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Home / Articles / News / News /  Sheriff to reexamine treatment of transgender inmates
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Wednesday, Jan 02, 2013

Sheriff to reexamine treatment of transgender inmates

New advisory board formed in response to CityBeat article on abuse complaints that went uninvestigated

By Dave Maass
news1 Under Sheriff Bill Gore, transgender inmates get access to bras.
- Photo by Kelly Davis

The only document resembling guidelines for handling transgender inmates in local jails was issued by the San Diego County Sheriff's Department more than five years ago. Created under the previous sheriff, Bill Kolender, the two-page training bulletin uses Webster's dictionary to define "transgender" and, in notably sensitive terms, urges deputies to embrace their innate human kindness to preserve an inmate's dignity. 

"It is believed that transgender individuals have always existed in our societies," the bulletin says. "These individuals are often viewed by their friends and families as the sex they are representing and their expectation is that society views them in the same manner." 

That was issued in March 2007 in the months after local gay activists raised concerns over the death of a 35-year-old transgender detainee. According to a Gay & Lesbian Times article, the Sheriff's Department agreed to institute sensitivity training. However, in the years since, the sheriff never developed formal policies.

This year, the department will once again reconsider how it treats this class of inmates in the wake of new complaints lodged by transgender detainees at the George Bailey Detention Facility. Sheriff Bill Gore committed to forming an LGBT advisory board in a meeting two weeks ago with San Diego City Council President Todd Gloria and other gay advocates in response to a Nov. 19 CityBeat article that brought the allegations to light. 

In 2011, several transgender inmates housed in a segregated unit at the Otay Mesa jail filed complaints against 11 deputies and medical staff with the Citizens' Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB), the civilian body sanctioned by the county to investigate civil-rights-abuse allegations against deputies and probation officers. 

The transgender inmates claimed that guards made crude, sexual remarks to them, such as: "I'm going to miss watching you two shower," "Look, it's the ugliest girls in George Bailey," "I've got a delivery of summer sausage. Can I park it in your rear?" and "Oh God, fucking faggots. We're surrounded by six, nasty, disgusting faggots." One guard was accused of trading his cell phone number to an inmate in exchange for a look at the inmate's breasts. The inmates also said they were denied access to religious and education programs and, in one case, AIDS medication. 

CLERB failed to determine whether there was truth to the claims and threw out the case when it couldn't complete the investigation within a year, as required by state law. 

CityBeat has been unable to obtain further information about the allegations, since state law also protects the confidentiality of peace-officer personnel records and investigations. The federal Prison Rape Elimination Act requires local detention authorities to report publicly the number of sexual-harassment complaints, but the sheriff reported no allegations on the forms filed for 2011. The Sheriff's Department did not provide CityBeat an explanation for the apparent omission and did not respond to a request for the basic, anonymous data that it should have reported to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. 

However, leaders in San Diego's LGBT community were able to get some answers. After CityBeat's report, Gore received calls from Gloria's office, representatives from the San Diego LGBT Community Center and longtime gay activist and former chairperson of the city's Human Relations Commission, Nicole Murray-Ramirez, who'd also been involved in the 2007 reforms, as well as being involved in advocacy on behalf of abused transgender inmates in the 1980s. 

Gore not only agreed to form an advisory board but also to grant unsupervised interviews with transgender inmates. 

According to Murray-Ramirez, the inmates said the lead complainant (who's currently serving time in a state prison in Tehachapi) had a tendency to exaggerate. The inmates told him that 95 percent of the guards treated them respectfully, even using female pronouns to address them. 

"That made me almost fall out of my chair," Murray-Ramirez says. 

But many of the complaints were reaffirmed, including lack of access to religious services and private substance-abuse counseling, Murray-Ramirez says. One inmate reiterated a complaint that HIV medication was not provided for at least four days. 

All transgender inmates are held in protective custody, which means they're housed near the unit reserved for sexually violent predators. Several lamented the impression of some sort of similarity between transgender people and child molesters. 

"What they wanted, number one, was to be allowed to go into the general population," Murray-Ramirez says. "That's not going to happen, and I told them that." 

The 2007 bulletin, which, apparently, was redistributed in some form in 2009, addresses a range of transgender issues, including access to hormone therapies and bras. Guards are supposed to exercise sensitivity, especially when it comes to strip searches, since the penal code requires male guards to conduct searches on male inmates, regardless of the inmate's stated gender. 

"For these individuals the process can be frightening," the bulletin states. "You should be able to understand that the level of stress and fear will be even higher for an individual who has been living as a woman for the past ten years and now finds they are being booked into a male facility. You are encouraged to take a few moments to explain the process and answer questions to relieve some of their anxiety." 

Gloria and Murray-Ramirez say Gore inspired confidence with his responsiveness. 

"Little things go a long way to make an environment less hostile than it needs to be," Gloria says.

Email or follow him on Twitter @DaveMaass.