DANVILLE — A transgender inmate at the Danville Correctional Center is suing the Illinois Department of Corrections to be transferred to a women's prison, after allegedly suffering years of abuse from prisoners and staff.
The 24-page complaint was filed Tuesday in federal court in the Southern District of Illinois by lawyers with the MacArthur Justice Center and Uptown People's Law Center on behalf of the inmate, called "Tay Tay" to protect her identity.
"She's in immediate danger," said Vanessa del Valle, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center.
She added that attorneys are seeking emergency relief so Tay Tay can be transferred to a women's facility "where she can be kept safe from the constant sexual abuse she has been subjected to at the hands of other prisoners and sexual harassment from prisoners and the IDOC staff."
"Women like Tay Tay should not have to file lawsuits to force IDOC to protect them from rape and harassment," added Sheila Bedi, also of the MacArthur Justice Center. "But until IDOC completely overhauls the way it cares for people in its custody, women like Tay Tay will live in constant danger, and the lawsuits will keep coming."
IDOC spokeswoman Lindsay Hess said the department couldn't comment on pending litigation.
Since being incarcerated in 2002 for armed robbery, Tay Tay has been housed at four facilities, including Shawnee, Dixon and Graham. She was transferred to the Danville medium/maximum security prison on March 22.
Alleged abuse detailed
The suit claims that for more than 15 years, Tay Tay has consistently raised concern about her physical safety, but that corrections employees have not only ignored direct requests for help, but also "repeatedly targeted her with vulgar slurs ... and actively stood by while she was being physically and sexually assaulted by others."
Among the allegations:
— She's continuously sexually harassed by corrections officers and other prisoners because of her gender identity.
— Prisoners are constantly exposing themselves to her and extorting, groping and touching her inappropriately.
— She has suffered numerous sexual assaults because of her gender identity, including early in the morning of June 29, 2018, when she was raped by a cellmate at the Shawnee prison and an officer conducting a cell check did nothing to protect her.
— At Dixon, an officer made "many" derogatory comments toward her and sometimes refused to give her a food tray.
— Soon after moving to Graham, she was bullied and harassed by other prisoners, and one tried to force her to have sex with him.
— Soon after moving to Danville, a prisoner pushed her toward the bathroom and tried to sexually assault her. She was placed with a cellmate who is transphobic and subjected her to derogatory statements.
The suit also claims that the plaintiff's attempts to file grievances have largely been disregarded and never investigated by internal affairs, and that her requests to be transferred to the Logan Correctional Center for women have been denied.
The suit says as a result of the continuing abuse, she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression and has been placed on suicide watch.
"IDOC must ensure all its prisoners are safe, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation," said Alan Mills of Uptown People's Law Center. "Tay Tay must not be held in a prison that doesn't match her gender."
According to the suit, she began identifying as a female "in places where she felt comfortable" about 27 years ago and decided to openly identify as female about 10 years ago.
While she repeatedly informed IDOC staff of that, the suit claims it took eight years before a mental health professional recognized her as a transgender woman and three more years before she was given hormone therapy. However, the treatments were stopped after two years when she raised concerns about potential health risks — and alleged harassment and abuse by other prisoners.
The suit said others harassed her because she was forced to take hormones in view of them, and the hormones "caused her features to feminize and decreased her strength, making her a target for sexual assaults by other prisoners."
She wants to continue the therapy in prison; she "wants to be able to transition in an environment where she feels safe and protected," the suit said.
Two others also suing
This is the third civil rights suit brought by the two organizations on behalf of a transgender prisoner in Illinois, said del Valle, also a clinical assistant professor at Northwestern's Pritzker School of Law in Chicago.
The other two involve Strawberry Hampton, 28, and Janiah Monroe, 29, both of whom allegedly suffered the same physical abuse and harassment by prisoners and staff.
In December, Hampton was moved from Dixon to Logan after an emergency hearing at which a federal judge in the Southern District suggested that corrections officials re-evaluate her request for transfer, which had been denied. U.S. District Judge Nancy Rosenstengel also ordered the department to develop training on transgender issues for all staff.
Monroe's lawsuit was filed Feb. 26.
"Instead of fighting the lawsuit, the department agreed to transfer her," del Valle said, adding she was transferred to Logan on April 1.
"We hope (Hampton's) case set a precedent for other transgender inmates who have suffered mistreatment in the prison system — not just in Illinois, but nationwide," del Valle said, adding that attorneys have also filed policy and procedure claims against the department to address "systemic failures that lead to the harassment and abuse trans women face on a daily basis in men's prisons."