An incarcerated trans woman has filed a lawsuit alleging the Michigan Department of Corrections failed to keep her safe and, in fact, put her in a position to be harmed by forcing her to bunk with a convicted rapist. The woman, who is being referred to in court filings as simply Jane Doe, claims she was raped within the first 24 hours of sharing a cell with the man, and that prison officials ignored her requests for help and MDOC’s own policies.
“There are two fundamentals here,” attorney Nakisha Chaney, who is representing Doe, told Between The Lines. “The first is that rape is not a part of any prison sentence. I think because of the movies and TV shows and in some way because of how people feel about prisoners, there’s almost like this implicit acceptance that somehow if you’re in prison and you get raped [it’s] too bad, so sad. You must have earned it. But that’s not so.
“The second part,” Chaney continued, “is that prison officials have a constitutional duty to protect inmates from sexual abuse. … One of the things that’s very striking about this situation is that it’s not as if they didn’t know there was a risk of harm. The flags were screaming at them. They’re literally being told this is a risk. It’s well known from some of the statistics we list in our complaint … that a woman incarcerated in a men’s prison is going to be of higher risk of sexual abuse and then putting that woman in a cell with a male rapist is going to put the prisoner at greater risk of abuse and that’s exactly what happened here.”
Trans inmates are 10 times more likely to be sexually assaulted by a fellow inmate and, perhaps even more shocking, they are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted by a member of prison staff, according to a study by the National Center for Transgender Equality. Five states across the U.S. have enacted policies that allow inmates to be housed according to their gender identity. Michigan is not one of those states and forces inmates to be housed according to the sex they were assigned at birth.
“What an extraordinary thing that someone who is a woman is incarcerated in a men’s prison,” Chaney said. “Our penal system has clearly not caught up to the realities of what’s happening today. Whether or not one agrees or disagrees that transgender women should be housed in women’s prisons versus men’s prisons, the one thing that cannot be disagreed with is the duty of the prisons to keep the prisoners safe. You have a duty to keep those prisoners safe and here there was a fundamental failure.”
A coalition of LGBTQ+ organizations from across the state met virtually last week and released a statement on the case.
“The allegations in this lawsuit are unconscionable and sadly preventable. However, neglect and poor training in Michigan jails and prisons continues to put trans people who are incarcerated at risk of repeated abuse and devastating consequences. Not only is additional training needed, but anyone who was complicit in incidents of sexual assault must be held accountable. The state must immediately investigate this incident and others, implement training of MDOC staff, and commit to enacting MDOC policies that allow transgender people to be housed in correctional facilities that are in accordance with their gender identity.”
The coalition includes the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, Affirmations LGBTQ Community Center, Equality Michigan, LGBT and Allies Caucus, OutCenter of Southwest Michigan, OutFront Kalamazoo, Ruth Ellis Center, Love Rising Lutheran Church in Detroit, Stand with Trans and Trans Sistas of Color Project.”
“I think people need to be reminded that in places such as jail or prison there are rights, so taking away what rights someone does have can be detrimental,” said Trans Sistas Executive Director Lilianna Reyes. “It can cause severe mental health issues. Trans people are segregated so it feels like you’re in solitary confinement simply because of who you are. I think we need to look at how we can help trans people and non-binary people navigate a system that is not designed to uphold their rights.”
What Chaney wants for her client is clear.
“Any sexual abuse rape victim is going to need recovery and therapy, so we want to make sure she has available to her the resources that she needs in order to fully recover. We want assurances of her safety. Safety, safety, safety. She was not asking to be treated in a special way. She was asking that her constitutional rights be enforced. So, we definitely want assurances of her safety,” Chaney said. “Plus, we want the state department to take these issues of sexual abuse in general, but of specific populations that are of higher risk, seriously.”