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Trans Woman Wins Landmark Settlement in Suit Over Mistreatment in Jail

Trans Woman Wins Landmark Settlement in Suit Over Mistreatment in Jail

Makyyla Holland
Screen shot courtesy New York Civil Liberties Union

Makyyla Holland's lawsuit said she was housed with men, beaten, and denied medication while jailed in Broome County, N.Y.

A Black transgender woman who sued officials in Broome County, N.Y., over discrimination, violence, and denial of medical care while incarcerated has won a landmark settlement.

Makyyla Holland sued Broome County, its sheriff, and officials at the Broome County Jail in 2022. Her suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York, alleged that during the six weeks she spent in county custody in 2021, the Broome County sheriff’s office and its corrections officers discriminated against her on the basis of her sex, transgender status, and disability; housed her with men; beat her; subjected her to illegal strip searches; and denied her access to prescribed medications, including antidepressants and hormone treatments, triggering severe withdrawal symptoms.

This all violated Ms. Holland’s rights under the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, the Americans With Disabilities Act, and numerous other federal and state laws, according to her suit, in which she was represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, and pro bono lawyers from the firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton, and Garrison.

Under the settlement, announced Thursday, Broome County has agreed to a policy that affirms the rights of transgender people with respect to housing placement, access to medical care, searches, and freedom from harassment and discrimination, according to a press release from the NYCLU. Holland will also receive $160,000.

Specifically, Broome County will house people consistent with their gender identity or within the unit with the sex designation the person in custody believes is safest for them, with limited exceptions; conduct searches consistent with the person in custody’s own view of what gender officer would be safest to perform the search, with limited exceptions; ensure that staff at the jail respect a person’s gender identity in all other contexts, including name and pronoun use; ensure access to clothing and toiletry items consistent with a person’s gender identity and facilitate access to gender-affirming items such as binders, wigs, and gaffs; and ensure access to medical care free from discrimination on the basis of sex, gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation, including access to medical care for treatment of gender dysphoria. The policy can serve as a model for other counties as well as states.

“That definitely put my mind at ease, knowing that a lot of counties can pick up this policy that came out of my lawsuit,” Holland, a 25-year-old hairstylist and makeup artist, said in a video released by the NYCLU. She noted the hostility faced by trans people, saying, “I see a lot of hatred toward me being trans and living out my truth.”


“When I first got into the Broome County Jail, I just felt I was being humiliated,” she said. “I was a laughingstock there. … I’m a woman, and I was being housed with grown men.”

“When the jail denied me my medication, it was very inhumane,” she continued. “I did not feel like my life mattered. … I just felt like I was alone in the jail, and I just felt very unsafe.”

“With this policy, I want my trans siblings to know that we have rights,” she said. “You should feel safe in any housing situation you are in. No one should take your medication. You should be able to live out your truth and stay true to who you are.”

“The mistreatment and abuse of transgender women in jails and prisons is widespread across New York State. Bobby Hodgson, Director of LGBTQ Rights Litigation at the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in the press release. The settlement “establishes a new policy standard to prevent future incidents of abuse and discrimination in our state and around the country,” he noted. “Thanks to Ms. Holland’s courage and persistence, jails and prisons are on notice that they have an obligation to treat transgender people with dignity. In the face of nationwide attacks targeting transgender communities, we will continue fighting for the safety, health, and well-being of transgender people across New York State.”

“No one should be subjected to violence, illegally strip searched, denied necessary medical care, or forced into unsafe housing conditions while in jail, and we are pleased that Broome County has agreed to implement policies that will better protect transgender people’s safety while in custody,” added Shayna Medley, senior litigation staff attorney at the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund. “At a time when trans people are increasingly under attack across the country, it is even more important for states and local governments to affirmatively protect trans people in custody. From this policy in Broome County to similar policies we’ve achieved in other settlements in recent years, TLDEF remains committed to fighting for the rights of transgender people interacting with the carceral system.”

Abuse and harassment of trans, gender-nonconforming, intersex, and nonbinary people in jails and prisons is widespread and is even worse for people of color, but momentum is growing for reform, NYCLU officials said. In August 2020, the NYCLU and TLDEF reached a similar settlement with Steuben County, N.Y., that was negotiated with the involvement of the New York State Sheriffs’ Association and has served as a model for jails across New York State and the country. In 2022, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois negotiated a settlement with the Bureau of Prisons securing housing in a women’s facility and transgender health care for trans woman Cristina Nichole Iglesias. And this year, Gender Justice secured a settlement that included access to trans health care and being moved to a women’s prison for a trans woman who sued the Minnesota Department of Corrections over her treatment while in prison.

“While this settlement stems from an incident and subsequent lawsuit that occurred before I was elected sheriff, I’m pleased we were able to amicably reach a resolution that establishes clear LGBTI guidelines, which were previously nonexistent, to address the rights of LGBTI inmates while maintaining the safety and security of individuals both housed and working at the Broome County Correctional Facility,” said a statement from Broome County Sheriff Fred Akshar. “It’s another important step forward in pragmatically and safely modernizing policies to meet the needs of those we serve and protect as we work to build a better, safer community for everyone in Broome County.”

However, when he was a state senator, Akshar opposed the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, which passed in 2019 and added gender identity and expression to New York’s nondiscrimination and hate-crimes laws, Gay City News notes. He even brought up the bathroom predator myth, saying the law would “open the door to child predators.”

Now the NYCLU is calling on state legislators to add further protections by passing the Gender Identity Respect, Dignity, and Safety Act, which would required that prisons and jails provide housing placements consistent with one’s gender identity, unless the person request otherwise. It would hold jail and prison staff accountable for respecting a person’s gender identity in all contexts, including name and pronoun use, and require access to clothing, grooming, and toiletry items.

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