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$5,000 to Transgender Prisoner in Maryland Sexual Harassment Lawsuit

by Lonnie Burton

On August 17, 2015, an administrative law judge in Maryland ruled that state prison officials were guilty of sexually harassing and mistreating a transgender prisoner and awarded her $5,000 in damages. The ruling was the first of its kind for a transgender prisoner alleging harassment at the hands of prison staff.

Sandy Brown is a transgender prisoner incarcerated the Patuxent Institution in Jessup, Maryland. Brown, who is biologically male but identifies as female, was serving a five-year sentence for assault when she was placed in involuntary administrative segregation in 2014 after a mental health screening. According to Brown's complaint, prison guards mocked her as she showered and urged her to commit suicide.

"They didn't see me for the human being I am," Brown said in a statement to the press. They treated me like a circus act. They gawked, pointed, made fun of me and tried to break my spirit."

Brown also said prison staff denied her educational programs, recreational activities, and phone time, and constantly referred to her as an "it."

Brown sued Patuxent officials under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), a federal statute which, among other things, requires prison officials to provide training to guards regarding the humane treatment of transgender prisoners. Brown sought $75,000 in damages, but Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services officials argued that PREA did not provide a private cause of action for Brown and they were entitled to a dismissal of the case.

"I note that (Brown) is not pursuing a private cause of action in this grievance, rather (she) is asserting that PREA is ... intended to provide her with a procedural benefit that the law, regulation, policy or procedure was violated by Patuxent employees, and that the violations prejudiced (Brown)," Administrative Law Judge Denise Oakes Shaffer wrote in ruling in favor of Brown.

Shaffer further found that PREA does not need to provide a private cause of action, but rather exists for the purpose of defining what constitutes prejudice against transgender prisoners by identifying benefits they are due under federal law.

In addition to ordering prison officials to pay Brown $5,000 in damages, Judge Shaffer also directed the institution to develop a new training and oversight program for managing transgender prisoners.

Maryland prison officials quickly adopted Shaffer's ruling, and have set new standards for state prisons to follow to comply with federal requirements for transgender prisoners under the PREA statute.

Brown's lawsuit is said to serve as an important stepping stone for the rights of transgender prisoners across the country, and should improve access to educational and other programs for all LBGTI prisoners.

Rebecca Earlbeck represented Brown in this case, which was initially filed pro se.

See: Brown v. Patuxent Institution,. OAH No. DPSC-IG0-002V¬14-33232.

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Related legal case

Brown v. Patuxent Institution