California passes bill giving transgender inmates a say in where they're housed

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The Transgender Respect, Agency, and Dignity Act would advance the rights of trans inmates.

A California bill that would require the state's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to let transgender, non-binary, and intersex inmates be "housed at a correctional facility designated for men or women based on the individual's preference," with some exceptions, received final approval in the state Senate on Monday.

The bill now heads to Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is expected to sign it. He has until Sept. 30 to do so.

Asked whether the governor plans to sign the legislation, a spokesperson said, "We don't typically comment on pending legislation. The governor will evaluate each bill on its merit before taking action."

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Senate Bill 132, known as the Transgender Respect, Agency, and Dignity Act, was introduced by California state Sen. Scott Wiener (D). LGBTQ advocacy groups, including Equality California, Transgender Law Center, and TransLatin@ Coalition, co-wrote the bill. The bill had been discussed last year, the Bay Area Reporter wrote, but was paused after advocates for transgender prisoners said they should have input to the bill before it moved forward.

California prisons currently place transgender people in men or women's prisons based on the sex assigned at birth, where they are often vulnerable to violence. The bill aims to reduce the likelihood trans people will be harmed by housing them according where they feel they would be safest.

On Tuesday, Wiener tweeted, "SB.132 protects transgender people in prison, by allowing them to be housed where they're safest, instead of automatically being placed in the facility corresponding to their birth-assigned gender. Trans women are frequently brutalized in men's prisons."

Thirty percent of transgender inmates said they had been physically assaulted or sexually assaulted by an inmate or facility staff in the preceding year, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality's 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey.

Research on transgender prisoners has found that incarcerated transgender women are frequently targets of sexual violence and that the practice in most prisons and jails is to house transgender people according to the sex assigned at birth, according to an article published in 2019 by Scott Schweikart, a senior research associate for the American Medical Association's Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs. The policy of housing people based on sex assigned at birth is often not a documented policy with official justification, Schweikart writes.

Under the California bill, corrections officials would have to certify in writing why they have chosen to deny a prisoner their choice of housing and share that documentation with the prisoner. The bill cites possible concerns about management or security being one of the reasons the department might deny someone their housing preference. The prisoner is supposed to be provided an opportunity to object to the denial, have their denial documented, and, if they raise concerns about safety, have their current housing reassessed.

Further, the legislation says that corrections officials can't deny an inmate's preferences for discriminatory reasons, including a their anatomy, physical characteristics, and sexual orientation.

Under the bill, the department would also be required to ask incarcerated people during intake what their gender and pronouns are, as well as their sex assigned at birth, in a private setting. If a person did not wish to disclose this information, officials are prohibited from disciplining them.
Prison staff, volunteers, and contractors are not allowed to misgender people and disregard the information they provide. There are similar safeguards in place for the search of prisoners.

Shawn Meerkamper, senior staff attorney at the Transgender Law Center, stated that the bill "is a necessary and long overdue harm reduction measure that will allow our trans family to seek safer situations while incarcerated."

They added, "As our movements work toward defunding the police and abolishing prisons, California is showing that our governments can and must also take immediate intermediary steps to increase agency and prevent some of the worst violence our incarcerated neighbors suffer."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.