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Few trans people transferred under new CA prisoner law

Assistant Editor

The Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla. Photo: Courtesy ABC30
The Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla. Photo: Courtesy ABC30  

Update: June 1, 2021— The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reached out to the Bay Area Reporter to correct the numbers it provided for the initial verison of this report. The numbers have been updated.

A new California law that allows incarcerated transgender people to ask for a transfer to a state prison or detention center that matches with their gender identity went into effect in January, but so far few people have been approved for it, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Senate Bill 132, authored by gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), was signed by Governor Gavin Newsom last year. To date only 26 requests from transgender and gender-nonconforming incarcerated people to move to gender-appropriate facilities have been approved this year, out of 271 requests, according to CDCR officials.

Sixteen people have been transferred.

Prison officials offered some reasons for the low number of approvals.

"Transfers are dependent on several factors including bed availability and COVID-19 precautions have impacted overall inmate transfers," CDCR deputy press secretary Terry Thornton stated in an email to the Bay Area Reporter.

No requests from trans inmates to be moved to gender-appropriate facilities have been outright rejected so far.

"Requests for housing based on gender identity are reviewed by a multi-disciplinary classification committee chaired by the warden and made up of custody, medical, and mental health care staff, and a [Prison Rape Elimination Act] compliance manager," Thornton stated. "This committee conducts an in-depth case-by-case review of all case factors and the individual's history to make a recommendation for approval or disapproval of the request."

But doubts linger among some people about whether incarcerated trans people are being treated fairly under the requirements set forth under SB 132.

As the B.A.R. previously reported, in addition to allowing incarcerated individuals to apply for a transfer, the bill also requires state prison personnel to record the person's self-reported gender identity, gender pronouns, and honorifics during the intake process. And it requires not just prison staff but also contractors and volunteers to properly address the individuals by name and pronoun.

There are 1,167 trans and gender-nonconforming people in the California prison system, according to CDCR statistics.

However, as Wiener told the B.A.R. last week, "there have been some reports of CDCR staff either trying to dissuade people or causing concern among cisgender women."

Indeed, the Los Angeles Times reported> April 5 that incarcerated people at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla said guards warned them "men" and sexual violence "are coming."

"We reached out to CDCR about that," Wiener said, referring to the article. "They [CDCR] told us they'd look into it, but that it was not a widespread issue but they'd still look into it."

Oakland-based attorney Jennifer Orthwein, a queer trans-identified nonbinary person, told the B.A.R. that "we are getting reports that cisgender male correctional officers and their supervisors are mocking transgender women by claiming they also identify as transgender women to intentionally deny them their requests to be searched by officers who identify as women."

"We are very disappointed with CDCR's failure to hold their officers accountable for violating the law or to thoughtfully and expeditiously implement the law, given it is long overdue and that failure to implement is causing very real and increased danger for transgender, intersex and nonbinary people attempting to assert their rights under the law," Orthwein stated.

Orthwein stated that CDCR has stopped transfers while adjusting the process. They did not identify a trans prisoner that the B.A.R. could speak with.

"Since no one has been officially denied, their attempts to file grievances for not having their requests to be transferred granted or even considered are being rejected as not an appealable issue," Orthwein stated. "So they are essentially in limbo and waiting for CDCR to respond to their pleas for transfer."

In a statement, Thornton confirmed that "CDCR is working on additional processes to help classification committees in their review of gender-based housing requests," but would not characterize these as pausing transfers.

"CDCR has not stopped transfers and is thoroughly evaluating incarcerated people's requests to be housed in an institution that aligns with their gender identity," Thornton stated.

In response to a question about the mocking of trans women, Thornton stated only "CDCR has a process to investigate complaints made by incarcerated people and every allegation of staff misconduct is investigated."

Wiener's office reached out to CDCR two days after the LA Times piece, asking several questions, including how CDCR is monitoring staff at the CCWF and what training and education CDCR is providing to staff.

A CDCR spokesman detailed training staff are receiving.

"Custody staff were trained on the requirements of SB 132 (housing, searches, etc.) and they are also receiving training titled, 'Working Successfully with Transgender, Intersex and Non-Binary Inmates' that covers pronoun usage, respect, definitions, and information about better understanding an individual's pathway to prison," Ryan Morimune of CDCR wrote in a reply email.

"Institutional leadership heard the rumor about staff exacerbating fears and met with the incarcerated representatives on the Inmate Advisory Council (IAC), as well as a couple of transgender women, but were not able to identify specific staff who may have been inciting fear," Morimune added. "The warden is aware of the concerns and is closely monitoring for any indication that intimidation or evoking fear by any staff is taking place. If specific incidents are identified, they will go through the appropriate disciplinary process."

At certain prisons, town hall meetings have been held to allay fears as the law is implemented, according to Morimune.

"As with most changes inside and outside our institutions, it takes time and concerted effort to bridge the gap between individuals and cultural differences. We are working tirelessly with staff and the incarcerated population to not only be aware of the changes, but also be accepting," Morimune stated. "Executive leadership and institutional leadership will continue to reinforce the importance of the changes that will be key to helping address cultural deficiencies. The Department has been proactive in the last several years in developing training and education on this topic and we are searching for ways to build upon our progress."

It's all too familiar to Bamby Salcedo, a trans woman who is the president and CEO of the TransLatin@ Coalition. Before SB 132 became law, Salcedo toured a women's correctional institution with Wiener.

"I think we have to understand the culture of CDCR," Salcedo said. "There's definitely exclusionary practices within the system so, yes, I'm very concerned that this is something that is happening."

Salcedo had been a major advocate for Wiener's bill. She said that she did not know any trans prisoners that the B.A.R. could speak with.

"SB 132 was intentionally to insure the safety of trans people in the California correctional system, so CDCR needs to make sure trans people are safe and free of violence," Salcedo said. "They need to ensure compliance with legislation."

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