A jail in New York’s Finger Lakes region has agreed to implement broad changes intended to protect the rights of transgender, intersex, gender non-conforming, and non-binary individuals in custody.
The changes followed a lawsuit lodged by Jena Faith, a transgender woman who spent four weeks at the Steuben County Jail as she awaited trial. While housed there, she was suddenly transferred to the men’s housing unit simply because she is transgender. She said she faced sexual harassment and abuse and that her prescribed medication was withheld from her during her time at the jail.
Faith’s 2019 lawsuit led to a settlement that was announced on August 5 by the county and the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (TLDEF), and law firm BakerHostetler. The legal groups hailed it as a major step forward in the fight for stronger policies that protect incarcerated individuals.
The new, wide-ranging policy at the Steuben County Jail, which the advocates say conforms to what they view as the requirements of state and federal law, appears to directly address some of the issues Faith encountered. It states that substantiated claims of misconduct by staff members can result in termination or criminal charges and it also bans harassment and discrimination based on a person’s sex, gender identity, or gender expression.
Inmates will not be required to present documentation proving their gender identity; all individuals entering the jail will be asked to disclose their gender identity confidentially; all names and pronouns must be respected; and transgender, non-binary, intersex, and gender non-conforming inmates will have the right to a medical assessment and necessary medical care.
Furthermore, inmates will have equal access to toiletry and clothing in accordance with their gender identity, and transgender, non-binary, intersex, and gender non-conforming inmates will be able to shower separately or at different times, if they wish.
When inmates are being housed, they have the right to request placement in sex-segregated units and jail staff must make reasonable efforts to accomodate such requests, according to the policy.
Despite the policy’s language holding jail officials to a “reasonable efforts” standard in accommodating an inmate’s housing request, the release from the NYCLU, TLDEF, and BakerHostetler stated the new regulations would “presumptively house people consistent with their gender identity.”
The regulations spelled out in the policy regarding the denial of a housing request preclude “discriminatory” reasons such as an inmate’s anatomy or genitalia, their sexual orientation, or any objection from other inmates.
Staff members at the jail must undergo training to learn the new policy and those staffers will also be required to undergo annual refresher training.
“I feel so relieved that the county is acknowledging the harm it caused me and taking steps to ensure this does not happen to anyone else,” Faith, who received $60,000 in compensation as part of the settlement, said in a written statement. “No one should ever be subjected to the cruelty and harassment I endured. Everyone housed in detention facilities deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, including transgender people. I hope my case will help others, not only in Steuben County, but also across New York and beyond.”
Andy Marra, the executive director of TLDEF, said the settlement makes it clear that law enforcement must have a legal and moral obligation to ensure the health, safety, and well-being of trans people in their care.
“Because of Jena’s courageous decision to challenge her mistreatment, jails and prisons here in New York and across the country now have a new policy standard to prevent future incidents of abuse and discrimination,” Marra said.
While the policy was hailed by advocates, it is not yet clear what specific impact it will have beyond Steuben County. Transgender, gender non-conforming, non-binary, and intersex individuals continue to face widespread mistreatment behind bars in state and federal facilties.
Transgender women like Johana Medina who came to the US from El Salvador but died last year after a stint in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, and Roxsana Hernández from Honduras, who died in 2018 in ICE custody and was later found to have signs of having suffered abuse, have been mistreated at the federal level, while other trans women, like Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, have died while in custody of local officials on Rikers Island. More than a year after Polanco’s death, the city suspended 17 Department of Correction officers in connection to the tragedy, but the Bronx district attorney declined to file any criminal charges.
Bobby Hodgson, a staff attorney at the NYCLU, believes the settlement can serve as a starting point that can lead to broader changes across the state in the future.
“This agreement establishes one of the strongest jail or prison anti-discrimination policies in the country and creates a solid framework that officials across the state should look to as they adjust their own policies to comply with the law,” Hodgson said in a written statement.
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