Transgender woman suing Allegheny County Jail opens up about struggles, acceptance |
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Ben Schmitt
Jules Williams, a 37 year-old transgender woman from Pittsburgh, has claimed in a lawsuit filed against Allegheny County that she suffered repeated sexual, physical and verbal assaults from male inmates while incarcerated at the county jail. She is shown here at the The Law Offices of Timothy P. O'Brien, Wednesday, November, 29, 2017.

As a child, Jules Williams prayed nightly for a transformation.

“I remember standing on the bed in my room where I could see out the window and I would wish upon a star,” Williams said. “And I wished that when I woke up that I was no longer a boy.”

Born a boy, Williams, now 37, realized by age 5 that feminine traits could not be ignored.

“I would sneak around and dress up in girls’ clothes,” Williams said during an interview with the Trib in November. “I liked Barbies and pretty colors. I couldn’t just suppress who I was. I didn’t just get up one day and say, ‘Hey, why don’t I try this because someday it is going to be the in thing.’ ”

Williams began identifying as female during her teen years growing up in Pittsburgh’s Highland Park neighborhood. She now possesses a Pennsylvania ID card that identifies her as female.

She began hormone therapy at age 18 and had surgery in 2008 for breast augmentation and to remove her testicles at UPMC Shadyside.

But none of that mattered when staff at the Allegheny County Jail booked her after three separate arrests, she said. In a federal lawsuit, Williams alleges jail staff refused to house her with other women. After an October 2015 arrest for a misdemeanor theft charge, she said she begged for protective custody to be separated from men.

Instead, she said in the lawsuit, they placed her in a cell with a male inmate who repeatedly raped her.

When she arrived at the cell, she stood outside the door. The man inside glared at her and rubbed his hands together, she said.

“That next couple days it was just like …” Williams said, pausing, “darkness.”

While in custody, she appeared Oct. 13, 2015, before a judge via teleconference with an attorney and reported the rape. At that time, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Thomas Flaherty referred to her as a woman, ordering “the jail administration to make sure that Miss Williams is kept in protective custody in the strictest sense. She is not to have any interaction with any inmate during the remainder of her time in the Allegheny County Jail,” according to a court transcript obtained by the Trib.

In July 2016, she was arrested again after a dispute with her boyfriend, and they were both taken to the county jail. They were processed together.

Again, she said she was housed with men and subjected to extreme humiliation. Jail staff placed her in a “suicide cell” that contains a metal bed and toilet and has a glass front so the inmate can always be seen, according to the lawsuit.

Williams alleged she was stripped naked and left in the cell for male inmates and guards to see for 30 minutes. She said staff shouted, “Come see the freak show” and “See the tranny on display.”

After five days, she was moved into a single cell but still in male population. She spent 19 days in that cell and refused to shower out of fear of being assaulted, the lawsuit said.

When Pittsburgh attorney Alec Wright met Williams in June, she was locked up again on drug and burglary charges that would later be dismissed.

“When I saw her, I had no doubt she was literally a woman locked up with men,” Wright said. “Her physical appearance, her walk, her mannerisms, her hair, her facial structure told me she was a woman.”

He teamed up with the American Civil Liberties Union and sued Allegheny County; the jail’s warden, Orlando Harper; deputy warden Simon Wainwright; and other employees there in November.

“In society, literally how can you house a woman with men?” Wright said. “Let alone, in one instance, in solitary confinement with a man.”

The beginning

Long before she said the county jail failed to protect her, Williams encountered hardship in nearly every phase of her life. Her middle school didn’t know what to do with her. She had trouble holding a job, and she battled depression and drug abuse.

Her first day of sixth grade at the former Reizenstein Middle School in Pittsburgh began with humiliation during gym class. She wore boy’s clothes but had straightened her hair.

“I walked in there and the gym teacher looked at me and said, ‘What are you doing here? You don’t belong here. This gym class is for guys. The girls are across the hall,’ ” Williams recalled. “Everybody that knew me from elementary school all burst out laughing. I ran out of the gym and cried.”

She used that incident as motivation and became more brazen. She painted her nails, wore jewelry and identified to some as a girl. Soon, the teachers and administrations didn’t know how to handle her.

She had few friends at school.

“Most of the kids picked on me and called me names,” she said. “The more feminine I dressed, the more they made fun of me.”

At one point, the principal and guidance counselor told her not to come to school looking like a girl.

They called her mother.

“My mother was in denial at first,” said Williams, who has three sisters. “She didn’t know how to deal with it.”

By the time Williams turned 14, the situation boiled over with her mother and she ran away from home. She spent about a week in an abandoned car before returning.

By the summer, she was back on the streets where she met an older transgender woman prostitute who took her in.

She cooked for Williams and gave her a bedroom. She called Williams’ mother and set up a meeting before high school began.

“My mother started to accept me, and I started to understand how hard it was for her,” Williams said. “I moved back in and started high school.”

Struggling to fit in

Williams enrolled at Pittsburgh CAPA High School and felt accepted for the first time in her life. The students there seemed to be more open to her. By then, she told people to refer to her as “she” not “he.”

She joined the drama department.

“I went to school totally transitioned,” Williams said. “I was able to be myself without being teased or picked on. I felt at home.”

The following year, she said, she struggled to keep up academically and transferred to Peabody High School closer to home.

She learned about the Persad Center, a licensed counseling center serving the LGBTQ community in Pittsburgh. Counselors there reassured her: “You’re OK. You’re not alone.”

“It was my first time hearing that,” Williams said. “I didn’t believe them at first. There were people here who accepted me.”

By age 18, she started taking hormone replacement injections, and then testosterone blockers.

She dropped out of high school but eventually earned a GED.

On the streets

Into her 20s, Williams dabbled in prostitution on the Pittsburgh streets.

She had various boyfriends and, at times, felt her life stabilizing. She moved in and out of her mother’s home.

She eventually quit the streets and worked with children at a subsidized child care program for low-income parents.

“For a long time, I worked with the kids and it was so much fun,” she said. “They loved me, and I was good at it.”

Court records show she has been arrested for prostitution and drug possession and has a record dating to 2001, but many of those charges have been dismissed.

After her 2015 arrest and the rape allegation, she said she lost her job and spiraled into drug addiction, mainly struggling with heroin and “speed.” She lost weight, her family became fearful of her and she was back on the streets, jumping from house to house, sometimes living with men.

She cleaned up after meeting Wright in jail over the summer, and her subsequent release prompted her to pursue a lawsuit against the county. During her most recent time in jail, she said an inmate threw a basketball that struck her in the face and a guard called her a “fairy” and threw a roll of toilet paper at her.

On July 26, a mental health specialist at the jail evaluated Williams and requested in writing that she be transferred to female general population housing. That never occurred, Wright said.

“Despite this transfer request, the Allegheny County Jail moved Ms. Williams to a cell in male general population housing on or about July 28, 2017,” the lawsuit said.

County officials have said they will not discuss pending lawsuits. However, Harper, the jail’s warden, released a statement that said the county’s intake process for transgender inmates mirrors the state’s.

“If the individual identifies as transgender, the health care professionals then notify leadership,” Harper said. “Within 72 hours of admission to the facility, the individual appears before a transgender committee, which makes a recommendation on housing after interviewing the individual. Their recommendation on housing is made to the warden.”

Wright said he plans to prove through litigation that none of those procedures occurred in Williams’ case.

‘A long way to go’

Now clean and undergoing counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from the jail incidents, Williams is focused on how her lawsuit could help other transgender women in jail.

“I don’t want anyone else to go through what I have,” she said. “Here I am speaking out and sharing something that’s a part of me.”

Being accepted transgender is difficult enough outside of jail, she said.

“Depression is something that goes along with being transgender; there aren’t many of us who don’t struggle from it,” she said.

A large portion of Persad’s clients are transgender, said Bob McGrogan, development director. Persad, which offers mental health and substance abuse counseling to the LGBTQ community, was founded in 1972. It is located in Lawrenceville.

“The community is marginalized in many ways, be it bullying, neglect or abuse,” McGrogan said. “Life can be harder in many aspects of life, even identification. Employment can be difficult, and the suicide rate is high for the transgender population.

“We’re here to help.”

Equality PA, a nonprofit working to advance the rights of those who identify as LGBTQ, estimates that 74 percent of transgender Pennsylvanians have reported experiencing some form of harassment at work. The organization says 26 percent of those who identify as transgender have lost a job.

In 2016, advocates tracked at least 23 violent deaths of transgender people in the United States, then the most ever recorded, according to the civil rights organization Human Rights Campaign. This year, that number has risen to 27, the HRC said.

Williams said that many of her friends did not make it out of their 20s because of violence, suicide or drug overdoses.

“Society has changed a lot to the point where I feel comfortable talking about being transgender,” she said. “But we still have a long way to go.

“The way I view things now is, ‘Either don’t accept me or do accept me. I’m going to strive to be the best me that I can be,’” she said. “I didn’t always feel that way. I had a lot taken away from me over 37 years. Whatever I have left, I am not going to let anything else be taken away.”

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @bencschmitt

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