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Judge says transgender woman at all-male prison can only be strip-searched by female guards

MCI-Norfolk, the focus of a lawsuit filed by a transgender inmate.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File 2017

Massachusetts prison officials must only use female guards to strip-search a transgender woman incarcerated in an all-male prison and must station a guard outside her shower to prevent male inmates from entering, a federal judge has ruled.

A lawyer for the 53-year-old inmate, identified in court papers as Jane Doe, praised the ruling by US District Judge Richard G. Stearns as an important victory that would help protect her from rampant sexual harassment at MCI-Norfolk, where she is serving a four-year sentence for a nonviolent drug offense. The inmate has taken female hormones for 40 years.

“It is a huge step forward in terms of recognizing the brutality that transgender people, like Ms. Doe, face when improperly housed by the Department of Correction,” said Jennifer L. Levi, director of the Transgender Rights Project at GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defender. “And, to my knowledge, it is the first decision in which a court has ordered a transgender woman to be strip-searched by female corrections officers or to be ensured privacy, including in access to showers.”

Correction officials declined to comment, saying the matter is under review.


In his ruling Monday, Stearns said he was still weighing the broader legal claims the transgender inmate is making in a lawsuit she filed in November, in which she seeks to force prison officials to transfer her to the state women’s prison, MCI-Framingham.

The woman says that, when she showers at MCI-Norfolk, male prisoners can easily enter the shower room or watch her from an upper tier, where they taunt her with crude sexual remarks.

She also says that when she was strip-searched at MCI-Norfolk, male guards forced her to stand, cuffed and naked, for 30 minutes in front of the open door to her cell, exposing her body to at least a dozen male prisoners who gawked at her and mocked her breasts.


She says that prison officials, by refusing to house her with women inmates, are discriminating against her because she is transgender, in violation of her constitutional right to equal protection.

Prison officials say they have already made reasonable accommodations for her at MCI-Norfolk and are concerned she would disrupt the prison climate if she were housed with female inmates.

At a hearing last week, Richard C. McFarland, a lawyer for the Massachusetts Department of Correction, told Stearns the department has provided the inmate with hormone therapy, mental health counseling, a mammogram, a single cell, facial hair removal products, and a separate shower time at MCI-Norfolk.

Stearns, however, ruled that a separate correctional officer must be made available “to ensure that male inmates do not enter the shower area during the period of time in which Jane Doe is showering.”

He also ordered that the department should use female guards to strip-search the inmate, “whenever feasible,” given the staffing concerns and the guards’ collective bargaining agreement.

Stearns rejected the inmate’s request to require transgender sensitivity training for prison guards, saying it exceeds his authority and would be “unduly burdensome” on the department.

Michael Levenson can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.