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Transgender woman sues Maryland corrections system, alleging she was sexually assaulted and denied hormone treatment while jailed with men

<i>Barbara Haddock Taylor/AP</i><br/>Chelsea Gilliam
Barbara Haddock Taylor/AP
Chelsea Gilliam

By Kia Fatahi and Sara Smart, CNN

A transgender woman has sued Maryland’s corrections department in federal court, alleging she was improperly housed with male inmates while jailed for three months in 2021 and 2022 — and was sexually assaulted and denied hormone treatment during that time.

The suit also alleges the plaintiff, Chelsea Gilliam, then was transferred to a different facility but improperly placed in solitary confinement there for about three months because of her gender identity.

The lawsuit, filed this week in US District Court in Maryland against the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, alleges the department violated Gilliam’s constitutional rights by having her “housed with men, left unprotected from assault, harassed, held in solitary confinement, and denied necessary medical treatment.”

The suit alleges Gilliam “suffered harm, including exacerbation of her gender dysphoria and physical and emotional distress, and she continues to suffer harm from defendants’ actions, including anxiety and depression.” Gender dysphoria describes psychological distress that results from an incongruence between one’s sex assigned at birth and the gender with which that person identifies, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

“I’m filing this lawsuit today because I don’t want what happened to me to happen to any other trans woman in the state of Maryland,” Gilliam said in a news conference Wednesday. “I want the state of Maryland to be held accountable for what happened.”

The suit covers Gilliam’s detention at the Baltimore City Correctional Center from December 2021 to February 2022, and the Maryland Reception, Diagnostic and Classification Center from February to May 2022. She was a pretrial detainee at both facilities, having been arrested on an assault charge, according to Eve Hill, Gilliam’s attorney.

Both facilities fall under the department’s Division of Corrections.

“I would say that I was treated like an animal, but it was worse than that. People love and respect their animals,” Gilliam said at the news conference. “I was treated like an alien from the moment that I entered Baltimore City Corrections by inmates and staff, a local joke day in and out.”

What the suit says about her detention

Gilliam was diagnosed with and began treatment for gender dysphoria in approximately 2003 when she was 17, the suit says. She has lived exclusively as a woman for more than 14 years, and legally changed her name to Chelsea in 2009, according to the suit.

She received hormone treatments for her gender dysphoria for 18 years before she was jailed, the suit says.

Despite Gilliam’s “female gender identity, feminine appearance and years of hormone therapy treatment,” she was placed at the Baltimore City Correctional Center with male inmates “and forced to shower with men … despite the known risk of sexual assault from male inmates and in contravention of defendants’ own policy,” the suit reads.

Gilliam was threatened with a knife and sexually assaulted by a male inmate while in the shower there, according to the suit.

After the assault, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services took no action, the lawsuit alleges. Though Division of Corrections staff promised accommodations like showers and recreation time separate from male inmates, the accommodations were not honored, the suit alleges.

Gilliam also was denied hormone treatment throughout her time at that facility, the suit alleges.

Department policy says the housing placement of an inmate with gender dysphoria “shall be made on a case-by-case basis seriously considering the inmate’s opinion regarding the inmate’s safety and the inmate’s biological gender presentation and appearance.”

In February 2022, Gilliam was transferred to the Maryland Reception, Diagnostic and Classification Center, where she was put into solitary confinement “solely because she is transgender,” according to the lawsuit.

When she was granted a review of the situation, “defendants would only offer her placement in general population of the men’s prison, not placement in a women’s facility,” the suit reads. It also required her to sign a waiver saying she wouldn’t hold the public safety department liable if anything happened to her in the men’s prison, it says. She refused that proposal and remained in solitary confinement until she was released in mid-May 2022, the suit reads.

Gilliam feels the arrangement was “punitive, like she did something wrong and was being maliciously punished for that perceived wrong,” the suit reads. Gilliam “suffered anxiety and depression as a result of her time in administrative segregation,” according to the suit.

Gilliam was released in May 2022 and is on supervised probation, the suit reads.

The suit alleges the department violated Gilliam’s 14th Amendment rights in part by failing to protect her from violence and provide adequate medical care, and by discriminating based on sex.

The suit also alleges the department illegally discriminated against Gilliam on the basis of disability: gender dysphoria, a disability that a federal appellate court ruled last year is protected from discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The lawsuit asks for punitive and compensatory damages. It also asks the court to order the department to give inmates with gender dysphoria adequate and necessary medical care, and to “house inmates with gender dysphoria in accordance with their gender identity.”

“They subjected her to mistreatment and even torture, in violation of the US Constitution and the federal disability rights laws,” Hill said. “Chelsea Gilliam is bravely standing up to fight this injustice and make sure this treatment does not happen to other transgender people who interact with the criminal system.”

Besides the state public safety and correctional services department, the lawsuit names as defendants the department’s secretary and acting deputy secretary, as well as other department employees, including the wardens of both facilities.

Mark Vernarelli, a spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said in an email to CNN that it cannot comment on the pending lawsuit, but said that it takes the protection of those who are incarcerated “very seriously — and treats with urgency — the protection of every single incarcerated person’s dignity and safety.”

“The department has met with advocacy groups and has tirelessly worked on the complex issues related to the transgender incarcerated population, and is committed to updating its policies as necessary based on correctional and medical professionals’ recommendations to ensure the safety of everyone in our facilities,” Vernarelli said.

Attorneys have not yet been assigned to represent the other defendants involved in this lawsuit.

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