Sabbats v. White et al
OPINION and ORDER denying 2 Motion for Preliminary Injunction; denying 8 Motion for Preliminary Injunction. Signed by Senior Judge James P. Jones on 11/14/2023. (Opinion and Order mailed to Pro Se Party via US Mail)(tvt)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF VIRGINIA
RACHEL HALLOWS SABBATS,
WARDEN WHITE, ET AL.,
Case No. 7:23CV00326
OPINION AND ORDER
JUDGE JAMES P. JONES
Rachel Hallows Sabbats, Pro Se Plaintiff; Ann-Marie White Rene, OFFICE OF
THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF VIRGINIA, CRIMINAL JUSTICE & PUBLIC SAFETY DIVISION,
Richmond, Virginia, for Defendants.
The plaintiff, Rachel Hallows Sabbats, a Virginia inmate proceeding pro se,
filed this civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. She alleges that as a transgender
female,1 she is wrongfully identified as a male and housed in a male prison facility
where she has been sexually harassed and was sexually assaulted. The defendants
have filed a Motion to Dismiss that I will address separately after Sabbats has had
an opportunity to respond to their arguments. Sabbats has also filed two motions
seeking interlocutory injunctive relief to obtain a transfer, and the defendants have
responded to these motions. After review of the record, I conclude that Sabbats’
motions must be denied.
Sabbats uses female pronouns when referring to herself.
Sabbats filed this action in June 2023, suing the former director of the Virginia
Department of Corrections (VDOC) and various officials at Red Onion State Prison
(Red Onion), where she has been confined for over a year. In her Complaint, she
contends that the defendants knew her transgender female status and placed her at
risk of sexual harassment and assault in a male prison, but nevertheless, assigned her
to the Protective Custody Unit (PCU) at Red Onion with other male inmates, some
of whom are sexual predators. She alleges that in that unit, she has been sexually
harassed and threatened with violence, incidents she was afraid to report to officials.
Sabbats mentions that inmates verbally harass her when she showers. She also
claims she was sexually assaulted in that unit in September 2022 and at other prisons
in prior years.
Sabbats filed one motion for interlocutory relief with her Complaint in June
2023. This motion asserts that as a transgender inmate Sabbats is inappropriately
confined in a male prison and asks for transfer to a women’s prison or a prison that
houses transgender inmates. In the second motion, filed in July 2023, Sabbats states
concern over unidentified, future harm she may face as a transgender female at Red
Onion. Her fears of these future harms appear based, in part, on her allegation that
on June 25, 2023, officers forced her to stand outside of her cell during a search, clad
only in her underwear.
The defendants responded to Sabbats’ motions, providing affidavits from a
sergeant in the Intelligence Department, J. Bentley, and Dr. M. Cary, Chief
Psychiatrist. Resp. Opp’n Prelim. Inj. Attachs., Bentley Aff., ECF No. 16-1, and
Cary Aff., ECF No. 16-2. Bentley states that Sabbats reported to officials that on
September 4, 2022, Inmate L. Cameron bit Sabbats on the shoulder and grabbed
Sabbats’ breast. Officers responded to this information by ordering that both
inmates be kept in their separate cells. Escort officers then removed Cameron and
assigned him to a different housing pod. Officers provided Sabbats access to
medical and mental health staff for assessment and treatment. Bentley states that
now, Sabbats and Cameron do not have contact with one another at Red Onion.
Bentley reports finding no other complaints from Sabbats about sexual assaults or
incidents at Red Onion in September 2022.
Bentley indicates that at present, Sabbats is housed in the PCU at Red Onion
in a single cell. The PCU houses inmates who need a secure and safe environment
and provides more privileges that other general population inmates receive at Red
Onion. In the PCU, Sabbats is offered in-pod and outside recreation, but is not
required to participate. She can use a PCU shower designed for transgender inmates,
with a raised door that covers a showering inmate’s chest. When a transgender
inmate is showering, all other inmates in the housing pod are locked in their cells.
Bentley also provides evidence that on June 25, 2023, Sabbats was housed in
cell C-123 on the top tier. That day, two officers released top tier inmates for pod
recreation and then began conducting “walk throughs” of the top tier cells. Bentley
Aff. ¶ 10. When the officers opened the door to cell C-123, “Sabbats walked out of
the cell wearing underwear and a shirt.” Id. Bentley states, “It is assumed that an
inmate will exit his/her cell in appropriate clothing, but Red Onion staff cannot use
force to make this happen.”2 Id.
Dr. Cary states that the VDOC Gender Dysphoria Steering Committee (the
Committee), comprised of health professionals and corrections officials, meets
quarterly to review the situation of each transgender inmate in VDOC custody for
safe and suitable housing. The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) requires this
case-by-case analysis. Housing assignment for a transgender inmate must take into
consideration not only transgender status, but also the risk of sexual assault (as
victim or perpetrator), criminal history (including violent or sex crimes), institutional
adjustment, institutional needs and bed space, and personal safety for the inmate.
Dr. Cary indicates that the Committee has determined that housing Sabbats at
a male facility is appropriate for several reasons. These reasons include: Sabbats’
current sentence of 51 years in prison for object sexual penetration of a female
Sabbats claims that if she had voluntarily exited her cell dressed as Bentley
describes, she could have been charged with a disciplinary offense, such as indecent
exposure. She received no such charge stemming from the incident.
spouse,3 along with other violent offenses; disciplinary infractions Sabbats incurred
in mid-2021 at Pocahontas State Correctional Center, namely, inciting to riot,
rioting, or acting in a manner that disrupts the orderly operation of the institution,
possession of contraband, and intentionally destroying, altering, damaging, or
defacing state or any person’s property;4 and additional disciplinary infractions
Sabbats incurred after a transfer in October 2021 to Sussex I State Prison, namely,
simple assault upon a non-offender,5 unauthorized use or abuse of mail or
telephone,6 refusal to submit to a drug test,7 and possession of contraband. After the
Sussex I charges, officials transferred Sabbats to Red Onion in June 2022. The
Committee continues to monitor Sabbats. But given Sabbats’ history of violence,
Dr. Cary states that to the best of his knowledge, Sabbats was living and presenting
as a male at the time of the object sexual penetration offense against a female spouse.
Sabbats states that this charge arose from evidence that he had cut a sock to cover
his male genitalia.
Sabbats alleges that this charge stemmed from an incident when Sabbats tried to
close a unit manager’s door, the unit manager reached out to stop that action and touched
Sabbats’ breast, and Sabbats “responded with a wax off motion that removed [the officer’s]
hands” from her breast. Resp. 16, ECF No. 20.
Sabbats asserts that this charge arose after Sabbats called the PREA hotline over
100 times to report documentation identifying her as a female and complaining that she
should not be assigned to a male prison.
Sabbats explains that she admitted to using drugs in this instance, so no drug test
particularly sexual violence toward a female,8 the Committee has determined that
Sabbats is appropriately housed in a male prison facility at this time.
A party seeking interlocutory injunctive relief must state facts clearly showing
“that he is likely to succeed on the merits, that he is likely to suffer irreparable harm
in the absence of preliminary relief, that the balance of equities tips in his favor, and
that an injunction is in the public interest.” Winter v. Nat. Res. Def. Council, Inc.,
555 U.S. 7, 20 (2008). Each of these four factors must be satisfied. Id. A
preliminary injunction is “an extraordinary remedy” to be awarded only when the
movant has demonstrated that “irreparable injury is likely in the absence of an
injunction,” not merely “based only on a possibility” that such harm will occur. Id.
at 22. An inmate’s constitutional rights must be evaluated in the context of his
The Supreme Court has long cautioned that courts are ill equipped to
deal with the increasingly urgent problems of prison administration
and, therefore, the court must accord deference to the officials who run
a prison, overseeing and coordinating its many aspects, including
security, discipline, and general administration.
Greenhill v. Clarke, No. 7:16CV00068, 2017 WL 9517164, at *3 (W.D. Va. Mar.
20, 2017) (internal quotation marks, citations and alterations omitted), R. & R.
adopted, No. 7:16CV00068, 2017 WL 1929669 (W.D. Va. May 10, 2017), aff’d,
Sabbats asserts that her criminal history includes only one crime of sexual violence
against a female.
699 F. App’x 280 (4th Cir. 2017) (unpublished). The movant bears the burden of
proof and persuasion on a motion for preliminary injunction. Manning v. Hunt, 119
F.3d 254, 263 (4th Cir. 1997).
Both of Sabbats’ motions for preliminary injunction fail because she does not
state facts in the motions or in her Complaint to show by “clear and convincing”
evidence that she is likely to succeed on the merits of her underlying claims in this
case. Myclaex Corp. of Am. v. Pemco Corp., 159 F.2d 907, 912 (4th Cir. 1947). In
fact, Sabbats does not refer in her motions to any of the claims against the individual
defendants named in the lawsuit. Nor do her motions indicate any likelihood that
she will succeed on showing personal liability under § 1983 as to any of those
defendants. Furthermore, undisputed evidence in the record indicates that housing
assignments for transgender female inmates in the custody of the VDOC are
determined, after careful consideration of numerous factors, by the Committee and
not by any of the individual defendants Sabbats has named. It is also undisputed
that the Committee has decided that Sabbats is appropriately housed at a male prison
given, among other things, Sabbats’ past violent sex offense against a female spouse.
The Committee will continue to monitor Sabbats’ circumstances and adjustment and
review her housing assignment every three months or so.
Furthermore, it is
undisputed that Red Onion provides specialized accommodations for transgender
female inmates — hormone therapy, separate showers, female officers conducting
any searches of the person, and so on. On this record, I cannot find that Sabbats has
established any likelihood of success on the merits of the underlying claims against
Moreover, Sabbats has not stated facts showing a likelihood that she will
suffer irreparable harm without court intervention. At the most, Sabbats asserts
vaguely a possibility that male inmates will sexually assault or harass her at a male
prison because she has experienced such events in the past at Red Onion and at other
male prisons. A possibility of harm, however, is not sufficient. Winter, 555 U.S. at
21. Evidence of past harm is not dispositive on a question of whether irreparable
future harm is probable. SAS Inst., Inc. v. World Programming Ltd., 874 F.3d 370,
386 (4th Cir. 2017). Moreover, Sabbats states that she has not always reported such
incidents to prison officials, who cannot take action to prevent conduct of which they
have not been notified.
I also conclude that the two remaining factors of the Winter analysis, the
balance of equities and the public interest, weigh heavily against granting
interlocutory relief on Sabbats’ behalf. The public interest and maintaining a
balance of equities are best served when courts do not interfere with prison
administrative decisions, based on the professional expertise of prison
administrators. Greenhill, 2017 WL 9517164, at *3.
Finally, it is well established that an inmate is not entitled to interlocutory
injunctive relief to obtain a desired transfer to another correctional facility. BurtonHypes v. Hamilton, No. 7:22CV00513, 2023 WL 3853683, at *1 (W.D. Va. June 6,
2023). Simply put, an inmate has no right to be confined at a prison of her choice.
Olim v. Wakinekona, 461 U.S. 238, 245 (1983).
For the stated reasons, I conclude that Sabbats is not entitled to the
interlocutory injunctive relief that she seeks. Therefore, I will deny her motions.
For the reasons stated, it is ORDERED that the motions seeking interlocutory
relief, ECF Nos. 2 and 8, are DENIED.
ENTER: November 14, 2023
/s/ JAMES P. JONES
Senior United States District Judge
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