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Trans inmates’ identities are legally required to be recognized under new state law

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Ryan Konrad
Staff Writer

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is now legally required to recognize the needs and identities of transgender prisoners under a new state law took effect Jan. 1.

The Transgender Respect, Agency, and Dignity Act requires correctional officers and staff to recognize incarcerated individuals’ gender identities, pronouns and honorifics.

Under the law, staff must record inmates’ gender identity upon processing and accommodate them based on their preference. They are also required to search and place individuals in facilities in accordance with their gender identity.

About 1,200 inmates in California identify as transgender, gender-noncomforming or intersex. Since the law took effect, over 130 requests have been made and four individuals have been transferred, said Terry Thornton, a spokesperson for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

“When you respect a person’s gender identity and who they are, you get better outcomes,” Thornton said.

She added that certain provisions of the act, including the use of preferred pronouns, had already been in place before the law’s enactment.

“We saw it as a need to codify these protections for trans folks who are incarcerated,” said Josh Stickney, spokesperson for Equality California, a non-profit civil rights organization.

Equality California was part of a coalition of trans advocacy groups who co-sponsored the bill.

“There were no protocols in place when trans folks did not feel safe in a certain facility, there was no recourse for that,” said Stickney.

He added that the department was involved in conversations surrounding the bill and has complied since it went into effect. The coalition has continued to work with the department in terms of improving the law’s implementation in California’s facilities.

The law’s implementation was one of seven recommendations made in a special report by the Office of Inspector General in September 2020, which included greater staff oversight and investigation, a review of training curriculum, and an annual survey of trans inmates regarding new policies, according to Office of the Inspector General. Thornton said the department had been proactively working on these issues before both the law and report were established.

According to the report, trans inmates described “a culture of disrespect” by staff and fellow inmates, citing verbal abuse, slurs, sexual harassment and violence. Though the department tracks violence in its facilities, it does not specifically record violence against trans inmates. It is also unclear if staff accused of such behavior have been investigated or reprimanded. The department has responded to all seven recommendations, said Thorton.

“There were lots of instances of assault and sexual violence that trans people experience, and one incident is too many,” said Catie Stewart, a spokesperson for state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, who authored the bill.

Stewart added there is a lot more work to be done for criminal justice reform.

“We ultimately have to end mass incarceration, and this is a very, very, very, tiny piece of the puzzle,” she said.

Last year was the deadliest year for violence against transgender individuals since record-keeping began, according to a 2020 report by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization.

At least 44 trans people were fatally attacked last year, a number that may be higher because incidents have been misreported or under-reported. In California’s correctional facilities, the numbers are unclear as victims of violence sometimes do not speak out of fear of retaliation by fellow prisoners or staff, Stickney said.

Ryan Konrad can be reached at ryan.konrad@laverne.edu.

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