Colorado reached a $170,000 settlement with a transgender woman who sued the state and alleged being raped, assaulted and harassed while held in a men's prison, state officials said Wednesday.
Officials said the agreement does not force broad policy changes for transgender inmates in Colorado's prisons, but the woman's attorney described it as a sign of shifting attitudes in state government toward the issue. Paula Greisen said the lawsuit filed by Lindsay Saunders-Velez initiated conversations with the Department of Corrections about changes that could improve conditions for transgender women.
"We still have a long ways to go, but you have to first start by understanding and respecting the dignity of women," Greisen said. "The settlement is a very important step that the state of Colorado has taken to acknowledge this community."
Attorney General Phil Weiser and Department of Corrections Executive Director Dean Williams defended the state's policies for transgender inmates in written statements. They said corrections officials review each inmate on a "case-by-case basis" to determine which prison they should be kept at, with regular input from medical and mental health providers.
The agencies also highlighted inmates' ability to purchase items that match their gender identity, including women's undergarments, and ongoing training for prison staff on working with transgender offenders.
"The corrections environment presents unique challenges and issues that are not present in ordinary community settings, but we strive to achieve the best possible balance between the desire to protect the dignity of all offenders, with the need to ensure their safety," Williams said.
Saunders-Velez, a 21-year-old who entered the prison system in 2017 for violating her plea deal in a menacing case, called Colorado's prisons "discriminatory and dangerous" in the lawsuit she filed. The 2018 lawsuit said male inmates frequently pulled down a privacy screen shielding Saunders-Velez from view when she used the bathroom in her cell, threatened her and assaulted her.
The suit also said prison staff denied her requests to be called Lindsay and be identified with female pronouns. The complaint also accused staff of refusing her requests to only be searched by female guards and be allowed to purchase women's underwear and facial hair remover.
After the suit was filed, a federal judge denied Saunders-Velez's attorneys request for an order preventing prison staff from housing her in a disciplinary unit along with men who had threatened her in the past. Saunders-Velez reported being raped hours later by a male inmate.
The Associated Press does not typically identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault unless they grant permission, as Saunders-Velez has done.
About 3,200 inmates in America's state and federal prisons identified as transgender in 2012, according to the latest available data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. About 40% of transgender inmates reported being a victim of abusive sexual contact by another inmate or a staff member, compared with an estimated 4% of all state and federal prisoners.
Lawrence Pacheco, a spokesman for Weiser, said the state did not admit any liability in the settlement. The agreement was initially approved Tuesday by the State Claims Board.
The funds will be held until Saunders-Velez completes her sentence. State records indicate she is scheduled to be released this fall.