Being transgender in jail

By Darryl Holliday

Gender and LGBTQ justice advocates may have a new ally in some Illinois jails if a recent policy succeeds in changing the system.

The Cook County Department of Corrections has created new guidelines for the custody and safety of transgendered inmates that will separate those deemed officially transgender and allow them to serve time in ways that match their gender identification as of March 21.

“The idea is that in any correctional setting, you could see a negative reaction by other detainees to a transgender person coming into their living unity,” said Steve Patterson, spokesman for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office. “And, likewise, you could see a negative reaction by the transgender person to being housed inappropriately,”

Sheriff Tom Dart, in collaboration with the Cermak Health Services of Cook County, initiated the new policy through talks with community groups in response to harassment of transgender inmates.

In an effort to improve conditions for transgender inmates, the department has taken the first step in requiring “zero-tolerance for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” according to the policy.

The policy attempts to outline identification procedures for inmates with “gender identity disorder,” by convening a five-member Gender Identity Disorder Committee made up of corrections, medical and mental health staff.

Classification of those individuals will involve evaluation by the committee, which will then come to a majority consensus determining housing, clothing, grooming and search procedures, among others, for the transgender individual.

Though Cook County’s policy is the first of its kind in Illinois, more nondiscrimination procedures are needed, according to Lisa Mottet, of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which was organized to build the grassroots power of the LGBTQ community.

According to a Feb. 3 report co-authored by Mottet titled “Injustice at Every Turn,” the first national survey detailing discrimination involving transgender residents, physical and sexual abuse of transgender populations by police and correctional facilities is a pervasive problem in the U.S.

The survey found a fifth of respondents reported harassment by police because of bias with substantially higher rates up to 38 percent reported by respondents of color. Nearly half the respondents reported being uncomfortable seeking police assistance.

Additionally, 16 percent of respondents who had served time in jail reported they were physically assaulted, along with 15 percent reporting sexual assault by either inmates or guards. Routine denial of health care and hormones in jails were reported at 12 and 17 percent, respectively.

“These are terrible numbers,” Mottet said. “Overall, our entire sample had terrible numbers of harassment and abuse.”

There are too many stories of transgender people being abused at the hands of law enforcement, according to Bernard Cherkasov, chief executive officer of Equality Illinois, an LGBTQ advocacy and equal rights organization.

“We definitely want this policy to be in place,” Cherkasov said. “But to have a policy is one thing—to have a policy that is good and appropriate is another thing.

“That’s why we’re investigating this policy to make sure it addresses the issues in a correct way,” Cherkasov said.

Though Mottet said she finds Cook County’s policy suffers at times from a lack of clarity regarding how decisions by the Gender Identity Disorder Committee will be made, she said the move is a step forward.

“I think the policy should apply to all transgender people whether or not they’ve been previously diagnosed,” she said. “But again, I really do think that this policy is an advance and very well-intentioned.”

According to Patterson, the new procedure already has had a noticeable effect. He said one transgender inmate in particular now freely talks about her identity and discusses traumatic incidents from her past in group therapy sessions.

“She said it’s the first time she has ever received treatment—or been treated as she sees herself—during all her years of incarceration,” he said, noting in the past three weeks, six more transgender individuals have come into custody. “We don’t think there’s any sort of rise in arrests of transgender people. We think it’s more that it’s on our radar, and now we’re doing something about it.”