Class Action Lawsuit Against Colorado Department Of Corrections Alleges The Systemic Abuse Of Transgender Women Prisoners

Courtesy Lindsay Saunders-Velez via AP
This 2018 photo provided by inmate Lindsay Saunders-Velez shows her, at left, with mentor Meghan Baker at the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility in Cañon City, Colo.

Published 11/22 5:03 p.m. | Updated 11/24 9:26 a.m.

Attorneys have filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of at least 170 transgender women who are in Colorado prisons.

In the lawsuit filed by the Transgender Law Center and the King & Greisen firm, inmates say the Colorado Department of Corrections needs to make drastic improvements in how it houses and treats prisoners who identify as transgender.

The suit follows a July settlement between transgender inmate Lindsay Saunders-Velez and the Colorado Attorney General’s office. Saunders-Velez sued the Department of Corrections after alleging she was raped at a men’s prison in Cañon City. She was awarded $170,000 and has since been released from prison.

The class action suit claims that the CDOC’s policies, including housing trans women in male prisons, subjects prisoners to conditions not tolerable in society.

“They are not being respected and they are being subjected to sexual harassment and in many instances rape,” said lead attorney Paula Greisen, who was also Saunders-Velez’s attorney. “Housing these inmates with men invites sexual predators to victimize the women and that is in fact what is happening."

In a release announcing the lawsuit, Transgender Law Center senior staff attorney Shawn Meerkamper said “there are around 170 transgender women who Colorado incarcerates with men.”

"Thousands of transgender women are locked up in men’s prisons around the country, and as a result, they are often subjected to horrifying abuse," Meerkamper's statement said.

Greisen said the department’s policies violate the Colorado constitution and the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act. The lawsuit also calls on the department to provide appropriate medical and mental health care for the inmates.

The Saunders-Velez settlement did not require the Department of Corrections to make any policy changes. While Greisen acknowledges the CDOC has made some strides, such as transferring three trans women to a female facility in Denver, she said other transgender women continue to have their rights violated.

“We want the state of Colorado to protect these women from harm,” Greisen said.

The Colorado Department of Corrections said it couldn't comment specifically on the lawsuit. Their statement went on to say that the state has spent several years developing policies that ensure the fair treatment of transgender offenders.

“The corrections environment presents unique challenges, but we work every day to find the best possible balance between the desire to protect the dignity of all offenders, with the need to ensure their safety,” the department wrote.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include a statement from the Colorado Department of Corrections.