Illinois has just two weeks to present a plan to train its prison staff on transgender issues and rethink the placement of a trans inmate at the center of a highly-publicized abuse allegation.
In an order Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Rosenstengel slammed the state’s Department of Corrections (IDOC) for failing to consider Strawberry Hampton’s “substantiated” sexual abuse complaints while repeatedly denying her requests to be housed with women.
The strongly-worded decision grants emergency relief to Hampton who is housed with men at Dixon Correctional Center.
It forces IDOC to train its prison staff to prevent further anti-trans abuse. It also mandates that Hampton be allowed to go to a trans support group and that IDOC seriously reconsider her placement in a men’s facility.
Rosenstengel notes that the committee considering Hampton’s placement “never considered whether Hampton felt safe or secure in a men’s prison. In fact, the Committee never even interviewed Hampton personally.”
Hampton’s case raises grave concerns about Illinois’ compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which requires prisons to place trans inmates on a case-by-case basis with safety as a top priority. According to the order, all IDOC prisoners are housed based on their genitalia. PREA, however, mandates that placement decisions cannot be made solely based on anatomy.
IDOC spokesperson Lindsey Hess said that IDOC has placed trans women in female facilities before, but did not respond to a question about how many.
“The Department maintains 100% compliance with the national standards of the Prison Rape Elimination Act as determined by certified independent privately contracted auditors,” Hess asserted in an email. “The Department carefully considers housing assignments and the unique needs of offenders who identify as transgender. IDOC’s mental health professionals receive specialized training and ongoing consultation from a transgender expert.”
Hampton’s case is one of the more extreme transgender prison abuse reported. The 27-year-old has filed four lawsuits over two years detailing torment by staff and inmates so graphic most of it cannot be printed in an article.
She alleges that her multiple attempts to report the abuse only heightened retaliation by prison staff and that she has spent much of the last two years in segregation, causing her to become suicidal.
Hampton’s case has parallels with that of Colorado inmate Lindsay Saunders-Velez, who has also been refused placement in a women’s facility despite surviving three rapes in a men’s lockup.
IDOC has claimed that concerns about Hampton’s disciplinary record have stalled her transfer to women’s facility, an argument that Rosenstengel rejected. Rosenstengel wrote that prison officials only alleged that Hampton was aggressive toward others after Hampton filed a motion for preliminary injunction.
“Moreover, as pointed out by Hampton, female inmates can be equally aggressive and violent, perhaps more so than Hampton,” Rosenstengel wrote. “Yet, no one would suggest those women should be housed in the men’s division.”
Ultimately, she said, IDOC’s policy does not appear to be related prison security.
Rosenstengel stopped short of ordering IDOC to house Hampton in a women’s facility, stating that she did not want to interfere with the department’s operations.
Alan Mills, executive director of Uptown People’s Law Center, which is representing Hampton, said he hopes the ruling is the first step toward relief his client.
“The ruling is really important because what it shows is that the courts are willing to take seriously the complaint that trans people are not being considered individually for placement based on all the factors,” said Mills. “They’re not doing a good job at all of keeping people safe.”
According to Hess, the state is in the process of developing training for IDOC staff.
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