New SF sheriff shares plans for trans inmates
by Seth Hemmelgarn
During her first full day on the job, newly sworn-in San Francisco Sheriff Vicki Hennessy met with advocates to work on updating her department's policies on transgender inmates.
Ex-Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, whom Hennessy defeated in November after his scandal-plagued tenure, announced plans last year to expand educational and other programming for trans inmates and house them based on their gender identity rather than the sex they were assigned at birth, meaning transgender women would no longer be housed with men in jail.
During the sheriff's race, Hennessy said she supported the changes, but she said Mirkarimi should have done more to get buy-in from staff.
In an interview Tuesday, Hennessy expressed optimism that everything would be finalized within the next three months. She said she'd met with advocates the previous day to talk about changes.
Training to prepare staff for bringing trans women to the women's jail already has started, and in recent weeks Hennessy has been getting regular updates on that process.
Advocates are "a little concerned about the training," though, she said, and have "asked if they could enhance the training by providing some of their own." She agreed to the idea.
Chris Daley, who co-founded Transgender Law Center and now works at Just Detention International, submitted "a suggested procedure for housing" before Hennessy took office, but that document needs to be vetted with her agency's union, she said.
Hennessy said she'd like to have "at least a pilot program" that integrates trans women into classes in the women's facility "in the next few weeks."
She's hopeful the housing policy will be finalized by April.
"I don't like to rush into things and have them not succeed because I've forgotten something or there's an unintended consequence," Hennessy said.
She added, "My priority is that people are safe," and that staff "receive the education they need and the training they need to have the best outcome."
Hennessy said work is underway to set up a meeting with the San Francisco Deputy Sheriffs' Association. Like her, the union's gay president, Eugene Cerbone, has expressed concern about a lack of staff input on the policy under Mirkarimi.
In an email, Cerbone, whose group backed Hennessy in the race, said, "I look forward to meeting with the administration to discuss this matter."
Daley, who proposed a housing procedure, said in an email that Hennessy "is clearly committed to building on Sheriff Mirkarimi's efforts to craft and adopt a new policy as quickly as the process will allow."
Amy Whelan, a senior staff attorney for the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights, was at Hennessy's meeting Monday.
In a brief interview, Whelan said, "I think there's a lot of momentum now from her office as well as from other folks in San Francisco" to ensure that the city "is a leader, and that we are diverting transgender people from the jails whenever we can, but when they are ending up there, they are being placed consistent with their gender identity."
Theresa Sparks, a transgender woman who serves as executive director of the city's Human Rights Commission, said training with deputies in the women's jail started before the holidays.
"The next step will probably be to train all sheriff's deputies and be able to start the housing transfer from one side to the other," Sparks said. She predicted trans women would be able to take part in programming "in the next week or so."
Like Hennessy, Sparks hopes that the housing transition "will happen in the next three months."
Sparks, who wasn't able to attend Hennessy's meeting but did send an HRC staffer, said, "it's pretty significant" that the gathering happened on Hennessy's first day.
"It shows everyone the respect she has for the community and how serious she is moving forward with this," she said.
It's clear that many people are keeping an eye on the new sheriff's progress on the trans policy.
In a rare joint letter sent January 5 to Hennessy, the heads of the Alice B. Toklas and Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic clubs said they are "very concerned" with transgender inmates' safety.
"During the campaign, you committed to reviewing the proposed transgender housing policy and working with the deputy sheriffs to ensure communication and consistency in the adoption process," the letter says. "We all hope that this can be done expediently to ensure that a robust policy that ensures safety and dignity for transgender people can be implemented as soon as possible."
Asked about the letter, Hennessy said, "I understand their concerns about any delays. I just need some time to get in there and do the work I can do."
At her swearing in Friday, Hennessy said the sheriff's office needs to be "a well-trained, professional, humane, and dedicated department."
She had her staff stand and recite the agency's code of ethics and said, "Think about what the words mean. ... This is where the rubber meets the road."
Other officials who were on hand at the City Hall event expressed relief that she defeated Mirkarimi.
State Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco) said Hennessy, who worked for decades in the sheriff's department, is "no nonsense and no drama."
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) said, "professionalism and experience really do play a role" in the sheriff's department, where staff "long for" those qualities.