Friday, March 31, 2006

Arrested justice: When LGBT people land in jail - PlanetOut

Recent coverage of the Sundstrom case and treatment of transgender individuals in prison...

by Patrick Letellier

Kari Sundstrom, a 41-year-old transgender woman, had been on female hormones for 15 years when, in January, the Wisconsin Legislature passed a law banning hormone treatments or sex reassigment surgery for prison inmates. This meant Sundstrom, incarcerated since 2003, would have to discontinue her hormone therapy.

On Jan. 12, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections cut Sundstrom's hormone dosage in half. Officials notified her it would be halved again in 30 days, and, 30 days later, terminated.
Suddenly stopping hormone therapy can be calamitous for transgender people, causing, among other possible problems, diabetes, hypertension, muscle wasting, osteoporosis and heart failure. It can also lead to self-mutilation and suicide attempts.The effects on Sundstrom were almost immediate. She suffered severe headaches, hot flashes, crying jags and was afraid she'd become suicidal.

Another transgender woman in the same prison, Andrea Fields, experienced depression, nausea, muscle weakness and developed bumps on her skin when her hormones, too, were suddenly reduced.The women's concerns became part of a lawsuit challenging the new Wisconsin law, which led to their hormone therapy being restored two weeks later. A federal judge ruled that while the courts sorted out whether or not the law was constitutional, Sundstrom, Fields and a third woman named in the suit, Lindsay Blackwell, would be allowed to continue their hormone therapies.

"This treatment has been determined by doctors to be medically necessary and appropriate for our clients," said Cole Thaler, Lambda Legal's attorney representing the women. Prohibiting such treatment shows a "deliberate indifference to their serious medical condition," Thaler says.
That "deliberate indifference" to the well-being of transgender inmates, however, extends far beyond health care. Transgender inmates are among the most reviled and abused individuals in America's jails and prisons, activists say, facing an unimaginable array of harassment and violence at each level of the criminal justice system that often begins with abuse from police officers on the street.

According to a 2005 Amnesty International report on police violence, transgender people, especially those who are poor or of color, are subject to the "most egregious cases of police brutality," from sexual harassment and invasive body searches to physical and sexual violence and false arrests, often for merely going about their daily lives. Transgender women in particular face arbitrary abuse and arrest, Amnesty reported, because they are frequently profiled by the police as sex workers.

"Their gender is seen as part of their criminality," says Dean Spade, an attorney with New York's Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which advocates on behalf of LGBT inmates. As a result, Spade says, transgender people disproportionately end up behind bars, where violence against them often continues unabated.In all state prisons and the vast majority of county jails, transgender inmates are housed according to their birth gender, regardless of how they currently identify. Sundstrom, Fields and Blackwell, for instance, are all housed in men's prisons, despite living as female for up to 15 years, taking hormones and having had feminizing surgeries, including, in Fields' case, breast augmentation.

"Once you're in custody, you're no longer the person you say you are," says Alex Lee, an attorney with the Transgender, Gender Variant & Intersex Justice Project in Oakland, Calif., which advocates for transgender inmates. "Instead, you are your birth certificate."

In men's facilities, transgender women are often immediately targeted by sexual predators, including some guards. Countless transgender inmates have reported sexual harassment, rape and forced prostitution in American jails. Transgender men housed in women's prisons report enduring repeated and unwarranted strip searches, often in front of other inmates or guards.

"It's torture and sexual slavery," says Spade. "These are the proper terms for it."

In a few county jails, including San Francisco and Multnomah County, Ore., transgender inmates are housed in separate facilities to spare them such atrocities. But that, too, comes with a price. Segregation from the general population often means exclusion from the few programs offered to help inmates avoid incarceration in the future, including drug treatment, high-school equivalency training and anger-management courses.

"It's punitive segregation," Lee says, "and a form of discrimination, even if unintended."

In state prisons, often the only safeguard transgender prisoners have from violent inmates is protective custody, sometimes called "lockdown," in which inmates are locked in an isolated cell 23 hours a day or housed with other inmates considered vulnerable. But even there they are subject to abuse from guards and, on occasion, other inmates.

No matter where they are housed, incarcerated transgender people report chronic difficulties in getting appropriate medical care, especially hormone therapy. Most jails and prisons don't have written policies on hormone use, so arbitrary decisions can be made by individual corrections officers rather than by doctors.

In addition, Thaler says, "there's a misperception that if hormones are made accessible to inmates, then trans people will commit crimes to get into prison to get them."

"But if you think about the ways transgender people are treated in prison," he says, "that's ludicrous."

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