On June 1, 2016, after months of abusive treatment while in custody in a San Francisco jail, Athena Cadence decided to take matters into her own hands. She declared a hunger strike, refusing to eat until the San Francisco Sheriff allowed transgender women to be housed with other women and searched by women officers.
Her hunger strike lasted 64 days, earning headlines in outlets ranging from the San Francisco Examiner to Mother Jones, and ending only with her release from custody on August 3.
Despite her unwavering commitment and great risk to health and safety, Athena was never housed with women and she received very little access to the programming offered to others in custody. But her brave advocacy has pushed the conversation forward and put urgent pressure on the Sheriff to take action.
Along with TGI Justice Project and a coalition of advocates and organizations, Transgender Law Center has been in negotiations with the San Francisco Sheriff’s department for three years, urging them to adopt and implement a policy that allows transgender people in custody to be housed and treated in accordance with their gender identity. TLC began representing Athena Cadence in May, after she had already filed multiple grievances 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 Athena from filing reports of violence by threatening her with administrative segregation terms in isolation.
In response to Athena’s advocacy, pressure by TGIJP, and Transgender Law Center’s letters on Athena’s behalf, Sheriff Hennessy issued two memos indicating that she is working on a policy related to housing and searches of transgender people in custody, and in the meantime directing staff to use preferred names and pronouns in interacting with transgender people.
Athena’s treatment in custody was unacceptable, and Transgender Law Center continues to meet with the Sheriff to urge the immediate implementation of a new policy. Although Athena has been released, there are still a number of transgender people in custody in San Francisco who are enduring the dangerous conditions Athena so passionately fought against. Neither Transgender Law Center nor Athena will stop advocating until San Francisco implements appropriate policies that protect the dignity and safety of transgender people in custody.