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Trans Woman's Suit Alleges Horrific Abuse at Pennsylvania Jail

Prisoner in cell

The woman says that after a male prisoner tried to assault her, guards beat and pepper-sprayed her, then transferred her to a filthy cell.

A Black transgender woman is suing officials in Dauphin County, Pa., saying she was groped by another inmate while held in the county jail and then attacked by guards who pepper-sprayed her.

The woman, identified only as Ms. Henderson, filed her suit in November in U.S. District Court in Pennsylvania. She was the subject of a lengthy feature published this week in The Patriot-News of Harrisburg.

Henderson was held at the Dauphin County Prison for 10 days in October 2020. She was arrested by police who responded to a report of a disturbance at the Middletown apartment building where she lived with her fiance.

Police said she was belligerent when they arrived, "but she said the encounter only turned ugly when officers saw her driver's license that listed her as a male," The Patriot-News reports. One told her, "Take that [expletive] back to North Carolina," she said. She had moved to Pennsylvania from North Carolina a few years earlier, and under Pennsylvania law, she wasn't allowed to get a license identifying her as female.

She was arrested and charged with aggravated assault, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct. The first two charges were later dropped, and she pleaded guilty a third-degree misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge.

When she was taken to the county jail, she asked not to be housed in an all-male area. Now 27, she had lived as a female since age 12, and had been on hormone therapy for almost a decade. She "has the physical appearance of an attractive, young petite woman," her lawsuit states. But she was "assigned to a bunk bed in a hallway, on an open block with about 100 men," The Patriot-News reports.

She avoided using the bathroom for two or three days. Then, when she could wait no longer, she used a toilet that was shielded only by a curtain. A male inmate reached through the curtain and attempted to grab her buttocks. She ran back to her bunk while other inmates called for guards to respond to the attempted assault.

But the guards' response was brutal, according to Henderson. She was sobbing but trying to calm herself when one guard said, "Look, faggot, do not disrupt my pod. Shut your fucking mouth or I'll spray you," as quoted in her suit. Then another guard sprayed her with Mace, and others attacked her, dragging her to the ground, slamming her head into the concrete floor, and pulling her hair. They used antigay slurs and told her she deserved the attack, her suit states.

She was then placed in a "suicide cell" that had a toilet covered with another inmate's feces, so she had to relieve herself in the sink. She had no drinking cup and no utensils to eat with, nor any mat or sheets to sleep on until a guard brought in the Mace-soaked sheets from her previous bunk. She also said jail staff did not provide her hormone medications or the other meds she takes for anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

She was released a few days later when her fiance posted bail. She went to a hospital, where she was diagnosed with a concussion.

Her suit alleges the prison and its staff violated the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by infringing on her right to bodily privacy; the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal protection and due process of law, by failing to protect her, failing to provide medical care, and using excessive force; and the Americans With Disabilities Act. She also alleges battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The suit names county government and several guards as defendants, and Henderson seeks a jury trial and compensatory and punitive damages. Depositions are being taken now, and there will be a mediation hearing soon.

"We're in 2022. We have many different kinds of community members, and they have a constitutional, legal obligation to care for people's safety," Leticia Chavez-Freed, Henderson's attorney, told The Patriot-News. "They're taking a very vulnerable community member and just putting her in a bunk bed where anything can happen. This is a victim of sexual assault, and their response is to beat her, Mace her.

"It is our hope the next Miss Henderson is going to have proper housing, proper clothing, a proper bathroom for her, use the proper pronouns for her ... that she's going to be considered a human being who makes it to the judge."

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