Mirkarimi plan would move trans women out of male jail
by Seth Hemmelgarn
San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi plans to stop classifying transgender inmates who have not had surgery according to their birth sex, meaning that trans women would no longer be housed with men.
The same would be true for transgender men, but the jail population generally sees more trans women inmates.
Trans inmates who have had surgery are already housed based on their preferred gender identity, the sheriff's department said.
Mirkarimi's plan, which he's been working with transgender advocates to develop, also means the handful of people housed in the cell used for transgender inmates would be able to get access to education and other services that are currently unavailable to them.
The small cell is in a corner of County Jail #4, a men's facility, which is on the cramped, decrepit seventh floor of the Hall of Justice, 850 Bryant Street. Transgender women would be moved to the facility where women are housed, County Jail #2, which is behind the Hall of Justice. Mirkarimi and advocates say the new policy would increase rehabilitation and public safety.
Despite advances for other inmates, "this population is getting left behind," Mirkarimi said at a Friday, June 5 meeting with transgender advocates, key members of his staff, and the Bay Area Reporter .
The first step would be to help the transgender inmates get access to programming, and before the end of the year, Mirkarimi hopes to make the housing move.
Mirkarimi said with the proposed changes, his department is "breaking new ground" locally and nationally.
At the meeting last week with the sheriff and others, Janetta Johnson, executive director of the Oakland-based Transgender GenderVariant Intersex Justice Project, which works to help transgender, gender variant, genderqueer and intersex people who are incarcerated, indicated there's a dire need for services in jail.
"You're not getting any of those opportunities solely based on the fact that you're transgender," said Johnson, a trans woman who spent time in jail in Santa Clara County several years ago. When inmates are released after being isolated and not getting the help they need, "We're fucking crazy," she said, adding, "The only way they're going to get access is in the women's facility."
But Eugene Cerbone, the president of the San Francisco Deputy Sheriffs' Association, expressed some concern about the plans.
"I think it can work," Cerbone, a gay man, said in an interview after the sheriff's meeting, which he did not attend. "It just depends on what the policy is and what he's going to do. There could be some issues with it."
One problem Cerbone has is that he doesn't consider people who have not had surgery to be transgender.
"Transgender is you have the surgery," he said. "What I know of someone who's actually transgendered [sic] is they've had the complete change."
Asked about people who would find such a comment offensive, Cerbone said, "I'm not talking about civilian life, I'm talking about in a custody setting," which is "a completely different thing. Custody is where we don't have men and women together," and where "over the years," jail staff "have basically had everything based on what your genitalia was, not what you were perceived to be."
Cerbone said he's just concerned about safety, and he wants to ensure that while transgender people are in custody, "they're not worried about assaults or anything like that. ... I've worked in the jails. I know what they have to deal with."
He's particularly concerned about cis women moving into male jail facilities, but inmates who identify as transgender are typically male-to-female.
He also wondered how it would be determined whether someone is transgender.
"Is there any gender review board, or can anybody just come into custody and claim to be anything?" Cerbone said. "... You don't think you'll get guys trying to push their way into a female housing unit if they could?"
Cerbone added, "If they're really what I would consider transgender, where the change is done," he "wouldn't have any issues" with the proposed changes.
Labor groups, including Cerbone's, which has about 730 members, "have to agree on the policy," since it would involve a change to work conditions and other factors, he said.
In an emailed response to Cerbone's comment, Mirkarimi said, "We honor our union labor obligations relative to the meet-and-confer process. The reforms we're advancing for the transgender population are an expansion of existing programs and procedures. While some people may try to delay this move, I say the time is now that it happens."
Theresa Sparks, a transgender woman who was at the sheriff's meeting and who serves as executive director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, disagreed with Cerbone's remarks.
"There's been a lot of discussion around this," Sparks said, and invoking concerns about inmate safety with pre-operative transgender people is "kind of a red herring."
"More than half of transgender women never have surgery in their life," and surgery "is not a determining factor in whether someone is transgender or not," she said.
A classification committee would meet with incoming inmates to determine whether "they have a history" of living as transgender and they have "a firm understanding of their own self-identity," Sparks said. Inmates would need to be able to show that they're on hormones, or that they've been living in their preferred gender "for a period of time."
The classification wouldn't require any "change in anatomy whatsoever," she said.
Education is crucial, Sparks said.
"It's very, very important the community come in and give these people training and cultural competency sessions so they really have the correct information," she said, referring to jail staff.
Increased public safety
Mirkarimi and others said when inmates get the help they need, public safety is improved.
Sparks said the changes would help prepare trans women "to be successful after they get out," since they'll be able to adjust to being around other women again. Work would also be done to provide services for people once they're out of custody.
The changes are among those called for by the national Prison Rape Elimination Act, but Mirkarimi said he'd be developing the new policy anyway.
He said he didn't yet know the cost of what the changes would be, but "We're scraping together whatever funding we can." Some programming is "agile enough" that it can be adjusted "without much change," he said.
Cerbone said Mirkarimi, who's running for re-election in November, is proposing the changes for political gain, but Mirkarimi has told the B.A.R. that he's been working on the policy "for almost two years."
Cerbone supports Mirkarimi's opponent, former chief deputy sheriff Vicki Hennessy, as does the deputy sheriff's association.
Sparks said Friday that the sheriff has been working with transgender advocates on the policy for "a long time."