The father of a Silver Spring, Md., transgender woman who died on Jan. 8 says he and his wife are hopeful that their daughter’s legacy will live on through two pending lawsuits she filed to challenge what he calls “shocking” abuse and discrimination she encountered in 2014 while an inmate at a federal prison in West Virginia.
Attorneys representing Paris Leibelson, who was 32 when the alleged prison abuse occurred, filed the lawsuits in 2015 and 2016 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia.
The lawsuits say Paris Leibelson was incarcerated at the prison following a violation of probation stemming from an earlier arrest for purse snatching in D.C. in December 2004, a conviction for the offense in 2005, and subsequent multiple probation violations that landed her back in jail after having been released.
Michael Leibelson, Paris’ father, said her legal problems stemmed mostly from complications associated with heroin addiction with which she struggled since the time she was a teenager.
He said Paris was found dead in the backyard of the family’s Silver Spring house on Jan. 8 behind a cluster of trees and shrubs from an apparent drug overdose. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Maryland listed the cause of death as methadone, heroin, and cocaine “intoxication with benzodiazepine use complicated by hypothermia.”
Michael Leibelson said the death was the sad culmination of Paris’ long struggle against addiction that he believes was exacerbated by the abuse she suffered in prison.
The lawsuits charge that officials at the all-male Federal Correctional Institution at Beckley, West Virginia, where Paris Leibelson was placed, failed to take steps to safeguard her from abusive and discriminatory treatment to which she was subjected as a transgender woman.
Among other allegations, the lawsuits say she was subjected to assault, battery, sexual assault, threats of violence, ongoing harassment, and emotional trauma between November 2013 and March 2014.
“Leibelson is female in physical appearance and feminine as regards all external aspects of her gender behavior and identity,” one of the two lawsuits states. “Leibelson has undergone hormone therapy and other treatments prior to and at all times relevant to the matters at issue herein,” it says.
“Beginning February 2014 and continuing for the pendency of her incarceration at FCI Beckley, Plaintiff Leibelson was chronically starved and deprived of food,” the lawsuits states. It says the denial of food was due to the “unavailability of adequate seating at dining tables that were not controlled by prison gangs who demanded sexual favors in return for ‘permitting’ Plaintiff to take her food in the FCI Beckley mess hall dining area.”
The lawsuit adds, “Plaintiff was required to either smuggle food out of the dining area or depend on others to bring her food, both of which were against FCI Beckley rules. As a result, Plaintiff often went for days without nourishment and her health and emotional, physical and mental well-being suffered from being chronically starved when confronted with the choice between avoiding being used as an object of sexual gratification by fellow inmates or not eating.”
It says that on Feb. 6, 2014 Paris Leibelson was sent to the prison’s Special Housing Unit, which is where prisoners are sent as a form of discipline for violating prison rules. The lawsuit says Leibelson claims she was sent there in yet another effort by prison guards to harass her. Shortly after arriving there on Feb. 6, the lawsuit says a guard identified as Federal Correctional Officer Christopher Cook ordered her to submit to what it says was an illegal strip search.
After ordering her to disrobe Cook told her to “bend over” and Leibelson complied, the lawsuit says. “Cook then commanded Plaintiff to ‘open that hole wide,’ whereupon F.C.O. Cook forcibly and without Leibelson’s consent or foreknowledge, rammed his finger into Plaintiff’s anus thereby sexually assaulting and digitally anally raping Plaintiff,” the lawsuit states.
“Defendant’s intentional or negligent action was to humiliate and degrade Plaintiff and to satisfy F.C.O. Cook’s craven lust for sexual gratification,” according to the lawsuit.
In referring to prison authorities who are named as defendants, the lawsuit states, “The acts, policies, practices and omissions of the Defendant and its employees that injured Plaintiff were knowing, deliberate, intentional, sadistic and motivated in whole or in substantial part because of Plaintiff’s transgender status and gender identification.”
In one of its court filings responding to the lawsuit government lawyers dispute the sexual assault allegation, saying Cook denied it ever happened. In other court filings the government lawyers point out that Leibelson was cited for numerous violations of prison rules during her stay at Beckley, including at least two instances where she deliberately broke a water sprinkler causing flooding in her cell area.
U.S. District Court Judge Irene Berger, who is presiding over the case of the two lawsuits, stated in one of two rulings upholding the lawsuits that Leibelson acknowledged in a deposition that “she was not a model inmate” and “sometimes used insulting or insolent language with staff.”
Nevertheless, Berger states in both rulings that Leibelson’s allegations could be viewed as credible if the cases were to go to trial.
In handing down one of two rulings denying the government’s request for dismissal of the lawsuits on summary judgment, Berger states, “The court finds that the Plaintiff has put forth sufficient evidence of damages and causation to survive summary judgement.”
Berger adds, “Ms. Leibelson’s testimony, as well as her treating psychiatrist’s testimony, would be sufficient to permit a fact-finder to find that abuse at FCI-Beckley caused her emotional damages and/or worsened existing mental health conditions.”
In mentioning Paris Leibelson’s testimony Berger was referring to Leibelson’s lengthy deposition or pre-trial testimony that her lawyers said included grueling questions by the government’s lawyer seeking to question her credibility. The lawyers representing her said she did exceptionally well and that her deposition testimony, which was recorded, would be used to support the lawsuit should the case go to trial.
One of the two lawsuits named as defendants at the time it was filed more than a dozen individual officials and employees at the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Beckley federal prison. In response to motions by government attorneys, Berger has since dismissed the case against all but two of the individual defendants.
Among the two Berger refused to dismiss from the case is Christopher Cook, the guard accused of committing the sexual assault.
In denying the government’s request that she dismiss the case against all of the individual defendants Berger allowed the lawsuit to continue to trial by jury or to a possible settlement.
The second lawsuit names the U.S. government as the defendant, saying high-level federal government officials, including those in charge of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, were responsible for not taking steps to prevent the abusive treatment to which Paris Leibelson was subjected. Under court rules, that case goes before a non-jury trial presided over by Berger if a settlement isn’t reached.
Two D.C.-based lawyers and other attorneys in West Virginia who filed the lawsuit on Paris’s behalf have arranged for Michael Leibelson to replace Paris as the plaintiff so the lawsuits can continue. Court records show that Judge Berger has approved that change.
Michael Leibelson said his and his wife’s aim is to bring about justice for the abuse and suffering they believe Paris experienced in jail and to make at least some effort to challenge what Paris believed to be widespread discrimination and abuse against transgender and gay people in the federal prison system.
He said they also plan to use any monetary return they receive should they win the lawsuit or in a possible settlement to create an endowment for a scholarship in Paris’s name.
Attorneys William Bruce DelValle and Bruce Fein of the D.C. law firm Fein & DelValle, who have represented Paris and are now representing the father, told the Washington Blade that following her denial of two motions by government lawyers on Dec. 27 and Jan. 3 seeking to have the two cases dismissed, Berger set a tentative date for a trial for one of the cases in May. He said she also ordered the parties to enter into mediation and attend a formal settlement conference over which Berger will preside.
DelValle called Berger’s decision to deny dismissal of the cases and to quickly set a potential trial date “a clear signal” that she believes the cases have sufficient merit to go to trial. He said Berger also made it clear that she wants the two sides to try to reach an out of court settlement.
Another development that is highly unusual, according to DelValle, is that lawyers from the main U.S. Department of Justice headquarters in Washington are heading the government’s effort to fight against the lawsuit that named the individual government and prison officials as defendants. In most cases like this, DelValle said, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the location where a lawsuit is filed handles the case and not the DOJ in Washington.
The decision to designate the DOJ to lead the defense against the one lawsuit, which is known as a “Bevins” case, took place under then-U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch during the last two years of the Obama administration.
Representatives of the Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in West Virginia who are working on the case did not respond to a request this week by the Blade for comment.
In their court briefs and motions seeking to have the case dismissed, the government attorneys have argued that Paris Leibelson’s allegations of prison abuse could not be substantiated and that she made contradictory statements about the alleged sexual assault she claims a prison guard committed against her in a statement she made to a psychiatrist who counseled her during her stay at the prison.
Michal Leibelson, a retired government worker, and his wife Elyse, a retired school teacher, treated the person they continued to view as their son whom they continued to call Benjamin with unconditional love throughout Paris’ life, Michael Leibelson told the Blade in an interview earlier this month.
“He was diagnosed when he was a little kid of having Asberger Syndrome, which is on the autistic scale,” Michael Leibelson said. “When he was in preschool he was dressing up in women’s clothes when they were doing dress up,” Leibelson continued. “When he was in junior high school he told us he was gay and we said OK, OK, no biggie.”
Not long after finishing high school Paris came to the realization that she wanted to live her life as a woman, the father said.
“He stated to me and my wife that he was transgender and he was wearing women’s clothes,” Michael Leibelson said. “He was six foot seven and he was as skinny as a rail, a real string bean. And he wore size 13 shoes and he was very proud of himself when he walked around in high heels and women’s clothes, and we didn’t care.”
“We had no problem with it,” Leibelson continued. “But everybody else seemed to have a problem with it. And when he was in Beckley, West Virginia they had a problem with it.”
Leibelson said Paris suffered mental health problems most of her life, including depression. “And he had a drug problem from about the age of 12 or 13. He had been a user. And he was 36 when he died.”
Despite these challenges, Leibelson said Paris had a strong drive to fight for her rights and for her fellow members of the LGBT community, with whom she identified. He said he and his wife want to continue that fight by doing all they can to make sure the lawsuit succeeds “for social justice purposes” because gay and transgender people “in federal prisons all over this country are being abused.”
DelValle, the attorney working in support of the lawsuit, said he got to know Paris through meetings and phone conversations they had in preparation of the lawsuit.
“She was a very strong person and a very bright person,” said DelValle, who added that he believes her time in a federal prison was far too long for an initial offense of purse snatching.
“She was not a menace to society. She was not dangerous,” he said. “She basically came from an upper middle class Jewish community but had this dark street side because of her addiction” and possible rejection by society because of her status as a transgender person, DelValle said.
The National Center for Transgender Equality and Lambda Legal, an LGBT litigation group, did not immediately respond to a request by the Blade for comment on the Paris Leibelson lawsuit and the fact that the abuse she faced in a federal prison took place during the Obama administration, which expressed strong support for LGBT and transgender rights.