BOSTON, Nov 15 (Reuters) - A transgender woman on Wednesday sued the Massachusetts prison system, saying it is violating her civil rights by housing her in a facility for male prisoners, where lawyers contend she is routinely harassed by fellow inmates and prison staff.
The 53-year-old woman, whose name is not disclosed in the lawsuit filed in Boston federal court, contends the state Department of Corrections is violating her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing to house her with women and subjecting her to strip searches by male guards.
The suit, which advocates believe is the first of its kind filed in the state, asks the prisons system to transfer the woman to a women's prison in Framingham, rather than the men's facility in Norfolk where she is housed. It also asks the court to order prison officials to address her as a woman and allow only female guards to strip-search her.
RELATED: Faces and stories of transgender people around the world
The faces and stories of transgender people around the world
The faces and stories of transgender people around the world
Penelope Patterson does a one-handed push up at his home in Brooklyn, New York, U.S. December 13, 2016. Jodie Patterson's 3-year-old, Penelope, was brooding and angry until one day she asked her child what was wrong. Penelope, who was assigned female at birth, was upset "because everyone thinks I'm a girl," but he said he was really a boy. "I said, 'However you feel inside is fine.'" Patterson recalled from their home in Brooklyn. "And then Penelope looked at me and said, 'No mama, I don't feel like a boy. I am a boy.'" Almost immediately, Patterson embraced the reality that Penelope was a transgender boy, and by age 5 he was going to school as a boy. Today, at age 9, Penelope is happy and healthy as a boy who loves karate and super heroes and decided to keep his birth name. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
Actress Laverne Cox walks in a Donna Karan creation during a presentation of the Go Red for Women Red Dress collection during New York Fashion Week February 13, 2015. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (UNITED STATES - Tags: FASHION SOCIETY ENTERTAINMENT TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
Charlie Lowthian-Rickert, 10, who is transgender, is kissed by her father Chris following a news conference announcing that Canada will introduce legislation to protect transgender people from discrimination and hate crimes, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, May 17, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Wattie. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Joe Wong, 31, poses for photograph at his apartment in Bangkok April 3, 2015. Joe Wong, a 31-year-old transgender man from Singapore, underwent surgery to remove his breasts in 2007 and legally changed his name from Joleen to Joe. He had his uterus removed in 2009, and is legally recognised as a male. Wong is one of the many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Asia who faced abuse and violence from his family. To escape the violence and find acceptance, many LGBT people migrate abroad - including Wong, who moved to Bangkok, where he currently works for the rights group, the Asia Pacific Transgender Network. To match Thomson Reuters Foundation Feature GAY-RIGHTS/ASIA Picture Taken April 3, 2015. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Transvestite Tiffany, 19, shows a scar of a knife attack in Tegucigalpa March 10, 2011. According to leaders of LGBT organizations (lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders), 34 people have been murdered in the last 18 months. The U.S. embassy and United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) have requested the government to investigate the murders and safeguard the rights of the LGBT community, local media reported. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido (HONDURAS - Tags: SOCIETY CRIME LAW)
Geraldine Roman, a transgender congressional candidate, (C) is greeted by her supporters during a "Miting de Avance" (last political campaign rally) for the national election in Orani town, Bataan province, north of Manila in the Philippines May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco
Former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner arrives for the "Glamour Women of the Year Awards," where she was an award recipient, in the Manhattan borough of New York November 9, 2015. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Chahat, a member of the transgender community, prepares for Shakeela's party in Peshawar, Pakistan January 22, 2017. REUTERS/Caren Firouz SEARCH "PAKISTAN TRANSGENDER" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Qian Jinfan, an 84-year-old transsexual who prefers to be addressed as "Yiling" holds up a photo taken at the age of 59, in the town of Foshan, in southern China's Guangdong province, July 6, 2012. Qian, who told Reuters during an interview that she always felt she was a woman and experimented with hormone cream, tablets and injections at the age of 60, is believed to be the oldest transsexual to live openly in China. The retired Chinese Communist Party official said she would not undergo a sex-change operation until it fully guaranteed her a female body that was complete with a woman's bodily functions. She admitted her days may be limited, but hopes that speaking to the media can help break down traditional assumptions and initiate discussions about transsexuals in society. About 2,000 people in China have undergone sex-change surgery and up to 400,000 could be considering one, according to a report in 2009 by state newspaper China Daily. Picture taken July 6, 2012. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu (CHINA - Tags: SOCIETY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
Tanya Walker, a 53-year-old transgender woman, activist and advocate, gives an interview at her apartment in New York City, U.S. September 7, 2016. Picture taken September 7, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Renee Richards poses for a portrait at her home in Carmel, New York March 25, 2015. More than three decades after putting down her tennis racquet, Renee Richards, 80, told Reuters she is still astonished she possessed the moxie to join the women's professional tennis tour after living the first 34 years of her life as a man. For all the frenzy around Olympian Bruce Jenner's reported decision to transition to a woman, the transgender pioneer Richards, born Richard Raskind, believes nothing could be tougher than what she endured in the 1970s. Picture taken March 25, 2015. To match Feature USA-TRANSGENDER/RICHARDS REUTERS/Mike Segar
Helena Vukovic, Serbian first transgender veteran army officer, poses for a picture in Belgrade, Serbia September 7, 2016. REUTERS/Marko Djurica
Nada Chaiyajit, a Thai transgender activist, 37, poses during an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation at a hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, November 28, 2016. Picture taken November 28, 2016. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Transvestite Julio Yoaris Alvarez adjusts his brassiere while getting dressed at his home as the world celebrates the International Day Against Homophobia in Havana May 16, 2009. From an early age, Alvarez dreamt of having a sex-change operation and is currently awaiting his turn for one under the Cuban health care system. The surgery, like all other health care in Cuba, will be free of charge for applicants. REUTERS/Claudia Daut (CUBA SOCIETY HEALTH)
Carly Lehwald sits with her son Ben at Carly's home in Chicago, Illinois, United States, May 30, 2015. Carly is Ben's father "Charlie", and transitioning to life as a woman is the basis for a new reality television show "Becoming Us". Picture taken May 30, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Anna Grodzka, Poland's first transsexual lawmaker, attends an introductory session to the Polish parliament for newly elected lawmakers in Warsaw October 24, 2011. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel (POLAND - Tags: POLITICS)
Naz Seenauth, a transgender man, poses in New York October 22, 2014. Seenauth's driver's license says he is male. His birth certificate says he is female. The mismatch, he says, is deeply frustrating. New York City, where Seenauth was born and raised, does not accept that he is a transgender man and will not amend his birth certificate, for now at least, even though his doctor will attest to his gender. Picture taken October 22. To match Feature
USA-NEW-YORK/TRANSGENDER REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton (UNITED STATES - Tags: HEALTH SOCIETY LAW)
Damian Jackson (C), 51, shows family members his new documents after changing his officially registered gender from female to male, in the City Hall in Amsterdam July 1, 2014. Jackson is among the first to obtain new documents on Tuesday, when a new law came into effect, legalising the registration of a transgender person's preferred gender in official state documents, including identity cards and passports. It eliminates the previous law, which required hormonal treatment, surgery or sterilization before any change in gender registration is allowed. REUTERS/Cris Toala Olivares (NETHERLANDS - Tags: SOCIETY LAW)
Audrey Mbugua, 31, Kenya?s most famous transgender campaigner, poses for a photograph in her garden in Kiambu, outside the capital Nairobi, March 31, 2015. Audrey Mbugua will not say whether it was a razor blade, pills or carbon monoxide that she used to try to kill herself. Born a male in Kenya and given the name Andrew, she felt trapped in the wrong body and started dressing in women's clothes while at university, attracting ridicule and rejection. After graduation, Mbugua was jobless, penniless and alone. Picture taken March 31, 2015. To match GAY-RIGHTS/KENYA REUTERS/Katy Migiro
Randy Dolphin and transgender activist Veronika Lee-Tillman, who will be Grand Marshal in San Francisco's gay pride parade, are married during a ceremony at City Hall in San Francisco, California June 28, 2013. The couple was married at City Hall with San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr giving away the bride. The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday handed a significant victory to gay rights advocates by ruling that married gay men and women are eligible for federal benefits and paving the way for same-sex marriage in California. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY)
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"Anyone could imagine how horrific it would be to be a woman in a men's facility," said Jennifer Levi, director of the transgender rights project at GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, the Massachusetts group representing the woman, who is serving a three-to-four-year sentence for a nonviolent drug offense. "This policy of placing transgender women in men's facilities is totally out of step with Massachusetts policies."
A spokesman for the state department of corrections declined to comment on the lawsuit.
A federal judge in Pennsylvania in May allowed a transgender woman to sue her employer under the ADA citing the condition known as gender dysphoria, even though the disabilities law excludes transgender people from protection. The suit has since been settled, according to federal court records.
Gender dysphoria is a medical condition where someone suffers distress because their gender identity does not match their body.
Massachusetts last year passed a law banning discrimination against transgender people in public restrooms and other public buildings.
The woman, who was diagnosed with gender dysphoria decades ago, claimed in the lawsuit that she has been routinely groped by male guards during strip searches and is forced to shower in the presence of male inmates.
"Jane Doe is forced to shower in terror of being attacked by these men," the lawsuit contends. "She is particularly fearful of men serving life sentences, because she believes they view her as the only woman with whom they will ever have the opportunity to have contact and thus target her."
Levi estimated that about 50 to 60 transgender women are currently held as inmates in Massachusetts prisons. (Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Tom Brown)