Transgender women inmates in Colorado claim in a class-action lawsuit that they are targets of physical violence and sexual harassment because they are routinely housed with men.
About 170 transgender inmates are represented in the class with seven women named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed Friday in state court in Denver. Gov. Jered Polis and Colorado Department of Corrections officials are named as defendants.
The lawsuit alleges that because the women are held with men without safeguards, they are subjected to abuse and discrimination in violation of the state's Anti-Discrimination Act.
"The lawsuit claims that the CDOC has discriminated against transgender women solely on the basis of their gender identity and that these women have been subjected to unsafe situations, including severe sexual harassment, physical violence, and rape," the Transgender Law Center, which filed the suit on behalf of the inmates, said in a summary.
Annie Skinner, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Corrections, said she could not comment on specifics of the lawsuit, but officials are working to create safe and fair incarceration for all offenders.
"Colorado has spent the last several years diligently working to develop and implement thoughtful and informed policies and procedures for the fair and respectful treatment of transgender offenders in our custody, and is considered a leader in this area nationally," she said in an email.
"We work every day to find the best possible balance between the desire to protect the dignity of all offenders, with the need to ensure their safety."
The lawsuit highlights the experiences of the named plaintiffs, including allegations by Kandice Raven, 30.
"Because she is a transgender woman in CDOC custody, she has been subjected to numerous brutal assaults, resulting in permanent injuries, including a rape in 2014," the document states. "She has attempted suicide twice and attempted self-castration as a means to deal with her severe gender dysphoria."
Jane Gallentine, whose age was not stated, has survived "several rapes," including repeated attacks by a corrections officer, the lawsuit claims.
"One of her abusers forcibly tattooed his name on her neck to show everyone that she was 'his property,'" it states. The allegation involves an incarcerated gang member, not the corrections officer, said Denver civil rights attorney Paula Greisen, a lawyer for the inmates.
Amber Miller, 32, was raped by a corrections officer and by male inmates, the lawsuit claims. After she reported one rape, "Amber was stripped naked by a group of male guards, handcuffed, and placed in the hole for weeks," the suit says.
Because the transgender inmates named in the suit "present as women" and take hormone regimens, they're often seen by male inmates and even some correction officers as vulnerable targets for crime, said Greisen, lead counsel on the case.
"Sex is a commodity in male prison," she said. "These women are used as commodities."
Rape by corrections officers of transgender inmates is under-reported because victims who step forward are often punished with strip searches and solitary confinement, she said.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages, "necessary accommodations" and other corrective measures.
Greisen said most of the plaintiffs want to be incarcerated with women not according to their gender assigned at birth.
"What we want is for them to be held in safe facilities," she said. "And although right now the policy is that their preference is given a priority, we don’t see it happening."
The Transgender Law Center is based in Oakland, California.