by Douglas Ankney
In 2020, California enacted Senate Bill No. 132, the Transgender Respect, Agency, and Dignity Act (SB 132). SB 132 requires, inter alia, that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) house prisoners “in a correctional facility designated for men or women based on the individual’s preference” with recognized exceptions. As of April 2021, more than 200 transfers had been requested but only 21 had been approved.
Trans prisoners are relieved at the change. Trans prisoner Kelly Blackwell told the Los Angeles Times, “I won’t be around predatory men and I won’t be around staff that frown upon trans women.” The CDCR reports that 1,129 prisoners (a little more than 1% of the prison population) identify themselves as transgender, nonbinary, or intersex. In 2007, a study from the University of California at Irvine documented that these prisoner populations experience a significantly higher rate of violence in general and are sexually assaulted at a rate that is 13 times higher than that of cisgender prisoners. In a 2011-12 survey, nearly 40% of transgender prisoners reported experiencing sexual victimization while incarcerated compared to 4% of all incarcerated individuals. Trans prisoners experience particularly high rates of discrimination and violence even at the hands of CDCR employees.
Compounding the problem is that, historically, trans women are more vulnerable to arrest and incarceration, due to higher rates of unemployment and associated poverty and due to discriminatory laws that push them into criminalized sex work. Until recently, New York arrested trans women of color simply for appearing in public places under the “Walking While Trans” anti-loitering law. (California has similar legislation on the books but a senate bill has been introduced to repeal it.)
But cis women prisoners have expressed fear at the transfers. Tomiekia Johnson, a cis female at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla said guards have warned them that “men are coming” and to expect sexual violence. Which is odd given the very high rates of male guards raping prisoners in women’s prisons in California and nationally. She says an unnamed guard told her, “if we think it’s bad now, be prepared for the worst. That it’s going to be off the hook; it’s going to be jumping… we’re going to need a facility that’s going to be like a maternity ward.” But when asked if manipulation of the transfer system by prisoners in men’s facilities has been a significant issue, CDCR spokesperson Terry Thornton said, “a person’s gender identity is self-reported and CDCR will evaluate any request submitted by an incarcerated person for gender-based housing.” She added that the CDCR has requested several million dollars to implement the law.
SB 132 is similar to legislation previously passed in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Among the provisions of SB 132 is a requirement that the CDCR, during initial intake and classification, permit a prisoner in a private setting to specify that person’s gender identity, i.e., cisgender, transgender, nonbinary, or intersex and their gender pronoun and honorific. The bill requires that searches of the prisoner be performed by staff of the same gender as that identified by the prisoner. Additionally, staff and contractors are to use the prisoner’s specified gender pronouns and honorifics when communicating with that prisoner.
SB 132 defines “transgender” as “broad and inclusive of all gender identities different from the gender a person was assigned at birth including, but not limited to, transsexual, two-spirit, and mahu.” (Mahu are third gender people in Native Hawaiian and Tahitian cultures.)
“Nonbinary” is defined as “an inclusive term used to describe individuals who may experience a gender identity that is neither exclusively male nor female or is in between or beyond both of those genders, including, but not limited to, gender fluid, agender or without gender, third gender, genderqueer, gender variant, and gender nonconforming.”
“Intersex” is defined as “a broad and inclusive term referring to people whose anatomy, hormones, or chromosomes fall outside the strict male and female binary.”
“Gender pronouns” are defined as “he,” “she,” or “they.” And “honorific” is a “form of respectful address typically combined with an individual’s surname.”
SB 132 doesn’t define “cisgender” but an appropriate definition would be “gender identity consistent with that assigned at birth.”
Sources: SB 132, latimes.com, leginfo.legislature.ca.gov
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