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Body scanners in SF to help trans inmates

by Seth Hemmelgarn

Sheriff Vicki Hennessy. Photo: Kelly Sullivan
Sheriff Vicki Hennessy. Photo: Kelly Sullivan  

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee wants $300,000 to pay for two body scanners in the city's jails, a step that's seen as crucial in helping trans inmates be housed according to their gender identity.

Lee spokeswoman Deirdre Hussey said in an email to the Bay Area Reporter that the mayor is proposing the funding in his budget for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 fiscal years.

The scanners would mean most transgender people and other inmates could be searched electronically rather than relying on sheriff's deputies to examine people. Ensuring staff of the appropriate gender are available to do strip searches has been one of the stumbling blocks in improving housing conditions for trans inmates. For years, trans people have complained of abuse and harassment by other inmates and sheriff's staff in San Francisco's jails.

Sheriff Vicki Hennessy, who oversees the jails, said Monday that it would take "six months to a year" to get the body scanners up and running, but she's "looking forward" to people neither having to be subject to nor perform strip searches.

"I think this will be a great step for everybody," said Hennessy.

It would take time to get the scanners ready because "We have to make sure we have the appropriate places to put them, and we may need to do some upgrading to the power sources," she said. Her agency will also need to seek bids on the project.

"It's a longer process than I would like, as is everything," she said.

Hennessy said "the majority of inmates" are strip-searched when they first come into custody and may be strip-searched again once they're in custody.

Theresa Sparks, a trans woman who's been working with Hennessy and others to address housing concerns and serves as Lee's senior adviser for transgender initiatives, praised the mayor's action.

"One of the big issues around transitioning trans women from the men to the women's side [of the jails] is body searches, and it's an issue of whether the deputies want to do body searches of trans women or trans women want men or women doing searches," said Sparks. "... Body scanners essentially alleviate the entire issue."

It's important that trans inmates are "able to feel comfortable with being searched, and with the current system, in many ways they are not comfortable, nor are the guards," Sparks added.

In June 2015, then-Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi announced 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.

Gay Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, who's been working with the mayor's office to get the funding, said he's "excited" about Lee proposing the funds for the body scanners.

"I think it's such a major move forward," said Sheehy. "By eliminating strip searches, it will improve conditions for trans and gender-nonconforming individuals in custody. It's a traumatic experience to be strip-searched."

Sheehy said that he thinks his board colleagues will support funding for body scanners when the mayor's budget proposal comes before them this summer.

"We all want to do the right thing," he said.

In response to an email from the B.A.R. about whether his group supports getting body scanners and their eliminating the need to do body searches on trans inmates, Eugene Cerbone, a gay man who serves as president of the San Francisco Deputy Sheriffs' Association, said, "I don't know who told you that body scans would replace searches of trans inmates, that is incorrect to my knowledge. These scanners are for contraband and not to be solely used in place of searches. Two machines would not be enough if they were to be used for searches only. Our union supports scanners since they assist the deputies in keeping drugs and other forms of contraband out of the jail system."

'Case-by-case review'

In a letter to Sheehy in February, Hennessy wrote that the scanners would "obviate the need for strip searches where warranted to prevent the introduction of contraband into the jail environment."

She also wrote, "The ultimate goal is to consider gender identity for all individuals, as part of the case-by-case review performed by the Classification Unit, and safely housing all transgender, gender variant, and intersex prisoners according to the gender with which they identify."

Several factors, including charges, "criminal sophistication," and psychiatric needs, are used to classify each inmate who's in the sheriff's custody for 72 hours "to determine the safest, most appropriate housing," Hennessy wrote. "We are currently developing a policy that will consider gender identity in each classification review and housing decision."

She immediately started working on moving the trans inmates to "A-Pod," a men's re-entry pod in County Jail #2, which is behind the Hall of Justice. The pod, managed by Five Keys Charter School, has been modified to provide trans inmates "with their own housing unit, including a shower, segregated from men's housing, but having the benefit of more light, air, and freedom of movement than they had at County Jail #4," wrote Hennessy, who called the move to A-Pod "an intermediate step."

Trans women are still being housed in A-Pod, she said Monday. Trans men are housed separately.

"We have had trans men from time to time," said Hennessy, who added that there are "usually between five and 15" trans people in custody.

The sheriff is hoping to have all staff trained on trans issues by June 30.

"We're making a lot of progress but I don't know how many we've been able to do because of our overtime issues," said Hennessy, referring to a recent San Francisco Examiner story that said, " Staff shortages have forced [the sheriff] to order her 840 sworn deputies to work mandatory overtime until September."

She told the B.A.R., "I've had to cancel some trainings in order to have enough people to operate the jails."


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