By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - A transgender woman on Wednesday sued the Massachusetts prison system, saying it is violating her civil rights by housing her in a facility for male prisoners, where lawyers contend she is routinely harassed by fellow inmates and prison staff.
The 53-year-old woman, whose name is not disclosed in the lawsuit filed in Boston federal court, contends the state Department of Corrections is violating her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing to house her with women and subjecting her to strip searches by male guards.
The suit, which advocates believe is the first of its kind filed in the state, asks the prisons system to transfer the woman to a women's prison in Framingham, rather than the men's facility in Norfolk where she is housed. It also asks the court to order prison officials to address her as a woman and allow only female guards to strip-search her.
"Anyone could imagine how horrific it would be to be a woman in a men's facility," said Jennifer Levi, director of the transgender rights project at GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, the Massachusetts group representing the woman, who is serving a three-to-four-year sentence for a nonviolent drug offense. "This policy of placing transgender women in men's facilities is totally out of step with Massachusetts policies."
A spokesman for the state department of corrections declined to comment on the lawsuit.
A federal judge in Pennsylvania in May allowed a transgender woman to sue her employer under the ADA citing the condition known as gender dysphoria, even though the disabilities law excludes transgender people from protection. The suit has since been settled, according to federal court records.
Gender dysphoria is a medical condition where someone suffers distress because their gender identity does not match their body.
Massachusetts last year passed a law banning discrimination against transgender people in public restrooms and other public buildings.
The woman, who was diagnosed with gender dysphoria decades ago, claimed in the lawsuit that she has been routinely groped by male guards during strip searches and is forced to shower in the presence of male inmates.
"Jane Doe is forced to shower in terror of being attacked by these men," the lawsuit contends. "She is particularly fearful of men serving life sentences, because she believes they view her as the only woman with whom they will ever have the opportunity to have contact and thus target her."
Levi estimated that about 50 to 60 transgender women are currently held as inmates in Massachusetts prisons.
(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Tom Brown)