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One Trans Woman’s Fight is Paving the Way for Safer Jails and Prisons

By: Bobby Hodgson Assistant Legal Director, Legal & Simon McCormack Senior Writer, Communications

Jena Faith doesn’t want what she experienced in the Steuben County Jail to happen to anyone else.

Her case against Steuben County led to a landmark settlement this month that will help move our state and the country closer to that reality.

The agreement establishes one of the strongest jail or prison policies in the nation protecting the rights of transgender, gender nonconforming, non-binary, and intersex people in custody.

Jena spent four weeks in the Steuben County jail awaiting trial in the spring of last year. The military veteran was initially housed in the jail’s women’s facility without incident, but then she was suddenly transferred to a men’s facility, despite the fact that she is a woman.

After she was transferred, she endured physical and verbal harassment. As a woman in a men’s jail, she was groped and sexually harassed, threatened with harm by a man in her unit, and routinely misgendered and mocked.

Jena’s experience was frightening and unjust, but also frustratingly common: across the country, transgender people are nearly ten times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the general prison population, and they are disproportionately subjected to a wide range of other types of discrimination.

Jail officials also denied Jena her doctor-prescribed hormone therapy—which she had been receiving in the women’s jail—even as they made sure to give her all of her other prescribed medications. This led to hot flashes, cold flashes, nausea, and stomach pain.

The agreement establishes one of the strongest jail or prison policies in the nation.

Last summer, the New York Civil Liberties Union, Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, and the law firm BakerHostetler filed a lawsuit on Jena’s behalf. And last week, we reached a settlement that creates a groundbreaking model policy addressing housing placement, safety, access to medical care, name and pronouns use, search procedures, and grooming standards. The county also agreed to pay Jena $60,000 for the harms she suffered.

Under the terms of the settlement, the county will presumptively house people consistent with their gender identity and ensure that staff at the jail respect a person’s self-identified gender identity in all other contexts, including name and pronoun use and searches. People in custody will also have access to clothing, toiletry items, grooming standards, and medical care that are all consistent with a person’s gender identity.

Implementing protections like these might sound like a no-brainer—they address the most common forms of discrimination and harassment that transgender people face in jails and prisons, and it’s been well-established that this type of mistreatment violates a host of anti-discrimination laws and constitutional protections. So clear guidance on these issues is good for everyone. But it is still extremely rare for jails and prisons to implement a policy this straightforward and comprehensive. We hope this model can help to change that.

As Jena said in our press release announcing the settlement, “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.”

Next, the NYCLU hopes to expand the settlement’s protections statewide. We are encouraging jail and prison officials to adopt their own version of the policy—which they should not hesitate to do, since it was drafted with the participation not only of Steuben County but also the New York State Sheriffs’ Association and the New York State Jail Administrators.

In the county’s own public statement announcing the settlement, they recognized that this policy may be “groundbreaking” at the moment, but it is also absolutely necessary “to meet the public safety needs of all of our inmates” and to “ensure compliance with federal and state” protections.

The NYCLU is now working with community members, stakeholders, and lawmakers to draft and advance legislation that would add more detailed protections to state law.

Jena brought her case to help others, and as we celebrate her victory we’re hopeful that she has produced a roadmap we can use to create safer prisons and jails across the nation.

As bold as the spirit of New York, we are the NYCLU.
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