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Trans Man Forced to Undergo Prison Genital Exams Wins $275,000 Settlement

He hopes the settlement will lead to reforms in New York prisons, where three-quarters of trans people say corrections officers have inappropriately touched or sexually assaulted them.

This photo shows a woman with red hair from behind, close up, over her right shoulder. She is clutching a fence and wearing a gray sweater. You cannot see her face.
Erik Mclean via UnSplash

This story was originally published by New York Focus.

A trans man who sued the New York prison system for allegedly forcing him to undergo illegal genital examinations will receive $275,000 after the state agreed to settle his case.

In the days after the man entered a state-run women’s prison in 2020, staff inspected his genitals four times, he alleged in a lawsuit.

The man, identified as “John Smith” in court filings to protect his privacy, attempted to ward off several of the exams. Before his incarceration, Smith worked at an lgbtq services organization where he learned that federal law prohibits jails and prisons from conducting exams solely to determine someone’s genital status, he told New York Focus and The Appeal in 2022. But prison staff placed him in an isolation cell for eight days until he acquiesced. A doctor then placed him in stirrups and penetrated him with a cotton swab.

“No New Yorker should endure what Mr. Smith experienced,” said Erin Beth Harrist, director of the LGBTQ+ Unit at the Legal Aid Society. “But his story is tragically emblematic of the plights facing many incarcerated transgender people throughout the state.”

Smith’s ordeal started in 2019, at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex, where corrections officers first tried to subject him to a genital exam. He refused, and a doctor respected his objection — but authorities still placed him in a women’s facility.

The State Commission of Correction, which is responsible for overseeing New York’s prisons and jails, has published no regulations on the incarceration of trans people. As a result, the facilities are left to their own devices when assigning them housing—and most default to using people’s sex assigned at birth. A New York City government task force found in 2022 that city jails housed gender nonconforming people in units inconsistent with their gender identity in a “vast majority” of cases.

The practice lands trans people in situations where they report routine physical and sexual violence at the hands of staff and other incarcerated people. A 2021 survey of 44 gender nonconforming people incarcerated in New York state prisons found that three-quarters had experienced some form of sexual assault or inappropriate touching by corrections officers. Over a quarter reported being forced by an officer to perform oral sex.

Victims have won some local change. In recent years, two trans women who experienced physical abuse and sexual harassment in men’s units in Broome and Steuben county jails sued the facilities. They won settlements that compelled sheriffs in those counties to ensure access to gender-affirming health care and assign housing consistent with incarcerated people’s gender identities.

Advocates have seized on that progress. The New York Civil Liberties Union sent letters to county sheriffs across the state informing them of the settlements and suggesting policy reforms. At least 15 have changed their policies to roughly match Broome or Steuben’s, according to the NYCLU.

Still, statewide movement on the issue has remained elusive. Four years in a row, Senator Julia Salazar and Assemblymember Nily Rozic have introduced legislation that would order jails and prisons to house incarcerated people in alignment with their gender identities, with limited exceptions. The bill has never made it out of committee.

“It’s really remarkable the progress that has been made locally,” said Allie Bohm, senior policy counsel for the NYCLU. “But it is really frustrating that it’s not moving faster. People are being harmed every single day.”

After three months on Rikers, Smith was transferred to Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum security women’s prison in the Hudson Valley. Unlike at Rikers, state prison staff ignored Smith’s protests. After a standard strip search, then a strip frisk—during which a female officer closely inspected his genitals—officials sent him to the prison medical ward, where a doctor lifted his waistband to view his private parts.

That wasn’t enough for the facility. Staff brought Smith back into the exam room and told him that the prison superintendent had ordered an additional exam, according to the lawsuit. A nurse attempted to pull his pants down without asking, and Smith refused further examination. Officers then sent him to an isolation cell, where they kept him between 23 and 24 hours a day. Smith described the cell as “a sauna in the middle of summertime.”

After eight days, Smith deliriously consented to the inspection. A doctor told him it’d be purely visual. The cotton swab made him jump off the exam table.

The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, which runs the state prison system, declined to comment on the settlement. A spokesperson said that the department is “proud to be at the forefront of work to advance practices that support transgender and gender diverse incarcerated people and promote safety.” He pointed to the fact that gender nonconforming people are allowed to request transfer to a facility that aligns with their identity.

Smith’s experience resurfaced post-traumatic stress from abuse he experienced as a child, he said, making it difficult to eat, sleep, and leave his room. He sued the department in August 2022, with representation from the Legal Aid Society and the law firm Paul Hastings LLP, and the parties filed the settlement Friday. Though it doesn’t require policy changes, Smith hopes that it will deter prison officials from mistreating other trans people in their custody.

“While this settlement will never completely right what I suffered while incarcerated, it will allow me to move forward with my life,” Smith said in a statement. “I’m hopeful that it also puts doccs on notice that this behavior will never be tolerated.”