. These are people's lives that we're talking about," said the plaintiff's attorney, Nakisha Chaney, who believes this suit highlights a pervasive problem in the prison system: the sexual assault of inmates, particularly the marginalized.

"Prison rape and sexual assault are still a very prevalent part of prison culture. And there are particular populations that are especially at risk — the young, the transgender. They are prey," Chaney said, arguing the MDOC ignored its own policies designed to protect these groups from such harm.

"I’ve been litigating prison cases for about 10 years. And there is just a level of impunity. The MDOC put the right policies in place. They say all the right things, but what happens on the ground level?" Chaney said, adding far too many rapes still occur. "We want the DOC to take this seriously ... on the ground level."

She stressed: “The MDOC failed to follow its own policies, clear national guidelines, and the housing plan that applied to our client. As a result, our client was raped.”

MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz declined comment, citing agency policy not to discuss pending litigation.

According to the lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Detroit, the plaintiff is a male-to-female transgender woman — which means the inmate was born a male, but now identifies as a female. She has what is known as gender dysphoria, which is “a clinically significant distress or impairment related to a strong desire to be of another gender, which may include a desire to change primary or secondary sex characteristics.”

Given her transgender status, the plaintiff had a special accommodation under a 2019 MDOC medical order that prohibited her from being housed with a cellmate who did not have gender dysphoria. The lawsuit alleges, however, that the MDOC violated its duty to protect the inmate and ignored its own policy directives, which, among other things, requires that staff consider the safety and well-being of transgender inmates when deciding who they will be housed with.

On Jan. 5, all of that was ignored according to the lawsuit, as the plaintiff was assigned to a cell at the state prison in Jackson, where she was forced to bunk with a man who was serving life for raping and killing a woman during sexual intercourse. That inmate was hostile to her, protested to staff officials that he didn't want her in his cell, while other prisoners "began taunting, laughing and joking that he would be sharing a cell with a transgender bunkie," the lawsuit states.

The plaintiff begged repeatedly not to be housed with this person, and showed staff her "medical detail" papers that specifically addressed who she could and couldn't be housed with.

But after some back and forth, the officer "said he was tired of (the plaintiff's) complaints and did not care what the medical details said," the lawsuit states. Moreover, the prison officer "threatened" the inmate that if she did not enter the cell, he would "issue her a misconduct ticket and in disciplinary segregation,"

"Plaintiff had no choice but to enter the cell as receiving misconduct tickets can have substantial adverse effects on a prisoner including loss of privileges, housing in solitary confinement, escalation of security level and negative effects on parole opportunities," the lawsuit states.

So, against her will, the plaintiff entered the cell as her new bunkmate yelled to prison staff that "they should not have this f----t in here with him and to 'get her out.' "

The plaintiff was eventually called out of her cell to complete paperwork. Again, she pleaded not to be housed with a non-gender dysphoric cellmate "and that she feared for her safety because of her cellmate’s threats."

But her pleas fell on deaf ears, the suit states, alleging the officer again threatened her with disciplinary segregation if she didn't reenter the cell.

Later, another officer called the plaintiff to his desk, where again she expressed her fear of housing with the convicted rapist. Nothing was done.

A third officer came over and said that nothing could be done, and that a supervisor was consulted, but also "decided to keep (her) in the cell."

"Plaintiff had no choice but to return to her cell," the lawsuit states. "(Her) cellmate was yelling that he was a murderer and rapist and did not want (her) in the cell with him."

One officer heard the threats, the suit states, but only laughed as she walked by.

That night, she was raped "with forcible penetration," the suit states.

After her attacker went to sleep, the suit says the plaintiff was able to safely leave and went for help when she found one officer half asleep, while two others were watching a movie on a computer.

The inmate was eventually taken to a hospital for treatment. Five days after her attack, the suit says, her security level was hiked from level 2 to level 4, "even through plaintiff had not engaged in any misconduct."

That same day, she was assigned to another cell with another convicted rapist, who "pressured plaintiff to expose her genitals," the suit states.

This all happened at the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson.

The lawsuit cites the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, which Congress enacted to address issues of sexual harassment, assault and rape in prisons, and eventually added protections for transgender prisoners.

It also cites the 2009 Congress-backed National Prison Rape Elimination Report, which found, among other things, that transgender prisoners are at a known heightened risk of sexual violence, with male-to-female transgender women incarcerated in men’s prisons having a special risk of harm.

“Men’s correctional facilities tend to have very rigid cultures that reward extreme masculinity and aggression and perpetuate negative stereotypes about men who act or appear different. In this environment, gay, bisexual, and gender-nonconforming individuals are often the targets of sexual abuse precisely because the dominant ‘straight’ males expect and demand submission," the report states.

The U.S. Supreme Court recognized this harm more than 20 years ago and found that prisons had a duty to protect such prisoners from violence by other inmates. This duty to protect, the lawsuit states, is reflected in the MDOC's own policy directives, but that the agency ignored them.

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