Women Forced Out of Rehab for Being Trans Allowed to File Discrimination Case

After years navigating the court system, a transgender woman who was forced out of a court-ordered drug rehabilitation program will be allowed to proceed with her discrimination case against that program.

In 2008, Sabrina Wilson was arrested on a drug possession charge. In order to avoid being sentenced to a two and a half year sentence at an all-male prison, Ms. Wilson accepted a plea agreement to enter into a drug treatment program, and she chose Phoenix House’s rehabilitation program in particular because it represented itself as gay- and lesbian-friendly. Though she made excellent progress during the program, even being made a “resident senior structure coordinator,” she faced harassment from some members of upper management. She was barred from wearing a wig, though cisgender women were allowed; she was barred from wearing high heels because “she might trip,” despite other women wearing high heels daily. After being invited by a senior counselor into a new group for women to discuss gender-related issues to addiction, she was swiftly kicked out of the group, being told by the director of the program, "You belong in the male group, and that's the group you are going to attend. You have to be in the men's group, period... You should adjust."

Though a group of 38 men and women from the program put together a petition lauding Ms. Wilson as a person who had “earned the respect of the community,” the director remained inflexible, and told Ms. Wilson she would have to find another program to accommodate her or be discharged to court, and then to prison. “We can't suit your needs as a transgender in our program," is what Ms. Wilson says she was told, before being forced out of Phoenix House. As a result, Ms. Wilson ended up having to spend two and half years in state prison.

New York State Supreme Court Justice Debra Silber’s decision to allow Ms. Wilson to move forward with her case against Phoenix House is an important one, not only for Ms. Wilson herself, but also because it points to the lack of suitable policies around transgender people within the justice system as a whole. As the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey showed, transgender people are at a much higher risk for harassment, neglect, assault, and rape in prison than the general population. The fact that Ms. Wilson spent so much of her sentence in long-term solitary confinement is not only a failure of the rehabilitation program that should have kept her out of prison, but a failure of a justice system that has not kept pace with societal change. As Justice Silber noted in her decision, the “legal and political community has made great strides in the last decade toward assuring legal equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual persons . . . with regard to transgendered and other gender nonconforming people, there has been far less progress in addressing their legal rights.”

The Pride Agenda is committed to ensuring legal equality for all transgender New Yorkers, through our work to pass GENDA, pushing the bill through the state Assembly six times, as well as through distinct policy work. The Pride Agenda, in partnership with In Our Own Voices and the New York Civil Liberties Union, has been working to update policies in the Capital Region on how law enforcement handles transgender individuals, how they are treated after arrest and in  prison. Our hope is that this process could be seen as model for how other correctional departments across the state could accommodate transgender people in their facilities.

Learn more about our work to end discrimination against transgender New Yorkers.