Dee Farmer Won a Landmark Supreme Court Case on Inmate Rights. But that's Not the Half of It.

Dee Farmer Won a Landmark Supreme Court Case on Inmate Rights. But that's Not the Half of It.
Chris Whetzel

Dee Farmer gets a fan letter every now and then.

"The vast majority of transgender people who are incarcerated are either completely locked out of transition-related care or have to fight for even the most basic care."

She's legally blind, so someone reads her mail to her. The notes come from all over, from people thanking her for what she did to protect them.

Farmer says she doesn't keep the letters. "I would like for my legacy to be that I changed injustices for a multitude of people who were or would have suffered unjustly," she tells the Voice in an email.

When ACLU attorney Elizabeth Alexander referred to Farmer as “she” in 1994, the semantic choice was more strategic than sensitive.
Courtesy Elizabeth Alexander
When ACLU attorney Elizabeth Alexander referred to Farmer as “she” in 1994, the semantic choice was more strategic than sensitive.

January 12 marked 20 years since the U.S. Supreme Court heard the landmark case that bears her name: Farmer v. Brennan. The story made national headlines in 1994. "Prison's Intolerable Horror," blared the Miami Herald. "Federal Inmate Contends Prison Rape Violated Constitutional Rights," the Associated Press announced. "Rape of Transsexual Inmate Raises Issue of Prison Liability," declared the Washington Post.

Long before Orange is the New Black portrayed a transgender convict as the new norm, there was Dee Farmer. From a prison cell, she instigated a high-level legal argument that would recalibrate our reading of the Bill of Rights.

Because the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbids cruel and unusual punishment, Farmer contended, prison officials had a legal duty to protect inmates from harm.

Six months later, in June 1994, all nine justices of the Supreme Court concurred.

Born Douglas Coleman Farmer in Baltimore, Maryland, Dee Farmer grew up in a loving, religious home.

She says she always identified as female.

"I was pretty much a loner and didn't play with other children or have many friends," Farmer, now 48, says. "I felt I was 'different' and that I didn't fit in due to my effeminate nature."

Other kids mocked her. So did grown-ups. "I don't want that little faggot in my car," her uncle hollered as a group of kids caught rides to the beach.

Farmer began hormone therapy in her teens and wore women's clothes. Around age 16, she fell in love with an older woman and dropped her female identity, but when the relationship ended a year later, she resumed life as a woman, eventually changing her name to Dee Deirdre Farmer.

Though she had considered a career as an airline stewardess (her words), Farmer had never worked a job where she'd earned an honest dollar when a judge sentenced her to two decades in federal prison in 1986 for credit card fraud.

Housed with male inmates, Farmer stood out. There were the silicone breast implants. The makeup. Her predilection for wearing her uniform shirt off one shoulder. Smuggled-in estrogen pills smoothed her skin. She'd undergone an unsuccessful black-market operation to remove her testicles — a botched job she attempted to complete while behind bars, with a razor blade. She was also HIV-positive.

By 1989, prison officials in Oxford, Wisconsin, had had enough of Farmer. Her case manager noted in a deposition that she'd been involved in a "sexual act" in the recreation yard. And she had participated in a scheme in which she'd used the prison phone and someone else's credit card to have flowers and fruit baskets sent to the facility. (A holiday prank, one of her former attorneys recalls.) So the Federal Bureau of Prisons transferred Farmer to a maximum-security prison in Indiana, placing her — a young, nonviolent woman — within a violent male population.

She had been in her new cell in Terre Haute for a little more than a week on April 1, 1989. It was on that day, Farmer would allege, that a fellow inmate approached her and demanded sex. When she refused, he punched and kicked her, revealing a homemade knife stowed in his sneaker. The attacker tore off her clothes, held her down on the bed, and raped her, and threatened to murder her if she told.

Farmer told.

Prison officials moved her out of the facility's general population to await a hearing about her HIV-positive status. She was later moved to a medium-security prison where there would be "no continuing threat of physical injury," according to the deputy solicitor general's subsequent oral arguments before the high court.

"The rape kept repeating itself over and over again in my mind, and I knew that I had to try and do something," Farmer remembers.

With no attorney representing her, she filed suit in federal court in 1991 against the officials who transferred her and those who failed to protect her, alleging that her Eighth Amendment rights had been violated and seeking compensation for mental anguish, as well as for "a swollen face, cuts and bruises to her mouth and lips and a cut to her back, as well as some bleeding," according to her complaint.

All but one official denied any knowledge of the risk of sexual assault Farmer faced at Terre Haute.

When the case was dismissed a year later, Farmer filed an appeal, which was denied. After she petitioned the Supreme Court, lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project stepped in to help.

"I never really expected it to be granted," Farmer says now. "I was mostly going through the motions."

ACLU attorney Elizabeth Alexander made the decision to refer to Farmer as "she" when she argued the case in 1994.

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