Judge Lauds Trans Women Behind Colo. Prison Housing Deal

By Daniel Ducassi | January 4, 2024, 9:18 PM EST ·

A Colorado state judge on Thursday appeared inclined to approve $2.1 million in payouts for currently and formerly incarcerated transgender women and new housing options to settle their class action against state prison officials, with a named plaintiff calling the deal a "blueprint for other states."

While Denver District Court Judge Jill D. Dorancy didn't explicitly express approval of the consent decree to resolve the dispute during a hearing Thursday, the judge thanked class members for coming forward with their stories.

"These kinds of cases can only happen with the courage of individuals who are experiencing this, when they stand up and make sure they're heard," Judge Dorancy said. "Thank you for being brave enough to do this."

The proposed settlement includes a $2.1 million pot of money that would be divided among three tiers of class members. One tier, made up of those who suffered multiple injuries of a sexual nature or multiple serious bodily injuries, would get at least $10,000. The second tier, composed of transgender women who suffered a serious bodily injury or an injury of a sexual nature, would receive at least $5,000. A final tier, composed of transgender women who suffered a non-nominal injury, would receive at least $1,000.

The mediator who helped negotiate the settlement would determine the attorney fees and costs for class counsel separately.

The terms of the settlement for the nearly 400-member class would include the creation of a voluntary housing unit in Sterling Correctional Facility for transgender women with 100 beds, an "integration unit" with 44 beds for women to ultimately move into the general population at Denver Women's Correctional Facility, as well as improved access to gender-affirming health care.

If ultimately approved, the consent decree would resolve claims in a lawsuit dating back to 2019 that alleged that transgender women in Colorado Department of Corrections custody were subjected to discrimination based on their gender identity, including denial of appropriate housing, being subjected to strip searches by male guards and being put at serious risk of sexual violence.

Taliyah Murphy, a named plaintiff in the case who said she was released from prison in 2020, appeared in court Thursday to praise the agreement.

"This resolution isn't just good for Colorado, it's good for the country because it will serve as a blueprint for other states," Murphy said.

A transgender woman called into the hearing from Sterling Correctional Facility on Thursday also endorsed the deal, saying it would help ensure women like her were safe from violence.

"Once they put us there, I will be comfortable," she said. "I will be able to interact with other people who are the same as me."

Some prisoners who called in voiced objections to the deal.

One prisoner, who said she had been sexually assaulted by two cellmates at the Sterling prison, said she felt that her "pain and suffering has been minimized," that she was essentially being told to accept $1,000 to "shut up and move on." She also expressed concerns about the placement of the voluntary housing unit at the Sterling Correctional Facility.

Class counsel Paula Greisen of Greisen Medlock LLC said her team "fought hard" to not have the unit placed in Sterling because of "severe staffing shortages," but said there were practical reasons for why state prison officials wanted it there, such as the availability of space.

At one point during the hearing, Judge Dorancy asked lawyers on both sides about the sticking power of the consent decree politically, noting that while the current administration of Democratic Colorado Gov. Jared Polis looks favorably on the changes, that may not always be the case.

Heather K. Kelly of the Colorado Attorney General's Office quipped that if Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis were to be elected in Colorado, the consent decree would still be enforceable. Kelly said future administrations wouldn't be able to opt out of the consent decree, but also noted funding for implementing the policies could get more complicated, as the Colorado Department of Corrections budget needs legislative approval each year.

Greisen told Judge Dorancy that she wanted to make sure the consent decree could not "be changed by political whims," and that if state lawmakers refuse to fund it, then "we will come back to court."

However, she was also optimistic that "once we put this in place, it will become routine, that this is a part of the Department of Corrections plan to keep people safe."

Although the Thursday hearing was supposed to bring final approval of the consent decree, lawyers for both sides told Judge Dorancy that there were problems with providing notice to all the class members, with many not returning tax forms needed to process payments.

One transgender woman calling in from a prison in Buena Vista, Colorado, said that many class members didn't receive the premarked envelopes to mail back the tax forms because the mail from the settlement administrator wasn't marked as legal mail, so prison staff took the envelopes.

Attorneys asked the judge for more time to handle the notice problems, with Judge Dorancy setting a March 8 hearing to finalize the deal.

"This is a historic and landmark settlement and consent decree," Greisen told Law360. "We are the first state to bring in systemic, comprehensive change. We have every reason to believe, based on today's hearing, it's going to be approved in full, and we're going to move forward providing protections and medical and mental healthcare that's needed, desperately needed, for these women."

Representatives for the Colorado Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.

The class of transgender women is represented by Paula Greisen and Scott Medlock of Greisen Medlock LLC, Lynly S. Egyes and Shawn Thomas Meerkamper of Transgender Law Center and Suneeta Hazra of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP.

The Colorado Department of Corrections is represented by Philip J. Weiser, Heather K. Kelly, Rebecca Johannesen, Jack D. Patten III, Christopher J.L. Diedrich and Mark C. Lockefeer of the Office of the Colorado Attorney General.

The case is Kandace Raven et al. v. Jared Polis et al., case number 2019CV34492, in the 2nd Judicial District of Colorado.

--Editing by Amy French.

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