·  Legal News, Analysis, & Commentary

Civil Rights

First Transgender Win in Prison Rape Elimination Act Suit

— October 6, 2015

The first victory for a transgender person in a suit under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act was recently won by Sandy Brown. Ms. Brown endured sexual abuse via voyeurism as the guards watched her shower. They also encouraged her to kill herself.

Sandy Brown, currently serving a five-year sentence for assault, has the first transgender win in Prison Rape Elimination Act suit. Brown’s complaint alleged that prison guards called her an animal and encouraged her to kill herself among other atrocities. Federal Administrative Law Judge Denise Shaffer found in favor of Brown in her suit against the officials at Maryland’s Patuxent Institution in Jessup.

This is a big win for the transgender inmate community. As a result of Brown’s victory, Maryland prisons have put new policies in place to ensure compliance with national standards for protecting inmates from sexual abuse.

The abuse occurred in 2014 when Brown was put in solitary confinement 24 hours per day for 66 days after a routine mental health screening. “They didn’t see me for the human being I am. They treated me like a circus act. They gawked, pointed, made fun of me and tried to break my spirit,” she said. The guards went so far as to watch her shower.

It’s not well known (or, at least, it wasn’t to me) that the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act mandates that prisons have clear policies and mandatory training for all officers on the proper treatment of the transgender inmate population. Judge Shaffer found that Patuxent was not in compliance. The judge ruled that the guards’ actions constituted sexual abuse via voyeurism and that the prison ignored the Act’s guidelines for proper housing. In addition, Judge Shaffer found that the prison guards were wrong in denying her any recreational activities. Most inmates in solitary are allowed at least one hour per day outside their cells.

The judge’s order included directing the prison to create new, compliant policies covering the transgender population. These policies include housing, guard interactions and strip searches. Further, Judge Shaffer ordered Patuxent to pay restitution of $5,000 to Brown for refusing her recreational activities.

Brown’s complaint, filed in April, asked for $75,000 in damages caused by post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by the abuse. The judge ruled in May. Whoever said the wheels of justice always move slowly obviously never met Judge Shaffer!


Maryland’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services didn’t move quite so quickly. It just adopted Judge Shaffer’s ruling this month and now requires all Maryland prisons to put the new transgender policies and training in place. Better late than never!

Rebecca Earlbeck, Brown’s lawyer, said that Brown’s is the first case in the U.S. in which a transgender person was victorious in a Prison Rape Elimination Act suit. She said, “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.”


Transgender inmate wins suit against Maryland prison officials

Join the conversation!