Hundreds of Transgender California Inmates Request Transfers to Women’s Prisons

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A federal detention center in San Diego, Calif., April 11, 2020. (Bing Guan/Reuters)

The California prison system has received 261 applications since January 1 from transgender, intersex, or non-binary inmates to transfer to facilities that match their preferred gender identity, the Los Angeles Times reported on Monday.

The requests were filed after a state law came into effect allowing transgender inmates to transfer to different prisons. Around 1 percent of prisoners in California, 1,129 inmates in total, have notified the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that they are transgender, intersex, or non-binary.

The transfers have been welcomed by transgender women who reported suffering sexual violence while incarcerated at men’s prisons. However, inmates at Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla told the Times that staff have warned them of potential sexual violence from men who may try to take advantage of the transfer system.

Guards said “that if we think it’s bad now, be prepared for the worst. That it’s going to be off the hook, it’s going to be jumping,” inmate Tomiekia Johnson told the Times. “They say we’re going to need a facility that’s going to be like a maternity ward. They say we’re going to have an inmate program where inmates become nannies.”

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Nina McQueen, a transgender woman and inmate at Mule Creek , said she had helped prison staff identify male inmates who attempted to transfer to women’s facilities by pretending to be transgender.

“They wanted me in a confidential setting to tell them who is transgender and who is not, so they can block some of these guys from going to the women’s prison,” McQueen said. “I told him I don’t have a problem with it….We feel they’re climbing our backs.”

The California initiative to consider transfer requests from transgender inmates was passed in part to align the state with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003. The law requires prison agencies to decide on a case-by-case basis whether to transfer inmates based on their sexual or gender identity.  

Other states including Massachusetts and Connecticut have legislation similar to California’s allowing inmate transfers. The first such transfer took place in 2019, after a transgender woman jailed in Massachusetts sued the state in order to be placed in a women’s prison.

“It’s a hugely important development,” the woman’s lawyer Jennifer L. Levi, director of the Transgender Rights Project at the GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, told the Boston Globe at the time. “Transgender women can and need to be integrated into women’s facilities and doing so is not just required, but appropriate.”

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