Prison terrifies most people. For members of the LGBTQ community — particularly transgender individuals — the prospect is even more grim.

While it won’t eliminate that disparity, the recent settlement between a transgender Colorado inmate and the Colorado Department of Corrections represents a positive step in the right direction.

Last year Lindsay Saunders-Velez reported several men raped her hours after a federal judge allowed the CDOC to place her in a disciplinary pod where she had been imprisoned.

Mario Nicolais

Saunders-Velez is a transgender woman whom the state placed in a male prison based on her biological gender rather than how she identifies.

Colorado isn’t alone dealing with this problem. Across the country many state and federal facilities continue placement practices that assign individuals according to their genital anatomy or the gender they were thought to be at birth. The impact on transgender individuals can be devastating.

Every year, more than 40% of transgender inmates report being victims of sexual assault in prison.  That represents 10 times the rate reported for the general prison population.

And those numbers only include actual reported instances, not those who adhere to the code of silence prevalent in prisons. Speaking out can make transgender prisoners an even bigger target for sexual assault or attempts on their lives.

Even more appalling, transgender inmates suffer sexual assault at the hands of prison staff five times more often than other prisoners. The very people charged with ensuring their safety instead targeted them for unconscionable crimes.

Those numbers made the 21-year-old Saunders-Velez’s decision to sue even more remarkable.

While Saunders-Velez will receive a substantial monetary settlement of $170,000, it’s inarguable that sum doesn’t come close to compensating her for suffering gang-rape in prison. The real value came via the prison reforms taking place in large part because of her.

As detailed in the news release issued by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser to announce the settlement, the CDOC has already begun a new intake process that will address the housing and placement options of transgender inmates on a case-by-case basis. 

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New CDOC training programs help ensure that staff understand and abide by practices meant to protect transgender prisoners from both physical and emotional harm.

For example, staff will be prohibited from the intentional misuse of gender pronouns. Furthermore, transgender individuals will have access to hygiene and commissary items appropriate to their identified sex.

And Saunders-Velez will no longer be subject to strip searches conducted by male officers.

It would be folly to imagine these changes alone will alleviate all that ails the prison system in relation to transgender individuals. But it would also be folly to believe these changes do not represent a substantial, positive step in the right direction. 

The U.S. continues to incarcerate transgender individuals at more than twice the rate of the general populace. The statistics are even more alarming when it comes to transgender men and women of color.

While there are many societal factors contributing to those outcomes, the state has both a duty and obligation to ensure that transgender prisoners do not become targets within their facilities.

While the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 created a data source for advocates to draw on and a commission that nominally provides incentives for programs receiving federal dollars, it has failed to adequately alter a culture that tolerates such extreme violence toward one group of inmates. Obviously more must be done to address the atrocious status quo.

Against that backdrop, the decision by the CDOC and the Attorney General’s Office to not just settle with Saunders-Velez, but to commit to substantive reform is a commendable choice.

It is difficult to accept accountability for such sickening circumstances, but that is exactly what they did.

As a consequence, Saunders-Velez should be safer until she finishes her sentence in October. And, in the future, many transgender prisoners will be spared the same awful fate she suffered.

Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq

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Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq