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Lawsuit: Transgender woman repeatedly assaulted in Allegheny County Jail

Ben Schmitt
| Monday, Nov. 6, 2017, 4:03 p.m.
Jules Williams, 37, is a transgender woman suing Allegheny County, alleging she was physically and sexually assaulted at the county jail.
Jules Williams, 37, is a transgender woman suing Allegheny County, alleging she was physically and sexually assaulted at the county jail.

A transgender woman claimed in a lawsuit filed Monday against Allegheny County that she suffered repeated sexual, physical and verbal assaults from male inmates while incarcerated at the county jail.

Jules Williams, 37, alleged in the lawsuit filed in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court that jail staff refused to place her with female inmates.

Williams contends that she asked for protective custody but was instead housed at the county jail with a male inmate. She said the other inmate raped her repeatedly, even as she cried out for help, for four consecutive days.

“In my view this is a story of the callous disregard of human safety and dignity,” her attorney Alec Wright told the Tribune-Review. “She has been broken by this experience and by the acquiescence and practices of this jail. These women are castaways and meaningless to them.”

An Allegheny County spokeswoman declined comment, stating the county does not discuss pending lawsuits.

In a statement, Allegheny County Jail Warden Orlando Harper said the intake process mirrors the state's.

“If the individual identifies as transgender, the health care professionals then notify leadership,” Harper said. “ Within 72 hours of admission to the facility, the individual appears before a transgender committee which makes a recommendation on housing after interviewing the individual. Their recommendation on housing is made to the warden.”

Wright countered that none of those procedures occurred in Williams' case.

“Here, the jail's practice is something much different than its policy,” he said. “Its practice is to house transgender women exclusively with male inmates. It is that practice that exposes transgender woman at the jail, like Jules, to the foreseeable risk of significant emotional and physical harm.”

Williams, of Pittsburgh's East Liberty neighborhood, began living openly as a female as a youth. Pennsylvania recognizes her as female on both her birth certificate and her state identification, Wright said. She began hormone therapy at 18 and underwent breast augmentation surgery and surgical removal of the testicles at UPMC Shadyside.

During three jail stays for nonviolent offenses in 2015, 2016 and this year, staff housed her with the jail's male population, Wright said.

The lawsuit alleges jail staff and inmates frequently harassed Williams, calling her “s/him,” and “freak show,” and forced her to shower in front of male guards and inmates.

The jail “has a policy custom or practice of intentionally housing transgender women with male inmates regardless of the female detainee's gender identity, gender expression or sex listed on her birth certificates or other official documents,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit said that practice violates the Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment.

Besides Wright, Williams is being represented by attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

“Ms. Williams has suffered trauma that few of us can imagine,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Her situation was completely mismanaged by administrators at the jail, and they must be held accountable. No one deserves to experience what she's been through.”

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, or via Twitter at @Bencschmitt.

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