Transgender inmate wins suit against Maryland prison officials

By John Clarke

By John Clarke

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A transgender inmate who says guards called her an animal and encouraged her to kill herself has won a legal battle against Maryland prison officials in the first successful lawsuit of its kind against a U.S. correctional facility, her attorney said on Thursday.

In a decision that led Maryland prisons to adopt new policies about transgender inmates, Administrative Law Judge Denise Shaffer ruled in favor of Sandy Brown's claim that prison officials at Patuxent Institution in Jessup, Maryland, failed to comply with national standards for the protection of inmates from sexual abuse, according to court documents.

Brown was serving a five-year sentence for assault when in 2014 she said she was placed in solitary confinement 24 hours a day for 66 days at Patuxent after a routine mental health screening, according to court records. She said guards watched her shower and encouraged her to commit suicide.

"They didn't see me for the human being I am," Brown, 40, said in a statement on Thursday. "They treated me like a circus act. They gawked, pointed, made fun of me and tried to break my spirit."

A federal law known as the Prison Rape Elimination Act requires prisons to have clear policies and mandatory training for corrections officers on the treatment of transgender inmates.

Shaffer found that guards subjected Brown to sexual abuse through voyeurism, adding federal guidelines were not followed in her housing and she was denied access to recreational activities.

Shaffer ruled the prison should establish new transgender inmate policies including for strip searches, housing, and guard interactions. Shaffer also ordered the prison to pay Brown $5,000 in restitution for denying her recreational activities.

Brown filed the complaint in April, seeking $75,000 in damages suffered through post-traumatic stress disorder. Shaffer made the ruling in May.

The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services formally adopted the judge's ruling earlier this month, requiring prisons to adopt the new transgender policies and training.

Brown's attorney, Rebecca Earlbeck, said the case was the first in the country in which a transgender person successfully won a legal battle against prison officials for Prison Rape Elimination Act violations.

"We believe this case creates a framework for enforcing the national standards that transgender people who are incarcerated in other states and their advocates can follow to help to ensure that others do not have to endure the pain and trauma Ms. Brown experienced," Earlbeck said.

(Editing by Curtis Skinner and Peter Cooney)