First, sexual assault; then, confinement: Trans woman details alleged Baltimore jail abuses in lawsuit

Published 4/19/2023 9:56 a.m. EDT, Updated 4/19/2023 6:37 p.m. EDT

Chelsea Gilliam, a transgender woman who was held pre-trial at two Maryland correctional facilities for six months and placed in male dormitories, speaks at a press conference announcing a lawsuit against the department of public safety and correctional services on April 19, 2023.

Another trans woman has stepped forward to speak out about the sexual assault and confinement she says she faced while incarcerated for half a year in the state-run Baltimore jail system.

After being arrested on an assault charge, Chelsea Gilliam was booked into the Baltimore City Correctional Center while awaiting trial in December 2021. There, she was placed in an all-male dormitory despite having identified as a woman since 2003, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court over Gilliam’s alleged treatment, which her attorneys say violated the 14th Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

After three months in the male dorm, Gilliam was sexually assaulted by another detainee but the jail “took no action when Ms. Gilliam reported the assault,” according to her attorneys. The lawsuit also states that Gilliam faced harassment from staff and was denied her hormone treatment.

A woman holds her hand in front of her face as she speaks about her experiences.

In February 2022, Gilliam was moved to the Maryland Reception, Diagnostic and Classification Center, where she was kept in isolation “solely because she is transgender.”

“Officers shackled Ms. Gilliam by the hands, waist and ankles each time she left her cell, even though she never violated the facility’s rules,” the law firm said. “Ms. Gilliam suffered a great deal of anxiety and distress from these experiences.”

Gilliam’s allegations echo the stories of those who testified just weeks ago before Maryland lawmakers in a push to change the policies around how transgender people are treated in Maryland’s prisons and Baltimore jails. She said it wasn’t until her sexual assault that prison officials started to accommodate her as a transgender woman in any fashion.

At a press conference in the downtown law office of Brown, Goldstein & Levy, Gilliam spoke along with her attorney, Eve Hill, a partner at the firm. Hill asserted that the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services violated its own policies on transgender prisoners in its treatment of Gilliam, specifically provisions allowing transgender individuals to shower separately and continue hormone therapy throughout incarceration, among other issues.

“The consequences of abrupt withdrawal of hormone treatments include a high likelihood of negative outcomes like depression, suicidology, and depression, just like Ms. Gilliam experienced,” Hill said. “In Ms. Gilliam’s case, DPSCS violated its own rules for the treatment of trasngender inmates and Ms. Gilliam suffered the consequences.”

Lt. Latoya Gray, spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said that the agency could not comment on the pending lawsuit, but that it had met with advocacy groups and “tirelessly worked on the complex issues related to the transgender incarcerated population.”

Gray said the department is “committed to updating its policies as necessary based on correctional and medical professionals’ recommendations to ensure the safety of everyone in our facilities.”

Speaking through emotions ranging from anxiety to fear, Gilliam told reporters that she would not even say she was treated like an animal in the Baltimore jail system — she was treated worse than that.

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“People love and respect their animals,” Gilliam said. “I was treated like an alien from the moment I entered Baltimore City corrections, by inmates and staff. A local joke, day in and day out.”

After the press conference, Maryland’s Trans Rights Advocacy Coalition referenced its push for the legislation earlier this year, saying that the prisons could continue to pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars unless they change course.

“This is just the latest in a long series of legal battles DPSCS brought on itself because of the awful and unlawful treatment of trans, nonbinary, intersex and queer inmates,” Jamie Grace Alexander, a policy expert for the group, said in a statement. “Maryland prisons need codified, state-level guidelines to address this ongoing crisis.”