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Transgender rights an issue in Texas prisons after record number of inmates come forward

September 29, 2016  |  Posted by: Francesca Falzarano
Transgender rights an issue in Texas prisons after record number of inmates come forward

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The amount of prisoners in Texas prisons who have come forward to authorities to identify themselves as transgender is at an all-time high, an increasing trend that is not surprising to advocates in the face of federal criminal justice reforms and a greater recognition of the population seeking Transgender rights.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice reported that only 67 inmates in Texas jails and state prisons classified themselves as transgender in 2014. Two years later, however, that number has risen approximately fivefold, to 333 individuals.

Although it is still a very small group, about 0.2% of the total inmate population — transgender prisoners need particular attention under new federal laws that attempt to diminish inmate sexual assault incidents. Jailed transgenders are much more likely to be the targets of rape and violence than the average inmate.

According to the Dallas Morning News, the legislation, which is part of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, order prison officials to grant special accommodations to transgender inmates.

Accommodations include the banning of strip or cavity searches by guards of the opposite gender, allowing transgender prisoners who have been the victims of violence to be housed in protective supervision and requiring that officials at least consider an inmate’s gender identity when determining housing assignments.

Advocates of transgender rights were not shocked by the fact that a growing number of inmates are openly revealing their gender identification to prison officials but indicated that the cause of the spike is currently unclear. One possibility, they suggested, could be a greater acceptance of transgenders.

Terry Schuster, an attorney, and expert on the prison-rape law, stated: “Both in the free world and among people who are incarcerated, more people who are transgender are coming out, period. Transgender rights and transgender identity is just becoming more and more accepted.”

Back in 2014, the Criminal Justice Department started asking inmates upon entering the system whether they refer to themselves as transgender. Next, a three-month campaign was launched to educate those already behind bars, with corrections officers putting up posters and announcements placed in the offender newspaper that inmates are welcome to come forward at any time.

In August 2014, only 67 inmates identified as transgender, said Jason Clark, a spokesperson for the department. However, in 2015, that amount more than tripled, and the largest increase occurred between February and August.

The population has progressively risen since then. Demoya Gordon, a lawyer for Lambda Legal, an LGBT Transgender rights group, stated that greater accessibility to hormone therapy for Texas prisons might also explain the increase in numbers.

“My suspicion it that it has to do with the hormone therapy change,” Gordon said. “People feel like they can finally get some treatment.”

In August 2015, the Department announced that it would extend access to hormone therapy for transgenders. Under the previous policy, inmates had to be already taking hormones upon entering the prison to be eligible to continue such therapy.

Currently, a number of Texas inmates who have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, which is the feeling that biological sex conflicts with one’s mental and emotional gender, can begin hormone therapy for the first time while behind bars.

TDCJ verified that the number of transgenders receiving hormone therapy in prison has increased since the policy shifted from 21 in February to 32 currently. However, Gordon asserts that it’s still tough for inmates to access the treatment.

“We continue to hear that while the policy exists on paper, it is still quite hard for many trans people to actually get the care they need in practice due to some TDCJ officials being very reluctant to refer people for gender dysphoria treatment,” Gordon stated.

Some advocates expressed their concern that the increase in self-identifying inmates is due more to negative circumstances than a larger acceptance of transgenders.

The detention project director at the Transgender Law Center, Flor Bermudez, said she is worried that it could be interpreted by a spike in apprehensions of transgender people or because some transgender inmates are frustrated with current conditions and are now requesting special attention to evade violence and assault.

TDCJ’s Clark declared that 26 transgender inmates have been assigned to “safekeeping,” protective custody in the past six months, but that the agency hasn’t accumulated any significant additional costs related to the specialized housing or treatment of transgender prisoners.

Bermudez said her company now gets more letters from transgender inmates than ever. While the purposes behind the prison-rape law were right, she maintained that it has had little impact.

“I have seen a trend of just more people who are transgender seeking remedy for all the violations they are subject to,” Bermudez said. “Particularly for sexual violence, there is no improvement. If anything, things are getting worse.”

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