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S.F. Jail's Trans Inmate Problem 

Wednesday, Jun 22 2016
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Last September, former Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi announced a novel innovation for San Francisco County Jail: Incarcerated transgender women would be housed with women, rather than housed alone. While there are never more than a handful of trans people in jail custody — currently, three trans women and zero trans men are in county— the jail would nonetheless be "integrated" by the end of the year, he promised.

That would have put San Francisco in the company of Denver, Houston, and Cumberland County, Maine, where jail policy allows trans people to be housed according to the gender by which they identify. Changing S.F.'s policy would allow the jail to comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), a 2003 law signed by George W. Bush that was intended to cut down on astronomic rates of sexual assault against trans inmates.

But it didn't happen.

As of press deadline on Tuesday, the jail's three trans women were in a pod in men's housing in the Seventh Street jail — though they are in a pod all by themselves, away from men — and one of the trans women, 29-year-old Athena Cadence, was on her 21st day of a hunger strike, refusing to eat until she is housed with women.

It's not entirely clear why Mirkarimi's policy dictum didn't happen before or after his successor, Sheriff Vicki Hennessy, took office in January. Hennessy is currently "working" on a policy to accommodate trans people, but there is no timetable for when it will be rolled out, according to jail spokeswoman Eileen Hirst. (There's also no policy.)

In the meantime, trans people in San Francisco County are housed "based solely on their genitalia ... all without considering individuals' views on their own safety, and all in violation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act," says Shawn Thomas, a staff attorney with the Transgender Law Center and an advocate for an updated housing policy.

Lacking cash to foot her $450,000 bail, Cadence has been in jail since Thanksgiving, after she was arrested for misdemeanor assault. (She has since lost her housing.) Convicted of three counts, she faces prison time, but her public defender is seeking assignment to a residential-treatment program rather than the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, according to a spokeswoman for the Public Defender.

Since there are so few trans people in jail, it may seem like a low priority for the city's jailers. But trans people are incarcerated at a rate eight times that of the general populace, and once inside, 40 percent of trans jail inmates are sexually abused, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. And then there's the issue of complying with existing law.

The biggest obstacle appears to be changing the minds of old-school, by-the-book law enforcement, who live in a world where gender is binary. Critics of a trans-friendly jail housing policy have also speculated about issues such as a trans woman, still laden with testosterone, muscling her way to the top of the food chain in a women's prison, and a female-to-male prisoner being overmatched in a men's unit.

Meerkamper says the Transgender Law Center has never heard from a trans man seeking men's housing.

At least in one way, the jail has already progressed: Under Mirkarimi, Cadence was housed at the end of the line in the Hall of Justice jail, where she had to walk past the men to and from her cell.

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.

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