For members of the transgender community, arrest and incarceration can be especially traumatic. Reports have surfaced of authorities acting openly hostile toward inmates’ identities, and transgender women who are classified as male and housed in men’s jails say they face even greater safety and privacy concerns.
But San Francisco officials are hoping to turn the tide on such challenges faced by transgender inmates, and last month the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department and Board of Supervisors announced sweeping improvements to how transgender arrestees and jail inmates are handled.
For starters, the Sheriff’s Department and San Francisco Police Department collaborated to develop updated field arrest cards that allow arrested individuals to state what pronouns they use, their chosen name [which, for transgender people, is sometimes different from the name on their state-issued ID] and whether they prefer to be searched by a male or female officer.
“We worked with the Police Department because we realized we didn’t have a way of capturing these preferences,” Sheriff Vicki Hennessy said.
San Francisco is the first city in the country to implement comprehensive changes in the handling of transgender inmates, Hennessy said.
The changes also include the development of POST- (Peace Officer Standards and Training) certified gender awareness classes, which Hennessy said will help deputies understand the unique issues transgender inmates can face when interacting with law enforcement and corrections officers.
Another change Hennessy has implemented deals with where transgender inmates are housed.
Previously, the TGI (transgender, gender-variant and intersex) inmate population was kept in a county jail unit at the Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant St., adjacent to a men’s jail unit.
While physical contact with inmates in the men’s jail was not possible, Hennessy said transgender inmates were frequently forced to walk in a corridor past male inmates, where they were routinely subjected to catcalls and other harassment.
“It was an absolutely horrible place to house them,” Hennessy said.
Now, transgender inmates are housed in a dormitory at 425 Seventh St., which provides greater separation from men’s jail inmates.
Transgender inmates account for a small fraction of San Francisco’s inmate population, Hennessy said. Out of 1288 inmates as of late February, only 12 were transgender.
But improving conditions for transgender inmates also brings to light complex issues, like the need to find consensus with the unions representing corrections and law enforcement officers, Hennessy said. Asking female officers to strip-search transgender women, for instance, constitutes a change in working conditions.
“When I first got here, I thought this would be a very simple thing to do, but I found out it’s very complicated,” Hennessy said.
Mayor Ed Lee’s senior advisor on transgender issues, Theresa Sparks, praised the new policies.
“This process has never been implemented in any other jail in the United States,” Sparks said in a statement. “We’re very optimistic that this is going to make a significant difference for a very vulnerable population.”
For transgender women Sarah, 22, and Pam, also 22 — who were each arrested separately in Colorado and Pennsylvania, respectively — improvements to the treatment of transgender inmates would be welcome.
Sarah was arrested last year in Jefferson County, Co., after she fell asleep in her car.
Charged with driving under the influence, Sarah was housed with male inmates for two days, prior to arraignment. She described the experience as “completely terrifying.”
“While in jail, I was denied toilet paper, and referred to as ‘it’ instead of ‘she,’” Sarah recalled. “My pants fell down in a waiting room full of men when the cop took my belt, and he laughed at me when I asked for help pulling them back up.”
Pam, meanwhile, was arrested in 2015 in Schuylkill County, Pa., for squatting in an unoccupied, boarded-up home.
“They decided to ask [my gender] while I was handcuffed on the ground with a gun pointed at me,” Pam said.
And when the arresting officers learned Pam was a transgender woman, she believes they addressed her as a man in order to be insulting.
“It seemed both intentional and by ignorance,” Pam said. “They were using the wrong name and pronouns as soon as they read my ID, and even after I explained what I preferred.”
Pam said she spent a total of six weeks in jail, awaiting trial, and after two weeks alone in a medical cell, she was transferred to the general population and housed with men.
Pam said she was never offered protective custody, but was not victimized by male inmates.
“I got really lucky in this area,” Pam said. “The other inmates were very respectful — no harassment, no attacks, no sexual assault of any kind.”
San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Det. Sal Zuno said his agency does not have a written policy on transgender inmates, but Pam and Sarah would have been offered protective custody if either of them had been incarcerated on the Peninsula.
“Every person that goes into our jail goes through a classification interview,” Zuno explained. “We have a conversation with them, and we ask, ‘Is there any reason to believe you might be victimized while in custody?’”
The former inmates the San Francisco Examiner spoke with are trying to move on with their lives.
The charges against Sarah were dropped, and she is now clean and sober.
Pam’s sentence on a trespassing charge was satisfied by time served prior to her court date, but she said her experience has had lasting effects.
“There’s always that fear in the back of my mind that my life can be drastically altered in a terrible way that can last for weeks, months or even forever, as fast as you can put on a pair of handcuffs,” Pam said.