The Massachusetts Department of Correction, under pressure from a federal lawsuit, said it has for the first time moved a transgender inmate from a men’s prison to a women’s prison.
The prisoner’s lawyer, Jennifer L. Levi, said she believes the transfer also marks the first time a transgender prisoner in the United States has been moved to a prison that corresponds to her gender identity.
The 54-year-old inmate, who has lived as a woman and received hormone therapy for nearly 40 years, was transferred from MCI-Norfolk to MCI-Framingham, the state women’s prison, in September, but the move was only disclosed in a court filing this month.
The transfer marks a victory for a growing national movement by advocates who have been pressuring prisons to house inmates according to their gender identity, provide transgender inmates with hormone therapy and other medical treatments, and accommodate prisoners who want to buy makeup at the commissary or wear long hair.
“It’s a hugely important development,” said Levi, the director of the Transgender Rights Project at the GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders. “Transgender women can and need to be integrated into women’s facilities and doing so is not just required, but appropriate.”
Correction officials declined to explain why they moved the inmate, saying state confidentiality laws prevent them from detailing specific cases. But the department said it acts in accordance with a new state law designed to protect transgender inmates’ rights.
“In compliance with the Criminal Justice Reform Act, the Department of Correction diagnoses, treats, and manages gender nonconforming inmates in a humane and safe correctional environment that considers their adjustment needs while working to ensure that placements do not compromise an inmate’s health or safety or present management or security problems,” the department said.
Levi said that although the transfer marks the first time a prisoner in any state has been moved to a facility matching his or her gender identity, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has assigned some transgender inmates to facilities that correspond to their identity when they first report to prison.
The prisoner in this case, known as Jane Doe in court papers, is serving a three- to four-year sentence for a nonviolent drug offense and is due to be released in June.
When she first reported to prison in October 2016, prison officials told her she could not be moved to MCI-Framingham until she had genital surgery, her lawsuit said.
Massachusetts, like most states, has typically assigned inmates to prisons based on their anatomy, not their gender identity.
After the inmate sued the state in 2017, prison officials continued to deny her move to Framingham, saying they had made reasonable accommodations for her in Norfolk and “there may be problems with other inmates” if she were housed with women.
But the prisoner argued that she should be treated like any other woman, and told the court that she had been repeatedly groped and harassed at Norfolk.
She said male prisoners could watch her from an upper tier, where they “verbally taunt me with comments about my ‘boobs’ and my female body, and shout out what they would like to do to me sexually,” she wrote in a sworn statement.
Once, when she was strip-searched, male guards forced her to stand, cuffed and naked, for 30 minutes in front of the open door to her cell, exposing her body to at least a dozen male prisoners who gawked and made crude sexual remarks, she said.
“The humiliation, shame, degradation, and fear I frequently experience has led to extreme anxiety, depression, nightmares, sleeplessness, and a constant fear of being harassed and physically harmed or raped,” the inmate wrote.
The prisoner’s lawsuit accused the state of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, arguing her transfer to a women’s facility was a required part of her treatment for gender dysphoria.
Gender dysphoria is a medical diagnosis that describes the disconnect felt between one’s sex at birth and one’s gender identity.
The lawsuit also claimed prison officials were discriminating against the inmate because she is transgender, in violation of her constitutional right to equal protection.
Prison officials granted her transfer on Sept. 25, even though Judge Richard G. Stearns of US District Court in Boston had yet to rule on her case.
“It’s a relief for her not to be subjected to the kind of mistreatment she experienced on a daily basis in a men’s facility,” Levi said.
In a court filing announcing the transfer, prison officials and the inmate’s lawyers said they have spent months working together to try to resolve the lawsuit.
Levi said prison officials also acted in the face of a sweeping new criminal justice reform law designed to protect transgender prisoners’ rights.
The law, signed by Governor Charlie Baker last April, says that transgender inmates in jails and prisons in Massachusetts must be housed according to their gender identity, unless officials certify in writing that the placement would harm the prisoner’s health or safety or create “management or security problems.”
The law also says transgender inmates must be addressed by prison guards according to their gender identity, provided with clothing and other personal items consistent with their identity, and strip-searched by guards matching their gender identity.
The inmate’s transfer, though only disclosed this month, came before the Illinois Department of Corrections made a widely publicized decision in December to transfer another transgender inmate from an all-male prison to a women’s correctional center.
That inmate, Deon “Strawberry” Hampton, 27, had alleged she was repeatedly sexually assaulted in men’s prisons while serving a 10-year sentence for burglary.
Transgender prisoners are highly vulnerable to sexual assault, federal data show. A survey conducted in 2011 and 2012 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that about 30 percent of transgender prisoners reported being sexually victimized by other inmates or guards — 10 times the rate for the general prison population.
The survey estimated there are 3,200 transgender inmates in state and federal prisons and 1,700 in local jails. In Massachusetts, 36 prisoners have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria.
Last year, the Trump administration rolled back Obama-era rules that said transgender inmates in the federal prison system should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The new rules say federal prison inmates should initially be housed according to their biological sex and granted exceptions “only in rare cases.”