Calif. bill would end policy of putting transgender women in men's prisons

More states have moved transgender women to women's prisons on a case-by-case basis

By Dustin Gardiner
San Francisco Chronicle

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — As a transgender woman, Jasmine Jones said California’s prison system constantly put her life at risk during the 17 years she spent behind bars by housing her among men.

Jones said she was assaulted repeatedly and raped three times in men’s prisons. Guards mocked her identity, Jones said, and forced her to undergo humiliating strip searches that exposed her in public.

“They weren’t going to protect me,” Jones said of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officers. “I knew that for a fact. The only person that was going to protect me was myself.”

Advocates say Jones’ experience is common for transgender, intersex and gender nonbinary people in California prisons, where research shows they are raped and assaulted at rates far higher than that of the wider prison population.

They are urging state legislators to pass SB132 by Sen. Scott Wiener, which would allow transgender, intersex and gender nonbinary inmates to decide whether to be housed in a men’s or women’s prison.

Transgender is an umbrella term to refer to people who identify as a gender different from the one assigned at birth. Intersex refers to people whose sex anatomy doesn’t fit typical definitions of female or male. Gender nonbinary describes people who have a gender identity that isn’t exclusively male or female.

In most cases, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation now houses transgender and other gender-variant people in prisons according to their sex assigned at birth.

“Trans women, in particular, are at such extreme risk of brutalization in men’s facilities,” said Wiener, D-San Francisco. “We need to treat them with the basic respect and dignity that they deserve.”

Wiener shelved the bill last year while the corrections department met with activists and surveyed people in prison. The agency found that 52% of transgender, intersex and nonbinary people said they don’t feel they can safely report violence, harassment or discrimination.

Corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton said the agency doesn’t have a position on SB132, though the final bill is the result of talks between supporters and corrections officials.

“CDCR maintains a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment, sexual violence, staff sexual misconduct and retaliation,” Thornton wrote in an email.

She said the agency has updated several policies in recent years to create a more respectful environment, including giving clothing and cosmetics to transgender people to match their gender identity and directing officers to address them with their correct pronouns.

Of the 102,000 people incarcerated in California prisons, 1,078 are transgender, nonbinary or intersex people, according to the corrections department. California doesn’t track how many of them have been assigned to a prison of their gender identity, though the corrections department says it has fulfilled some requests from transgender people based on individual circumstances, including whether they have undergone surgery.

Still, the agency has refused to move many transgender women from men’s prisons, a practice that transgender people say exposes them to attacks.

In a lawsuit filed against the corrections department this week, a transgender woman held at Mule Creek State Prison in Amador County said her cellmate beat her with a blunt object when she refused his demands for sex, leaving her with severe memory loss and slurred speech.

The inmate, Fancy Lipsey, said she had alerted guards that the man was threatening her, but that they told her to handle it “like a man” and to stop using her gender identity to “work the system.”

Thornton said the corrections department would not comment on pending litigation.

Supporters of SB132 say the case is one example of the brutality that transgender inmates endure. In a 2007 study, UC Irvine researchers found transgender women in prison are 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than men, and 59% reported being assaulted while in a California prison.

Syiaah Skylit, a 30-year-old transgender woman incarcerated at Kern Valley State Prison in Kern County, told The Chronicle she has been retaliated against for reporting assaults or asking officials to transfer her to a women’s prison.

Skylit, who answered questions in writing, said the discipline has included “making me walk the yard with no shirt on or bra, exposing my breasts while in handcuffs.”

“If you express safety concerns, they ignore it until something happens to you,” she wrote. “The mistreatment and neglect is endless.”

Transgender men in prison also report being harassed, though they may not want to be housed with men for safety reasons. Wiener’s bill would allow them to also select the type of prison they prefer.

Advocates say SB132 won’t eliminate the danger transgender people face in a system designed with narrow conceptions of gender, but it will reduce it.

“Our current penal system is very binary,” said Jen Orthwein, a partner at Medina Orthwein LLP, a law firm that has represented numerous transgender people in prison and helped write the bill.

“The intention of this bill is to help trans people survive prison, so they can be free,” she said. “Trans people are not safe in prison. There’s no underlying belief that this bill is going to make trans people safe in prison.”

A large coalition of transgender groups co-wrote the bill, including the Transgender Law Center, TransLatin@ Coalition and Equality California, an LGBTQ advocacy group.

One group has been vocally opposed in hearings: Feminists in Struggle, which advocates for those assigned the female gender at birth.

Sam Esther, a spokeswoman for Feminists in Struggle, said the group opposes housing transgender women in female prisons, regardless of whether they have undergone surgery, because they were born and socialized male.

“Women are still suffering from violence from males,” she said. “People born female have rights here, too, and they are completely lost in the discussion.”

Under the bill, the corrections department could deny a transgender person’s request to be housed with a specific gender population, if it can certify an “articulable basis” for the security concern. The agency would be prohibited from denying requests for discriminatory reasons, including due to a person’s genitalia or sexual orientation.

The department would also be required to consider other housing options, such as putting a transgender inmate in a single cell, with another inmate of their choice or away from an inmate they find threatening.

A handful of states and cities have enacted similar policies. More states have moved transgender women to women’s prisons on a case-by-case basis.

Wiener’s bill is on the brink of passage. The amended version faces votes in the Assembly and state Senate, where it must pass by the end of the legislative session Monday or die.

Jasmine Jones, who was released from prison in May, said the bill would be a lifeline for transgender women.

She now lives in San Francisco, where she works for the Transgender Gender-Variant & Intersex Justice Project, an advocacy group and sponsor of Wiener’s bill. She helps other transgender people find housing and jobs as they leave prison.

Jones said she constantly writes to transgender women who are still in the system.

“I told them all, ‘I’m not going to forget about any of you,’” she said. “I worry about my trans sisters in there. These things that I went through are still going on to this day.”


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