Our Legal and Policy Work
Prisons and Policing
Transgender and gender nonconforming people, and transgender women of color in particular, face unacceptably high rates of imprisonment. This is due both to their disproportionate reliance on street economies stemming from a lack of viable economic alternatives due to pervasive discrimination in all areas of their lives, as well as targeted harassment and profiling by police. Once in jail or prison, transgender people face a dramatically increased risk of mistreatment, including sexual assault by guards or other prisoners. Recent studies show that transgender women are 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted in prison than others. Transgender people in prison also routinely face other abuses including denial of medical care, extended periods of solitary confinement, and harassment and violence at the hands of guards and other prisoners.
In 2015, Transgender Law Center launched our Detention Project to work to end the abuses transgender and gender nonconforming (TGNC) people experience in prisons, jails, immigration detention, state hospitals, and other forms of detention, and at the hands of law enforcement.
Through the Detention Project, Transgender Law Center regularly provides legal information to transgender people in jails and prisons and on parole. We engage in legal advocacy and in some cases represent transgender people in prisons, jails and immigration detention centers in civil rights lawsuits to challenge abuse and mistreatment by correctional institutions. We also work with partner organizations like TGI Justice Project, Justice Now, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights to advocate for humane and just policies for incarcerated transgender and gender nonconforming people. TLC looks forward to continued work toward reducing the harms caused by prisons and jails, and moving toward the dismantling of the deeply flawed prison system.
On August 7, 2015, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reached a groundbreaking settlement with Shiloh Quine, a transgender woman held in a men’s prison, to move her to a women’s facility and provide medical care, including gender-affirming surgery, determined necessary by several medical and mental health professionals. In the settlement, the state also agreed to change its policies so that transgender prisoners can access clothing and commissary items consistent with their gender identity. The state also affirmed that it is revising its policies regarding transgender inmates’ access to medically necessary treatment for gender dysphoria, including surgery.
Transgender Law Center is representing Michelle Norsworthy, a transgender woman held in a California men’s prison. Michelle was denied gender-affirming surgery, even though her treating psychologist had repeatedly concluded that it was medically necessary to treat her gender dysphoria. She was also denied a legal name change because the name she would like to use is a traditionally feminine name. We are arguing that the prison system’s discriminatory actions violate fundamental constitutional guarantees, including the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment and the Equal Protection Clause.
Policy & Advocacy
For over 3 years, Transgender Law Center, along with a coalition of advocates, has been in negotiations with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department to adopt and implement a policy that allows transgender people in custody to be housed and treated in accordance with their gender identity.
In May 2016, Transgender Law Center began representing Athena Cadence, a transsexual woman in the custody of the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department. Ms. Cadence had filed multiple grievances while in custody requesting that her name and gender identity be acknowledged and respected. Her grievances included requests to be housed with women, searched by women, given equal access to appropriate educational, mental health and other programming and to have her name and gender acknowledged and respected by staff. She also made formal reports of physical and sexual assaults and harassment by staff and other people in custody. As a result, she was subjected to retaliation by staff, as well as attempts to discourage Ms. Cadence from filing reports of violence by threatening her with administrative segregation terms in isolation.
On June 1, 2016, Ms. Cadence took matters into her own hands by engaging in a hunger strike demanding that, when preferred by a transgender woman in custody, transgender women be housed with women and searched by women. Transgender Law Center wrote two letters urging Sheriff Hennessy to comply with Ms. Cadence’s demands and implement a policy that will allow Ms. Cadence and other transgender people to be housed and treated in accordance with their gender identity.
The Sheriff subsequently released two memos indicating that she is working on a policy related to housing and searches of transgender people in custody, and directing staff to use preferred names and pronouns in interacting with transgender people.
Ms. Cadence was released from custody on August 3, 2016, day 64 of her hunger strike. Despite her unwavering commitment and great risk to health and safety, Ms. Cadence was never housed with women and she received very little access to the programming offered to others in custody. Transgender Law Center continues to correspond and meet with the Sheriff regarding the new policy proposal and its implementation. Unfortunately, there are still a number of transgender people in custody in San Francisco who are currently enduring the dangerous conditions to which Ms. Cadence was subjected. The need for the implementation of appropriate policies that protect the dignity and safety of transgender people in custody remains urgent.
For more information, click here.
TAJA’s Coalition issued a statement demanding that the Mayor and Board of Supervisors of San Francisco reject plans to build a new jail and instead fund alternatives like affordable housing, mental health services, jobs, and restorative justice services for those impacted by violence.
To read the statement, click here.
As a result of TLC’s legal victories in October 2015, California CDCR implemented a policy that allows transgender people in prison to access sex reassignment while in prison. The policy is the first of its kind in the nation.
For the full policy, click here.
Find Legal and Policy Work By Issue Area: