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"At that time, the understanding of gay and bisexual and transgender was just so limited compared to where we are now," notes Farmer.
But the attorney's semantic choice was more strategic than sensitive. Using the feminine pronoun permitted Alexander to emphasize that prison officials never would have placed a woman among a violent male population.
"Once she was left in that cell, it's not at all surprising that the assault happened," Alexander says today. "Treating prison rape as a joke was far more ingrained in the culture then."
On the other side, the attorneys for the United States used "he."
In delivering the court's unanimous opinion, then Justice David H. Souter performed grammatical gymnastics and avoided using either pronoun in referring to Farmer. (Souter declined to comment for this story.) The moderate-turned-liberal Justice Harry Blackmun, in his concurring opinion, employed the masculine pronoun.
Alexander says the decision marked only the second time the nation's highest court addressed the issue of prison rape.
Writing at a time when the escalating incidence of HIV and AIDS in prisons raised the gallows for victims of sexual assault, Souter asserted that "having stripped [inmates] of virtually every means of self-protection and foreclosed their access to outside aid, the government and its officials are not free to let the state of nature take its course." Souter, whom George H.W. Bush had appointed four years prior, went on to condemn the specter of "gratuitously allowing the beating or rape of one prisoner by another."
Farmer built on two previous Supreme Court decisions, Estelle v. Gamble and Wilson v. Seiter (the latter of which Alexander also argued). Besides reaffirming the rights of the incarcerated, the 1994 ruling's main impact was to address how prison officials can be liable for harm suffered under their watch, and, more specifically, the concept of "deliberate indifference."
As an attorney who advocates for prisoners' rights, Alexander says, she has mixed feelings about Farmer's intentionally narrow scope. "It's a really tough standard," she says. Though the court's findings may have encouraged corrections officials to "hear no evil" in order to avoid liability, "It's a case in which prisoners can sometimes win."
Within three months of the decision, Farmer had been cited in about three dozen cases nationwide. To this day, the ruling serves as a user's manual for jailhouse lawyers to argue constitutional violations behind bars, defining complex legal terms like "subjective recklessness" and mapping out what it takes to prevail. In addition, Farmer helped spawn Congress's Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 2012 that nearly 10 percent of former inmates in prisons, jails, and other adult correctional facilities had been sexually abused. Another BJS survey released this month shows allegations of sexual victimization in prisons, jails, and other adult correctional facilities have increased every year between 2005 and 2011.
"There is no aspect of our criminal justice system that says part of your sentence is to be sexually abused, and Farmer was the first place where that was said with authority," says Chris Daley, deputy executive director for Just Detention International, a human-rights organization that seeks to end sexual abuse in all forms of incarceration.
Farmer's ordeal also served as a cautionary tale of sorts: In the two decades since the ruling, a handful of jurisdictions have begun using women's facilities to house transgender inmates who identify as female.
Yet the majority of correctional facilities follow no such practice, placing prisoners according to their biological sex. Farmer herself was always incarcerated with men.
"She's a character," says Wisconsin attorney Michael Gonring, who represented Farmer after her case was remanded and denied again by the lower court. "A classic."
Though Farmer has racked up more than a dozen convictions related to fraud, theft, and sundry other dishonest acts, the career criminal likely could have been a career lawyer.
For decades, Farmer has operated a de facto legal practice behind bars. When Gonring met her in the mid-1990s, she had 13 lawsuits going simultaneously. A recent search of her name as a party in a federal court database yielded 122 results, including 88 civil cases and 27 appeals. She also kept state courts busy. A former clerk for the Maryland Attorney General's Office remembers crates upon crates of files devoted to her.
Most often, the crux of Farmer's complaints concerns her own physical well-being. She fought the Federal Bureau of Prisons over hormone therapy, eventually losing on the grounds that the treatments exacerbated her AIDS, which had developed from her HIV.
"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," observes Daley. "The fact that Dee stood up for herself and said that this is a basic medical right — she was one of a handful of people across the country who were fighting this."
One federal appeals court decision from 1993 casts Farmer as a seasoned veteran of the legal process: "Besides being an experienced litigator, Farmer has a history of fraud, arguing the possession of an intelligence superior to that of a criminal who relies on brawn rather than brains. The transcript of the trial discloses a shrewd cross-examination by Farmer of one of the defendants on the issue of forgery, bringing out all the contradictions and implausibilities in that defendant's testimony," reads the decision, authored by famed judge and legal theorist Richard Posner. Farmer lost her appeal.