Transgender Prison Rights

Transgender inmate files lawsuit against state for gender discrimination, describes instances of harassment and assault 

A transgender woman was housed in a men’s prison by the state of Oregon and assigned to share a cell with a known sexual predator who was serving a 40-year sentence for violent sex crimes against women.

Zera Lola Zombie, an inmate held by the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC), filed a lawsuit against the state of Oregon and several individual defendants for negligence on the grounds of gender discrimination and sexual violence on Sept. 10.

Zombie alleges that she experienced frequent physical and sexual violence from her cellmate and one other inmate listed in the lawsuit, and the Oregon DOC failed to respond to her complaints or provide any of the legally mandated Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) protections or counselling.

PREA, passed by Congress in 2003, was designed to “provide for the analysis of the incidence and effects of prison rape in federal, state and local institutions and to provide information, resources, recommendations and funding to protect individuals from prison rape.” 

Despite being a transgender woman who was being held in a men’s correctional facility, Zombie says in the suit, she was not recognized by the state of Oregon as a Vulnerable Adult-In-Custody, or a person at high risk for both physical and sexual assault. She was held at the Oregon State Penitentiary and before that, the Oregon State Correctional Institution. Both are men’s prisons. According to the lawsuit, “Ms. Zombie’s gender is legally recognized as female and she is classified in ODOC’s records as female.”

Additionally, according to the 1994 Supreme Court case Farmer v. Brennan, a case involving a transgender woman, prison officials can be held accountable under the Eighth Amendment for acting with “deliberate indifference” to an inmate’s health or safety if they are aware the inmate faces “substantial risk of serious harm” and “disregards that risk” while they are incarcerated. The Eighth Amendment says, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” Dee Farmer, like Zombie, was held in a men’s prison and alleged she was beaten and assaulted. 

One of the defendants in Zombie’s case, Jamie Breyman, the head of the the Transgender and Intersex Committee within ODOC’s Office of Population Management, was specifically named as someone who refused to transfer Zombie to a women’s prison even after she reported and documented the continual abuse she endured.

In her lawsuit, Zombie states that she has withstood continual verbal, mental and psychological abuse and harassment from her fellow inmates and ODOC staff on the basis of her sex, gender and gender identity, as well as several instances of assault by other inmates, including her cellmate. 

While Zombie was being held at the Oregon State Penitentiary, she was strip-searched by a male correctional officer in an open area, in full view of other prisoners and staff, who were also male. In another instance, another correctional officer made sexually suggestive and antagonistic remarks about Zombie’s genitalia in front of other prisoners, and refused to allow her to work in the facility’s furniture store “on the basis of sex, gender and gender identity discrimination,” according to court documents. 

These are only a couple instances of the psychological abuse correctional officers are alleged to have put Zombie through while she was in their custody.

According to one of Zombie’s attorneys, John Burgess, the lawsuit is still in its preliminary stages, and depending on whether the trial goes to trial or is settled out of court, it can be upwards of two to two and a half years until the matter is resolved.

In the meantime, Zombie is being held at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, which houses women and does intake for both men and women. 

The DOC has not responded to a request for comment at this time.

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