Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 13 / 29 March 2018

Sheriff provides trans housing update


Sheriff Vicki Hennessy. Photo: Kelly Sullivan
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San Francisco Sheriff Vicki Hennessy is asking for body scanners so that transgender inmates in jail can be searched electronically rather than relying on sheriff's deputies to examine people.

Hennessy addressed that issue, among many others, in a lengthy letter she sent to gay District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy. Sheehy, who took office in January, had requested a progress report on updating housing policies for trans inmates.

In June 2015, then-Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi announced plans to stop classifying transgender inmates who have not had surgery according to their birth sex, meaning that trans women would no longer be housed with men. But progress has been slow.

In her February 8 letter to Sheehy, Hennessy wrote that she would seek funding for body scanners in her budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year. The scanners would "obviate the need for strip searches where warranted to prevent the introduction of contraband into the jail environment," she said. Ensuring staff of the appropriate gender are available to do strip searches has been one of the stumbling blocks in improving housing conditions for transgender inmates.

"The ultimate goal is to consider gender identity for all individuals, as part of the case-by-case review performed by the Classification Unit, and safely housing all transgender, gender variant, and intersex prisoners according to the gender with which they identify," Hennessy wrote.

Eileen Hirst, a spokeswoman for the sheriff's department, said that the agency wants to get three scanners. The machines would cost "about $100,000 apiece, including installation."

Besides getting scanners, Hennessy said, "Much work" remains, but several steps are planned.

The agency will start using new field arrest cards March 1 that include places for each inmate's legal and preferred names, gender identity, and the gender of the staff person they want to have search them. The data will be documented in the sheriff's automated jail management system.

"We are working with the police department to make sure our two agencies develop consistent policies in this area, so that transmission of this information in booking documents is seamless from point of arrest through the booking process," Hennessy wrote.

Several factors, including charges, "criminal sophistication," and psychiatric needs, are used to classify each inmate who's in the sheriff's custody for 72 hours "to determine the safest, most appropriate housing," Hennessy wrote. "We are currently developing a policy that will consider gender identity in each classification review and housing decision."

In her letter, Hennessy recalled that when she took office in January 2016, trans inmates were housed in County Jail #4, on the seventh floor at the Hall of Justice, 850 Bryant Street, "where they were receiving little programming and where, in order to participate in programs, they had to walk the entire mainline and be subjected to taunts of other prisoners."

She immediately started working on moving the trans inmates to "A-Pod," a men's re-entry pod in County Jail #2, which is behind the Hall of Justice. The pod, managed by Five Keys Charter School, has been modified to provide trans inmates "with their own housing unit, including a shower, segregated from men's housing, but having the benefit of more light, air, and freedom of movement than they had at County Jail #4."

Hennessy said the move to A-Pod "is an intermediate step."

The sheriff also wants to build "flexible dividers within the women's housing pods ... to ensure shower facilities separation as required by [the Prison Rape Elimination Act]."

The dividers would be paid for by funds that are included in the sheriff's current capital planning request for County Jail #2's renovation.

Hennessy wrote that "key to the renovation plan" is the Board of Supervisors' approval of a resolution that would authorize her to apply for $70 million in grant funding from the California Board of State and Community Corrections, along with $12 million in matching funds.

The sheriff wrote that her staff are also receiving gender awareness training. So far, 401 people have been trained. The plan is for all staff to be trained by June 30. Inmates are also being prepared "through education, for the addition of transgender, gender variant, and intersex individuals to their housing areas," Hennessy stated.

She also wrote that program offerings for trans inmates "have improved considerably since the move to County Jail #2" last April. Programs include a coding class, support groups, and job search and computer skills training.

Additionally, Hennessy stated, "Transwomen in need of a high school diploma are now offered the opportunity to participate, along with ciswomen prisoners, in the Five Keys Charter School when their security classification and educational needs make them eligible."

Hennessy pledged to adhere to standards set forth in the national PREA, which addresses housing for trans inmates.

In her letter, she noted that guidelines state that when it comes to housing and programming for trans and intersex inmates, agencies "shall consider on a case-by-case basis whether a placement would ensure the inmate's health and safety, and whether the placement would present management or security problems," and, "a transgender or intersex inmate's own views with respect to his or her own safety shall be given serious consideration."

"In looking ahead to making new housing assignments, we will need to make them on a case-by-case basis to ensure the safety of each person as we seek to honor their housing preference," Hennessy stated.

She wrote that staff are also being trained on new expectations around searches that are consistent with PREA standards.

"Implementing this policy constitutes a change in working conditions and requires that we meet and confer with both the Deputy Sheriffs' Association and the Managers and Supervisors Association," Hennessy wrote. "We have initiated meet and confer, and are working through that process."

Hennessy has issued a training bulletin and memo to all sheriff's personnel "making my intention clear and encouraging voluntary compliance until the new search policy is finalized," she stated.

There were 12 transgender, gender variant, or intersex people in custody as of February 14, Hirst said. Six of them were in A-Pod, two were in County Jail #4, and four were "new arrivals" who were still in the intake pod.

'Excellent progress'

Asked about Hennessy's letter, Sheehy said, "I think we're making excellent progress." He said he's committed to "making sure we have funding in the budget to secure body scanners."

Theresa Sparks, a transgender woman who's been working with Hennessy and others to address housing concerns and serves as Mayor Ed Lee's senior adviser for transgender initiatives, said Hennessy has made "incredible progress in a very difficult area. Her commitment to this really has been very welcome."

"This process has never been implemented in any other jail in the United States," she said. "It's been attempted in a few and partially implemented, but this has never been done" fully.

"We're very optimistic," Sparks said, particularly with Hennessy's "decision to move forward with the full body scanners," which "is going to make a significant difference."

The machines "will be more efficient" than strip searches, she said, and female deputies in particular had been reluctant to search trans women.

"The body scanners will alleviate that as well," Sparks said.

At least one trans inmate isn't satisfied with her situation, though.

Latiya Pryor, 48, is serving several months in jail after pleading guilty to second-degree commercial burglary.

In a recent interview inside County Jail #4, Pryor said she's being held there in the administrative segregation unit despite several requests to move to County Jail #2 with other trans inmates. She also said that she's been unable to get access to women's underwear, among other concerns.

"It's a known fact that we're the last they care about," Pryor said.

Hirst, the sheriff's spokeswoman, said, "Unfortunately, because of classification issues, Ms. Pryor cannot be moved, but we are endeavoring to resolve all other matters that she mentioned." The classification issue isn't related to Pryor's gender, Hirst said, but she couldn't comment further.



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