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Three Trans Women’s Stories Illustrate a Wider Problem

The state needs to pass legislation to stop the suffering of trans people in prisons and jails.

Makyyla Holland
By: Bobby Hodgson Assistant Legal Director, Legal & Allie Bohm Senior Policy Counsel, Policy

The six weeks Makyyla Holland spent in Broome County Jail were agonizing.

The 23-year-old transgender woman was housed in the male part of the jail. She was beaten by corrections officers after she said she felt uncomfortable stripping in front of them. She was subjected to illegal strip searches and forced to shower in front of male staff and other men in custody. She was denied her prescription medications, including antidepressants and hormone treatments. Being off her treatments caused her to experience painful withdrawals.

On top of everything else, Makyyla was also forced into involuntary protective custody, a measure that correctional officers claimed was to keep her safe but is effectively solitary confinement by another name.

Makyyla was subjected to this treatment purely because she was a trans woman inside a New York jail.

This week, Makyyla sued Broome County and Broome County Jail with the help of the NYCLU, the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (TLDEF), and Paul, Weiss LLP. The lawsuit argues the treatment she endured violated her rights and put her in serious danger.

Makyyla’s story is far too common. In 2021, the NYCLU and Legal Services of Central New York filed a lawsuit on behalf of DeAnna LeTray, a trans woman who was arrested in 2017 during a domestic dispute. The Watertown police officers who arrested DeAnna mocked her gender expression and questioned her gender identity. Then, at the police station, police ripped her hair off her head and, once she got to the jail, she was stripped naked and sexually assaulted.

Then there’s the story of Jena Faith, a trans woman who spent four weeks in Steuben County Jail awaiting trial. She was initially housed in the jail’s women’s facility without incident but officials abruptly transferred her to the men’s facility. Once she was there, Jena was sexually harassed and mistreated by guards and other incarcerated people and denied her prescribed medication.

If state leaders don’t act, the results will almost certainly be more preventable harassment, violent attacks, and even deaths.

She filed suit with the help of the NYCLU and TLDEF in 2019 and, in 2020, we secured a settlement in Jena’s case that establishes one of the strongest jail or prison policies in the nation protecting the rights of transgender, gender nonconforming, non-binary, and intersex (TGNCNBI) people in custody. But the policy only applies to Steuben County Jail.

What Makyyla, DeAnna, and Jena experienced happens to many TGNCNBI people in jails and prisons across the state. During processing and while in custody, people whose gender expression or identity does not conform to their sex assigned at birth are frequently misgendered and referred to in demeaning ways by correctional officers and other incarcerated people. The vast majority of TGNCNBI people are placed in facilities that do not match their gender identity and that put their safety at risk.

When TGNCNBI people are attacked, they are often put in “involuntary protective custody” or some other form of confinement that closely mirrors solitary.

Surveys show that nearly every TGNCNBI person who enters a jail or prison in New York will be harassed. In a 2017 survey of transgender and non-binary people incarcerated in New York State, 95 percent of respondents reported being verbally harassed and called derogatory names by corrections staff.

Physical violence is also widespread. TGNCNBI people are nearly ten times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the general prison population. Assaults by facility staff are a particular problem. According to a 2021 survey by the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and TakeRoot Justice, fully 75 percent of respondents, the majority of whom are transgender women of color, “reported at least one instance of sexual violence by corrections officers.”

It is difficult if not impossible to bring about the kind of wide-scale change we need through individual lawsuits. We need the Gender Identity Respect, Dignity, and Safety Act to do that.

This state legislation requires prisons and jails to presumptively house people consistently with their gender identities unless they would feel safer opting out. The bill also requires corrections staff to respect people’s gender identity in other vital ways — from names and pronouns to same-gender searches and gender-affirming medical care. It also limits the time someone can be kept in involuntary protective custody.

These protections would be revolutionary for incarcerated trans people and there are already models proving that prisons and jails can implement them. The New York State Sheriffs’ Association was involved in negotiating the settlement in Jena’s case and ultimately signed off on the Steuben County policy. Connecticut, Massachusetts, and California have all enacted laws with similar protections, and New Jersey agreed to a resemblant policy in a legal settlement.

If state leaders don’t act, the results will almost certainly be more preventable harassment, violent attacks, and even deaths. Legislators can do their part to end this suffering, and you can encourage them to do so here.

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