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Trans Woman Jailed and Harassed Because She Didn’t Pay A $15 Seatbelt Fine, Lawsuit Says

Sierra Castle alleges she faced discrimination and harassment after being placed in a men’s holding cell in the Cobb County, Georgia, jail.

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On March 28, 2018, Sierra Castle called the police. She wanted to report to the Cobb County Police Department in Georgia that her car had been damaged a week earlier. When she met an officer in the parking lot where the damage had taken place, the officer ran her name to check for warrants and found a bench warrant because she had failed to pay a $15 seatbelt fine.

She was arrested. Castle recalls telling the arresting officer that she was transgender. But she was brought to a holding cell in the men’s area of the Cobb County Adult Detention Center before being confined in a solitary unit for over 24 hours.

Now, Sierra Castle is suing Cobb County, Sheriff Neil Warren, and Col. Janet Price over her experience at the Cobb County jail. She accuses them of violating her constitutional rights as well as causing intentional emotional distress and discriminating against her in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. According to the lawsuit, while going through the intake process, a male correction officer informed her that she would be “considered male while in jail” due to her being transgender, as he gave her a pat-down search. Soon after, she was taken to the holding cell.

COs continued to treat Castle as if she were a male detainee. When she asked to make a phone call, they would allow her to use only the male-designated phones. When she refused, she was not allowed to make a phone call at all, the complaint says. She says she was also harassed by other detainees each time she left her cell or as male detainees would peer into her cell as they were walking by. The lawsuit said Castle had to deal with “sexually-degrading, harassing, abusive and threatening comments.”

Dominique Morgan, national director of Black and Pink, which supports LGBTQ people in prison, said the organization hears stories of similar treatment from trans people all over the country.

“Either these women are having to choose to be in solitary confinement—no matter what the system calls it, administrative segregation, it’s separation from general population—or they’re being put in spaces where their body is inherently in danger,” Morgan told The Appeal.

A male correction officer informed her that she would be “considered male while in jail” due to her being transgender, as he gave her a pat-down search.

Recent lawsuits have exposed and challenged trans discrimination occurring in jails and prisons across the country. In California, Candice Crowder sued the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation this year after she says she experienced verbal and physical abuse by both prison staff and other prisoners and was isolated in solitary confinement. In Colorado, after Lindsay Saunders-Velez was sexually harassed and assaulted in a male prison, she sued the state Department of Corrections for failing to protect her from cruel and unusual punishment. The ACLU of Pennsylvania sued the state’s Department of Corrections in 2016 on behalf of Niara Burton, who was transferred to seven male prisons and endured sexual abuse from guards and fellow prisoners. Illinois finally agreed late last year to move Strawberry Hampton, a trans woman who faced abuse and harassment at a men’s prison, to resolve a years-long lawsuit. This month, Illinois also moved Janiah Monroe to a women’s prison after she filed a lawsuit.

When one sympathetic staff member in Cobb County noticed Castle’s treatment, she placed a barrier over Castle’s cell door—but that meant Castle was in complete isolation. The barrier “prevented [Castle] from being able to see anything other than the inside of the holding cell for a number of hours,” according to the lawsuit.

As Castle’s time in jail continued, she tried to get the attention of jail staff by ringing the intercom button. She tried to alert jail staff that she had medication she needed to take each morning. However, according to the lawsuit, Castle alleges she was largely ignored and was not provided medication. Later that day, Castle was released after someone paid her fine.

Most of the treatment that Castle had to endure, according to the lawsuit, is against the sheriff’s own policies and federal standards intended to end sexual abuse in prisons and jails. In 2017, Prison Policy Initiative evaluated these policies regarding trans prisoners in 21 states, including California and Georgia. According to the report, Georgia violated Prison Rape Elimination Act standards by failing to consider trans people’s views when making housing decisions as well as not receiving consent before isolating a trans person in solitary confinement.

Recent deaths at the Cobb County jail have raised questions on the treatment of people incarcerated there. In February, 31-year-old Jessie Myles died after being arrested three days earlier. In March, Bradley Emory was found unresponsive after his father called the prison multiple times to warn about Emory’s suicidal ideations.

The sheriff’s office declined to comment due to pending litigation.

For many trans people behind bars, having outside support can be a life saver, Morgan explained. He said the transphobia that many experience within the criminal legal system is also constant in society as a whole.

“The same atrocities that trans women are experiencing in our community on a daily basis, they’re navigating inside of a prison system without the ability to get up and go, or run away, or create their own self space. They’re at the will of these institutions,” Morgan said.

“Because we don’t see their womanhood as womanhood, who they are is invalidated.”