Colorado could become a national model for housing transgender women in prison

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Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Outside the Women’s Correctional Facility on Havana Street on Friday, July 5, 2019, in Denver.

Colorado will pioneer a new approach to housing transgender women in prison that experts say could become a model for other states. The move is part of a legal settlement in a case brought by 400 trans women who are or have been in the state’s prisons.

Under the agreement, the state will create two designated units for transgender women – one in the Sterling Correctional Facility, which houses men, and the other in the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. It’s the first time Colorado has designated specific, voluntary housing options for transgender women.

In addition to the new housing units, the state has also agreed to offer specialized health care for these inmates and take other steps to address concerns by the plaintiffs. A state judge signed the consent decree late last month, paving the way for the changes.

Traditionally, people have been housed in prisons based on their sex assigned at birth, which means many transgender women live in men’s prisons. That arrangement creates a living situation that many of the plaintiffs said makes them among the most vulnerable in the prison system.

Plaintiff Taliyah Murphy, who was released from prison in 2020 after spending more than a decade in men’s prisons, said as a trans woman she was mistreated by corrections officers and other inmates.

“Just the misgendering, the strip searches from male staff,” said Murphy. “And then just getting the necessary medical care.”

Courtesy of Rio Davis
Taliyah Murphy in August 2023 with her dog Bailey.

Scott Medlock, one of the lead attorneys on the case, said it’s not uncommon for transwomen in prison to suffer extreme violence without proper recourse.

“Our clients have been sex trafficked, raped, raped repeatedly, told they needed to perform sex on gang members, or they would be assaulted,” said Medlock, of the Denver firm Greisen Medlock. “They're routinely sexually harassed in pretty disgusting ways. They describe being in the shower and having male inmates come and leer at them, or catcall them while they're trying to change.”

Colorado’s housing plan creates a pathway for transwomen to eventually live in a women's facility if they choose. In many cases, the women initially will be placed in the special unit at the men’s facility before they are transferred to the unit in the women’s facility, and eventually that prison’s general population. Some of the women may also be placed directly into the women’s prison.

An oversight committee of prison experts and medical and mental health experts will weigh a list of factors when determining where the women will be placed, including past criminal history and risk profile. In addition, the trans women placed in the new men’s unit must have identified as a transgender woman for at least the preceding six months. For placement in the women’s unit, the women have to have been on hormone replacement therapy for at least six months.

Medlock says he hasn't heard a lot of public opposition to the plan, but he acknowledges some people think it's too radical an idea -- even potentially dangerous -- to house transgender women -- in a women's prison. He said to counter those concerns, there will be training and counseling for inmates and prison staff.  

“The system will help out not only the transgender women in custody but also the cisgender women who were already in the women's prisons and the staff so that everybody can see that the sky won't fall,” said Medlock. 

Medlock said some trans women have already been successfully integrated into the women’s facility as the result of individual lawsuits or for other reasons.

By comparison, California allows individuals to identify their gender preference when they enter prison and individuals are permitted to live in a prison based on their identity and preference. About 19 states give some form of consideration to gender preference in making housing decisions. There are also states that house people strictly based on their sex assigned at birth. The difference in Colorado’s plan, experts say, is that it will be more structured.

Medlock said he hopes the plan can help resolve an issue that has confounded prison systems across the country for years. 

“Because corrections is very binary. You're either a man or a woman, and they sort which prison you go to based on that,” said Medlock. “So when you throw them any sort of a curve ball for anybody who's in between somewhere, they have no idea what to do with it.”

Prison experts, like Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative, an advocacy group, agree Colorado’s plan could offer some guidance to states grappling with the question of how to house transgender women.

“I would assume that this is going to set some precedent that other states can follow, but you have to wait until it's fully implemented to see,” Bertram said. 

Another key part of the settlement requires the Colorado Department of Corrections to provide transition-related medical and mental health care for transgender women by what it terms “a qualified transgender health care provider.” It also allows for gender-affirming surgery if the provider deems it medically necessary. 

Under the agreement, strip searches of trans women will be conducted by female corrections officers who volunteer to perform these searches.

It also awards about $2.1 million to the plaintiffs, which will be divided based on the level of harm each individual suffered. 

Murphy said she’s hopeful the changes will make prison life for trans women still in the system a little more bearable. 

“I think it’s going to bring them a peace of mind so that they can focus on their rehabilitation rather than having to try and fight for their basic rights,” said Murphy.