Read the full piece in New York Focus and The Appeal
For months after a New York judge sentenced him to prison in late 2019, John Smith, a transgender man, tried to ward off attempts by jail and prison officials to touch his genitals, he says. (“John Smith” is a pseudonym being used in court filings and this article to protect his privacy.)
At a women’s facility at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex, where he stayed for three months before being sent to state prison, corrections officers tried to subject Smith to a genital examination, according to a federal lawsuit filed Monday. He refused it. Before his incarceration, Smith had worked at an LGBTQ services organization, he told New York Focus and The Appeal, where he learned that the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA, prohibits jails and prisons from conducting exams solely to determine someone’s genital status.
The doctor at Rikers honored Smith’s objection to a genital exam. But state prison officials were more insistent. In January 2020, Smith was transferred to Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a women’s prison in the Hudson Valley. When he arrived, staff subjected him to a standard intake strip search, then a secondary strip frisk, during which a female officer ordered Smith to manipulate his genitals, leaning in to closely inspect them. Officials then sent him to the prison medical ward, where, as part of an examination, a doctor lifted his waistband to view his private parts.
After the examination, Smith was sent to a waiting room. Minutes later, he was brought back into the exam room, where the doctor and a nurse told him that, even though prison staff had already looked at his genitals three times, the prison superintendent had ordered an additional exam to see what his genitals looked like, according to the lawsuit. The doctor again looked inside his pants, the lawsuit alleges, and the nurse attempted to pull them down without asking. Smith refused further examination.
Instead of finishing the intake process, prison officials then placed Smith in “medical lock,” a solitary cell in the medical reception area where people — typically those with contagious illnesses — are confined for 23 hours a day.
In addition to the well documented mental anguish that solitary confinement places on people, the heat in the medical lock cell made it unbearable, Smith said. There was poor ventilation, and the location of the room’s window made airflow impossible. Even though it was January, it felt like “sitting in a sauna in the middle of summertime,” he said. When Smith tried to remove some clothes to cool down, prison officials ordered him to put them back on. Officials only gave him ice and water during meal times, despite his requests for water throughout the day. For several days, they denied him the proper dosage for his hormone treatments, which made the heat sickness worse, and they frequently misgendered him, the lawsuit alleges.
According to Smith, several prison officials — including the sergeant in charge of administering PREA regulations — told him that they placed him in medical lock because he had refused the superintendent’s orders for a full genital exam. Smith repeatedly reasserted his rights, but the prison continued to insist that he undergo the exam, he said. At one point, a case worker threatened to place him in a long-term solitary confinement unit if he continued to object, and told him that he wouldn’t be able to participate in a prison program that could reduce his sentence.
Smith held out for more than a week, including three days during which officers denied him his one hour outside of the cell, according to the lawsuit. But after eight days in medical lock, officials took an emotionally and physically drained Smith to see another doctor, who convinced him to undergo a final, formal genital exam — which, she assured, would only be visual, according to the lawsuit. With Smith’s legs in stirrups, the doctor allegedly touched his genitals with her finger, causing him to jump off the exam table. She then proceeded to penetrate Smith with a cotton swab. After the exam was finished, officers finally released Smith from medical lock.
The doctor took detailed notes on Smith’s anatomy and the apparent progress of his genital transition, but the records don’t provide a medical reason for the exam, nor do they mention that he consented to being touched, according to the lawsuit.