Despite report findings, LGBTQ groups say CA prisons failing trans people

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday April 5, 2023
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The Central California Women's Facility is in Chowchilla. Photo: Courtesy ABC30<br><br>
The Central California Women's Facility is in Chowchilla. Photo: Courtesy ABC30

While a state commissioned report found progress with the implementation of a law governing the placement of transgender people in California's prison system, LGBTQ and civil rights groups continue to contend that the needs of transgender incarcerated people are not being met. Gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) also expressed some disappointment with the report's recommendations.

The prison reform advocates also faulted the state prison agency for its slow pace of granting transgender incarcerated individuals' requests to be housed in gender-segregated correctional facilities that match their gender. Fewer than 50 such requests have been granted since 2021.

As the Bay Area Reporter has extensively reported, the law requires that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation house transgender people at correctional facilities based on their preference, whether that be by their gender identity or sex assigned at birth.

It also requires CDCR to record each incarcerated individual's self-reported gender identity, gender pronouns, and honorifics. All CDCR staff, contractors, and volunteers must consistently use the gender pronouns and honorifics that the individual has requested in all communications with or regarding them, according to the law.

The Moss Group, a criminal justice consulting firm, did not respond to requests for comment by press time. CDCR referred only to a statement by Connie Gipson, the director of CDCR's division of adult institutions, released with the publication of the report by the state agency on March 2.

"We're appreciative of the in-depth assessment of our implementation of SB 132 and the recognition of our efforts to improve the experiences of incarcerated transgender, non-binary and intersex people," Gibson stated.

The CDCR told the B.A.R. that as of March 26, "350 people housed in male institutions have requested to be housed in a female institution. Forty-seven were approved for transfer, 21 were denied, [and] 35 changed their minds. The remaining requests are being reviewed."

Amanda Goad, the Audrey Irmas director of the LGBTQ, Gender and Reproductive Justice Project at the American Civil Liberties Union Southern California, stated to the B.A.R. that the report failed to "recognize the serious harms TGI [transgender, gender-nonconforming and intersex] people in custody continue to experience because of the agency's slow and inconsistent implementation efforts and its reluctance to hold accountable those who continue to discriminate against and harass TGI individuals."

"Hundreds of TGI individuals have requested transfers to facilities better aligned with their gender identities but, contrary to SB 132's requirements, have yet to receive either a transfer or an explanation of a specific non-discriminatory management or security concern that warrants denying the request," Goad stated.

"Meanwhile, the few TGI people who have secured transfers to facilities matching their gender identities are enduring harassment and abuse from fellow incarcerated people and staff, disproportionately harsh discipline, and relegation to administrative segregation for extended periods, among other problems," Goad added.

According to the Moss Group's findings in the report, the state agency "developed a thoughtful approach to preparing both staff and incarcerated individuals for a successful transition in housing assignment processes as well as changes in practice to increase safety and respect in the management of (transgender, nonbinary, and intersex) individuals," the report stated.

The report praised a number of the CDCR's measures to implement the law, including having wardens of female institutions chairing Institution Classification Committee hearings (ICCs review gender identity-based housing requests), requiring the presence of the individual requesting transfer at an ICC, staff commitment to honoring people's pronouns, and a process for incarcerated people to submit a grievance.

The "analysis also included several recommendations related to search preferences, property, reception center processing and orientation, review of gender-based housing and searching requests, unit and bed placements, staffing, training, communications, leadership and culture, and research and data," the Moss Group stated. "CDCR has begun implementing these recommendations and will continue to refine its SB 132 process this year."

Mixed reactions

Bill author Wiener was pleased that "the report's findings are generally very positive, reflective of the feedback provided by impacted people who are incarcerated," he told the B.A.R.

"CDCR's commitment to incorporating the report's recommendations into the Institution Classification Committee process, as well as honoring the preferred pronouns of transgender incarcerated people, is laudable," he continued.

Wiener had mixed thoughts, though.

"Some of the report's recommendations are cause for concern — particularly the suggestion to remove SB 132's statutory language designed to protect the immediate safety of trans people who are being threatened while in prison," he stated.

Wiener was referring to a recommendation on page 4, which states that the part of the statute in which individuals are permitted single cells, a choice of cellmates, and the "ability to remove other individuals from any location, solely based on [their] status as an SB 132 individual" ought to be amended.

"SB 132 was a major and overdue change in the law to improve the safety of trans people in prison," Wiener stated. "Implementing it successfully will require ongoing dialogue. We must resist hasty changes that would risk compromising the law's intent and the safety of incarcerated Californians."

Other responses to the report were more negative. The ACLU's Goad asserted to the B.A.R. that the report isn't complete.

"While a few of the report's conclusions and recommendations appear rooted in fact — such as the observation that trans women are being targeted by abuse of the PREA complaint system — for the most part the Moss Group seems to have relied on information that was neither accurate nor complete and thus reached findings that are also inaccurate and incomplete," she concluded, referring to the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003.

Bamby Salcedo, a trans woman who is the president and chief executive officer of the Los Angeles-based TransLatin@ Coalition, told the B.A.R. that the report is "deeply disappointing."

"CDCR has not come through with what the law says," Salcedo said. "The greater disappointment in this report is saying things that are not true, because they are not the experience of trans, intersex, incarcerated people."

The coalition had co-sponsored SB 132.

"They have not built the infrastructure to make this a reality for our people, and the people who did this report did not do a thorough investigation," Salcedo said. "They are just going on what CDCR is telling them."

Terri Jay, the program coordinator of re-entry programs with the coalition, told the B.A.R. that there are "ongoing issues of denials of request for housing relocation to best housing that reflects [incarcerated people's] TGI identity," and that TGI people requesting hormone replacement therapy are being denied.

"SB 132 is a path for TGI while incarcerated to feel safe when housed as the trust should begin with CDCR staffing/clinicians and to include trans sensitivity training and/or Trans 101 Education to improve quality for CDCR staffing/clinicians how to work best with TGI while incarcerated," Jay stated.

Meanwhile, a federal lawsuit filed by four women incarcerated by the state that seeks to have SB 132 struck down as unconstitutional is still pending in the Eastern District of California. Last May, four trans women filed to intervene in the case of Chandler v. CDCR, as the B.A.R. reported, saying their rights would be violated if the case is decided against CDCR.

The Moss Group report in its entirety is available online.

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