January 31

Nation’s jails make changes to keep transgender inmates safe

Housing is the most difficult issue, and conflicts between state and federal laws must be resolved.

By Ramit Plushnick-Masti
The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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Tyniehsa Stephens sits with cellmates in a new unit in the Harris County Jail for gay, bisexual and transgender prisoners last December in Houston, Texas. Harris County is one of many jails around the country hoping to house inmates based on where they will be safest, and consider gender identity when making that decision.

The Associated Press

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Inmates hang out on their bunks in a new unit in the Harris County Jail for gay, bisexual and transgender inmates in December in Houston, Texas.

The Associated Press

Maj. Debra Schmidt, who oversees inmate classification, booking and release for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, acknowledges that making the changes is difficult. A system that uses the type of crime, arrest record and gender to assign inmates has to be revamped. Staff needs to be retrained, and a culture among staff that may have allowed some to air their prejudices and go unpunished must change, she said.

“This is going to be a real challenge for law enforcement agencies,” Schmidt said.

Housing isn’t the only challenge. Jails also have to confront staffing levels to reduce rape, said Robert Goerlitz, president of the Harris County Deputies Organization, a union that represents more than 1,600 law enforcement officers, including jail guards.

“It’s awful dangerous for both sides of this thing, not only for the prisoners, but for the guards,” Goerlitz said, noting that each guard is responsible for monitoring 48 inmates. The new rules will not reduce rape if staffing is insufficient, he said.

The jail is also confronting things that are a part of everyday life behind bars, like strip searches. Houston’s new policy allows an inmate to choose the gender of the person who does a search, which conflicts with state law that requires inmates to be searched by someone of the same sex.

Recently, one transgender inmate, who – similar to Stephens – had only had a partial sex transformation was searched from the waist up by a woman and from the waist down by a man in order to comply with state law, said Lt. Walter Bailey, supervisor of inmate classification.

Some officers could be uncomfortable strip searching someone of the opposite sex, said Wood, with the Texas agency that oversees jails.

“I’ve created not one, but two issues,” he said.

For Stephens, the new policies are long overdue, and she is hopeful they lead to a better environment for inmates like her.

“There would be officers in there who had grudges against gay people and they would just come in here and tear up our stuff for no reason. They would come in and talk to us like we’re animals and handle us like we’re animals,” Stephens said. “It was unfair and unjust.”

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Ramit Plushnick-Masti can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RamitMastiAP

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