All They Want For the Holidays Is for Their Loved Ones to Come Home From Prison

TRUTHOUT

December 23, 2021

By Victoria Law   

When she was 8 years old, Bryanna Rose had one item on her Christmas wish list — for her father, Jose Colon, to come home.

Ten years later, 18-year-old Bryanna is still waiting. “What would it mean for him to come home now? It would mean the wish I had asked for would come true. It would make me happy now, it would make my younger self really happy, and it would make us whole as a family,” she told Truthout.

On December 14, Bryanna watched as her mother, Janette Colon, emceed a rally outside the office of New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, calling upon her to grant clemency to Jose and hundreds of others who had transformed their lives while incarcerated.

In many states, including New York, governors have the power to grant clemency as a way of correcting excessive sentences or recognizing a person’s self-rehabilitation during their imprisonment. The president also has the power to grant clemency to those serving federal sentences.

Clemency takes two forms. A pardon, typically granted after imprisonment, expunges the conviction, removing threats of deportation and other barriers to establishing a post-prison life. A commutation reduces a person’s prison sentence, allowing them to appear before the parole board or releasing them altogether. During the COVID-19 pandemic, advocates and family members called upon governors to utilize their clemency powers to release people, particularly those vulnerable to COVID-19.

“I Feel Like I’m Inflating a Balloon”

At age 17, Jose Colon and another teenager decided to break into a Bronx apartment to steal jewelry. During the robbery, Colon shot and killed the two inhabitants. He was sentenced to two consecutive 15-to-life sentences; he must serve at least 30 years before he can appear before the parole board.

Jose and Janette Colon initially met as teenagers at a bowl-a-thon. Then came Colon’s robbery-turned-murder and imprisonment. Janette followed Jose’s case through the news though the two didn’t reconnect for years. When they did, sparks flew and, despite his lengthy sentence, they soon became a couple.

Janette notes that her husband has matured from an impulsive teenager to a mature 40-year-old who has helped parent Bryanna. He also wants to help other young people avoid the mistakes he made, designing a cognitive behavioral therapy course called I.M.O.K. (If Mother Only Knew) to help teens identify trauma and avoid going down similar pathways.

Colon submitted his application for clemency in 2019, four years after then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a new Executive Clemency Bureau which would identify state prisoners who might be worthy of commutation. Thousands applied but, by the time he resigned in 2021, Cuomo had granted commutations to only 41 people. His replacement, Kathy Hochul, has yet to issue any clemencies.

“I try not to think about it because I feel like I’m inflating a balloon and then it’s going to deflate. I try not to think about it and live day by day,” said Janette. While she tries not to get her hopes up, she is working toward not only his release, but that of hundreds of others in prison, advocating with the Release Aging People in Prison campaign to press for commutations as well as for laws expanding parole eligibility.

For 5,200 People Serving Life Without Parole, Clemency Builds Hope

In California, Joseph Navarrete is one of more than 5,200 people serving life without parole. In February 1994, Navarrete, then age 26, shot and killed two people. He was sentenced to life without parole.

Now age 54, Navarrete and his wife Yolanda both state that he is a far different person than he was half a lifetime ago. Without the governor’s intervention, however, he may never have a chance to convince the parole board that he merits a second chance.

Yolanda and Joseph Navarrete, wedding photo. Photo provided by Yolanda Navarrete

In the 1990s, Yolanda told Truthout, Navarrete was addicted to methamphetamine, cocaine, pills and alcohol. He had already endured a lifetime of childhood abuse — first from his biological father and, after his mother fled that relationship and moved from Arizona to California, from his stepfather. By the time he was 14, he was drinking and experimenting with drugs; the latter resulted in his mother kicking him out of the house. He moved in with his older brother, who had been kicked out for drugs the previous year, and was soon using more frequently. To support his habit, he began dealing drugs. He married, then divorced, losing custody of his son.

The couple dated briefly in junior high in the 1980s. In high school, they went their separate ways. “He ran with the sex, drugs, rock n’ roll crowd,” Yolanda recalled. She, on the other hand, wasn’t even allowed to attend afterschool activities.

The two reconnected in 2012 shortly after Yolanda’s divorce. They began corresponding and, that July, on the anniversary of her previous marriage, Yolanda drove to Pelican Bay State Prison to visit him. “When I saw him, all the magnets came back,” she recalled. “It was like there was no time lost.”

Navarrete was no longer the wild child from high school. While in prison, he had stopped using drugs and alcohol, attending and then facilitating Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. He had connected with his Apache heritage and now leads the prison’s Native American sweat ceremonies. “I am no longer that person addicted to anger, drugs and alcohol,” Navarrete wrote in a statement from prison. “I am proud to say for the last 25 years I have been leading my life in Sobriety, honesty and integrity.” Outside of prison, Yolanda connected with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners and the Ella Baker Center, both of which work with incarcerated people and their family members on advocacy and legislation. She was paired with Ny Nourn, who had initially been sentenced to life without parole, but later won a resentencing, making her parole-eligible. (Nourn was granted a pardon in 2020, removing the threat of deportation, and is now co-director of the Asian Prisoner Support Committee.) Yolanda met wives of others serving life without parole and learned how to advocate, not just on behalf of Navarrete, but thousands of others serving similar sentences. “A fire was lit within me,” she recalled. “I realized that families’ stories matter. It makes these bills not just black and white; it makes them alive.” She joined the Drop LWOP Coalition and has been advocating not only for her husband, but for the thousands of others sentenced to what she and others call “a living death.”

 

Candlelight vigil outside home of then director of of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Ralph Diaz, on August 13, 2020. Photo provided by Yolanda Navarrete.

 

Navarrete filed for commutation in 2018. Brown ultimately granted 281 commutations — 147 of which were to people serving life without parole. Navarrete was not one of them.

Navarrete stands outside the state capitol building in Sacramento, California on August 13, 2020. Photo provided by Yolanda Navarrete.

In 2020, Navarrete filed a one-page recertification with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office. As of November 2021, Newsom has granted 91 commutations, 29 of which were to people serving life without parole.

In California, people serving life without parole are excluded from recent reforms such as elder parole, a law allowing prisoners aged 50 and over to appear before the parole board after serving 20 years. “Commutation is the only way they’ll be reviewed,” Yolanda said.

“Half of Me Is in There With Him”

On the campaign trail, President Joe Biden voiced his support for marijuana decriminalization. “And I think everyone — anyone who has a record should be let out of jail, their records expunged, be completely zeroed out,” he said during a 2019 presidential debate.

Two years later, people in federal prisons are still waiting for him to fulfill that promise.

Pedro Moreno, Alejandra Lopez, and her child, 2016 visit. Photo provided by Alejandra Lopez.

Pedro Moreno has spent the past 25 years in federal prison. Sentenced to life, clemency may be the only way the 61-year-old can rejoin his family.

“I feel like I’m doing this sentence with my dad. Half of me is in there with him,” Alejandra Moreno Lopez told Truthout.

Alejandra Moreno Lopez was eight when federal officers burst into the family’s Texas home.

The officers, dressed head to toe in black, allowed her mother, Melba, to get dressed and dress her three children. She tied her daughter’s hair into a ponytail — the last one Lopez would wear during her childhood — and told them she’d be back soon. “We waited for her all day,” Lopez told Truthout. Her mother didn’t return for 13 years.

Melba and her husband Pedro were arrested as part of a 79-person federal marijuana sting. Pedro Moreno was charged with transporting thousands of kilos of marijuana from Mexico into the United States. Two years later, in 1998, Moreno pled guilty to conspiracy to launder monetary instruments and operating a continuing illegal enterprise. In return, the government agreed to dismiss the remaining charges and not oppose a sentence reduction.

Before sentencing in federal courts, the probation officer submits a presentence report (PSR), which guides the judge in sentencing. Pedro Moreno’s PSR recommended adding two points for obstruction of justice and no points for accepting responsibility. Those points increased his sentence guideline range from 324 to 405 months (27 to 34.75 years) to life in prison. Four of Moreno’s brothers were also sentenced to life in federal prison.

Twenty-five years after that fateful morning, Pedro Moreno remains in prison. In January 2016, then-President Barack Obama granted clemency to Moreno’s four brothers. Eight months later, he denied Moreno’s application. He remains the last family member imprisoned from that sting. In 2010, Moreno’s wife, Melba, was released from prison. The next month, she saw her daughter graduate from college. “She always said she’d get out to see us and be a mom again,” Lopez recalled. But their time together ended the following year when Melba died after a brain aneurysm.

Alejandra’s mother Melba Moreno in prison, 2004. Photo provided by Alejandra Lopes.

Moreno is held at the federal prison in Atwater, California, nearly 2,000 miles from his family in Texas. To visit, Lopez must drive an hour to the nearest airport, fly to San Francisco, rent a car and then drive two to three hours to Atwater.

The last time she visited was in 2018. She brought her husband as well as their 3-year-old son and 11-month-old granddaughter. They stayed for an extended weekend — Thursday through Monday — to visit several days in a row. But, remarks Lopez, “It’s never a vacation. It’s in the middle of nowhere.”

Unlike other prisons, Atwater does not offer video calling, so Lopez and her family rely on phone calls. She worries that her father will contract severe COVID. At the start of the pandemic, he and other men came down with flu-like symptoms, some so severe that they couldn’t get out of bed. For a time, he lost his voice and couldn’t call.

In December 2020, he tested positive for COVID. “We were afraid he could get very sick,” Lopez said. The previous month, both his sister and brother-in-law contracted COVID and died within days of each other.

Lopez doesn’t understand why her father was denied clemency. “Now [marijuana] is legal in a lot of states. I don’t understand why there are still people in prison over this,” she said. “And [their] families are hurting.”

A Christmas Without the Looming Threat of Prison

Diana Marquez is looking forward to her second Christmas with her family in their El Paso home. She and her three grandsons have already decorated the Christmas tree in their living room. She is planning to cook a turkey and watch the boys open their presents on Christmas morning. She can FaceTime her 92-year-old mother and oldest daughter, both in Nebraska, to wish them a merry Christmas. But the best Christmas gift was learning that she would not be returned to prison.

Diana Marquez, Marquez’s adult children, Marquez’s 92 year old mother. Phot provided by Diana Marquez.

The 65-year-old was released in May 2020 under the Coronavirus AID, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which prioritized the temporary release of people from federal prison if their age or health made them vulnerable to COVID and whose convictions are classified as nonviolent.

While she is now home with her daughter and grandsons, Marquez remains under home confinement and electronic monitoring. She has permission to leave the house for two hours each morning to walk in the nearby park and to pick her grandchildren up from school every weekday afternoon. Any other movement outside of her daughter’s home requires advanced approval and even then, she may not receive it. She cannot attend church services or spontaneously stop at a store. She cannot travel to see her mother or older children.

Until recently, she lived with the threat of being returned to prison after the pandemic ends. As Truthout previously reported, the Biden administration is upholding a last-minute memo issued by Trump’s Justice Department returning people to prison if their sentences extend beyond the “pandemic emergency period.” Marquez has more than nine years left on her prison sentence.

On December 21, under ongoing pressure from advocates, including formerly incarcerated people, the Justice Department reversed its stance, issuing a new legal opinion that would allow people like Marquez to serve the rest of their sentence at home. “I feel overwhelmed, so excited [and happy,” Marquez told Truthout. “[I’m] having tears of joy to know we don’t have to go back to prison.”

Marquez applied for clemency in 2016 while still in prison; it was denied the following year. In September 2021, she applied again.

“It would be a really big blessing,” she said. Clemency would also allow her to travel to Nebraska and hug her mother. Without clemency, Marquez will remain under the same restrictions until her sentence ends in 2031.

In September 2021, Marquez learned that the Biden administration, which has yet to grant any clemencies, is conducting an expedited clemency screening for people with nonviolent drug convictions on home confinement under the CARES Act. The screening only applies to those who have between 18 and 48 months remaining on their sentence. Marquez, whose release date is March 9, 2031, does not qualify.

That leaves Marquez to wait and hope. “I’m praying and praying for clemency — not just for me, but for all of us, both on home confinement and still in prison,” she said.

When a Miscarriage Becomes a Jail Sentence

Oct 21, 2021, 10:00am Caroline Reilly

National Advocates for Pregnant Women painted a grim picture of pregnant people increasingly being prosecuted around the country for a miscarriage.

The criminalization of Brittney Poolaw’s pregnancy forewarns of a system where all pregnancies that do not end in a live birth can be deemed suspicious.

In January 2020, then-19-year-old Brittney Poolaw was pregnant and needed urgent medical care. She called 911 and was taken to the hospital in an ambulance. She was having a miscarriage at 17 weeks.

Two months later, she was arrested and charged with first-degree manslaughter under Oklahoma law. Earlier this month—after spending 18 months in jail because she could not afford her $20,000 bond—Poolaw, now 21, was sentenced to four years in prison for her pregnancy loss. National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), which represents Poolaw, say this case is not an outlier—it’s one of over 1,000 such cases across the country in recent years.

The criminalization of adverse pregnancy outcomes—arresting, charging, and incarcerating pregnant people for miscarriages and stillbirths—might seem dystopian, like a plot point from a horror or sci-fi movie. Occasionally, cases like Poolaw’s make national headlines and are rightly judged as ghastly violations of human rights and autonomy. But that laser focus on individual cases can give the impression that these are isolated incidents.

They are not.

NAPW say cases like Poolaw’s have been on the rise in recent years. According to their analysis, from 1973 to 2005 there were at least 413 cases in which a woman’s pregnancy or pregnancy outcome was a determinative factor in her loss of liberty. Since 2005 that number has tripled to over 1,200, indicating a rapid escalation of these types of arrests.

This is despite every major medical organization in the country opposing the use of the legal system to penalize pregnancy loss, and despite studies showing that criminalization of adverse pregnancy outcomes may actually deter pregnant people from seeking medical care, which in turn puts them and their pregnancies at greater risk.

Speaking to Rewire News Group, Dana Sussman, NAPW’s deputy executive director, and NAPW staff attorney Cassandra Kelly painted a grim picture of pregnant people increasingly being prosecuted for charges involving fetal demise. This is happening across the country, in states like Wisconsin, Alabama, and California; for the latter, they cited the cases of Chelsea Becker, who spent over a year incarcerated after being charged with murder for experiencing a stillbirth, and Adora Perez, who is serving an 11-year sentence for a similar charge.

An even more radical framework for criminalizing miscarriage

Describing Poolaw’s case, Sussman said, “I’m not sure if I have the words to describe frankly how problematic this case has been from start to finish.”

Prosecutors argued that Poolaw’s drug use was to blame for her pregnancy loss. When she sought medical attention for her miscarriage, she told hospital staff that she had used meth and marijuana. The medical examiner’s report listed maternal meth use as a contributing factor to fetal demise, but didn’t determine it was directly responsible. And even an OB-GYN testifying for the prosecution said that while drug use can have an effect on pregnancy, it’s unclear what caused the miscarriage in this case.

Under Oklahoma law, manslaughter and murder laws can be applied to a viable fetus, as can child abuse and neglect laws. But Poolaw’s miscarriage occured when she was 17 weeks pregnant, long before a fetus reaches viability. NAPW advocates say Poolaw’s case is one of the earliest they’ve seen; by prosecuting a pre-viability miscarriage as manslaughter, Oklahoma prosecutors are pushing the law’s bounds, indicating a shift toward an even more radical framework for criminalizing pregnancy loss.

NAPW is a nonprofit organization that does pro bono criminal defense, advocacy, public education, and organizing around the criminalization of pregnancy loss.

The particulars of Poolaw’s case are a web of legal booby traps. “There has to be a causal link when we’re talking about manslaughter,” Sussman said. “In Brittney’s case, it was ‘possession of an illegal substance.’ Of course, possession on its own, even by their framing, wouldn’t cause fetal demise. It’s the consumption, but in Oklahoma, from what we understand, possession has essentially been construed as also covering consumption.”

What we see happening with the criminalization of pregnancy loss is not unlike what we see with the increasingly volatile state of abortion access in the country. Lawmakers and prosecutors start by encroaching on the bodily autonomy of pregnant people in a way they know will be most palatable to society. They target circumstances most fraught with stigma and taboo: later abortion bans, restrictions on young people accessing abortion, criminalization of drug use during pregnancy. But Sussman says they will not stop there.

It comes down to prosecutors claiming the pregnant person put the fetus at “risk of harm,” she said, a measure of liability with drastic potential for expansion.

“We’ve tracked all cases that we can find in which someone has been arrested and/or prosecuted or experienced another deprivation of liberty in relation to their pregnancy, and the vast majority of those cases involve drug use,” Sussman said. “It’s not all though. So, we do see cases where someone fell down a flight of stairs and was charged with some criminal allegation creating a risk of harm to the fetus.”

But NAPW wants to make clear that pushing back against the criminalization of pregnancy loss isn’t about viability or substance use; pointing out these legal intricacies is not to concede that viability or the pregnant person’s behavior should be used to determine whether manslaughter or other criminal charges are appropriate.

Instead, NAPW staff stress that the criminalization of any pregnancy loss is wrong. If lawmakers and prosecutors intended to stop with cases involving post-viability pregnancies, or miscarriages involving allegations of drug use, that would still warrant the abject horror that Poolaw’s case has been greeted with.

“It is a slippery slope. We are on the slope.”

A critical part of this case is Poolaw’s Indigenous background—she is a member of Comanche Nation; the history of the criminalization of adverse pregnancy outcomes is, unsurprisingly, deeply rooted in racism and classism.

“So much of this has its tentacles in the ‘crack baby’ obsession in the ‘80s and ‘90s targeting poor Black women,” Sussman said. She cites a 1989 policy in which the Medical University of South Carolina entered into an agreement with local law enforcement to surreptitiously drug test and report pregnant women, so that police could arrest them days and sometimes just hours after giving birth. The population that the hospital was serving at the time was predominantly Black and lower income.

According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, which challenged the policy in court:

Some women were taken to jail while still bleeding from giving birth. Others were arrested and jailed while they were pregnant, even though the prison could not provide prenatal care or drug treatment. When the incarcerated women went into labor, they were returned to the hospital in shackles. One woman was handcuffed to her bed throughout her delivery.

The Supreme Court heard the Center’s challenge to the policy and, in 2001, ruled in their favor. But the same type of disparate impact remains the reality of criminalized adverse pregnancy outcomes today. Sussman stresses that cases like Poolaw’s will affect marginalized pregnant people most—Black, trans and nonbinary, disabled, undocumented, and lower income pregnant people are all at an increased risk of having their pregnancy losses criminalized.

“We all know that pregnancy is grossly understudied and there’s so much still unknown,” Sussman says. “Exercising too vigorously, going downhill skiing, a lot of things [involve risk], but because of the war on drugs and because of racism and because of classism and lots of other things, the focus has been disproportionately on drug use. But it is a slippery slope. We are on the slope.”

Criminalization of pregnancy loss is rapidly expanding in scope, in ways that continue to target marginalized people. Sussman said NAPW is now seeing cases where a pregnant person faces allegations of lack of prenatal care as part of a larger charge. This is particularly insidious considering which communities lack access to proper prenatal care, and the fact that for low-income families, accessing prenatal care means interacting with a state system that has the potential to surveil them, which in turn leaves them vulnerable to prosecution if they experience pregnancy loss. NAPW is even starting to see cases where parents of newborns become ensnared in the legal system for allegations of drug use during breastfeeding.

Poolaw’s case forewarns of a system where all pregnancies that do not end in a live birth can be deemed suspicious. As Texas SB 8, which bans nearly all abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, dominates headlines, it’s critical to understand how criminalizing abortion and criminalizing pregnancy loss intersect. Conservatives in Texas have been quick to assure voters that pregnant people themselves cannot be charged under the anti-abortion law, but the reality is that pregnant people around the country are already being charged for not carrying a pregnancy to term. And while medication abortion is safe and effective, an increased demand for it presents unique challenges to populations of pregnant people who are more likely to have their pregnancy losses criminalized.

The increasing criminalization of adverse pregnancy outcomes also speaks to a deep-seated stigma and taboo surrounding miscarriage and infertility.

“It’s premised on this false notion that everyone can guarantee a healthy pregnancy and that it is somehow your failure, your incapacity, your fault, something you did or something you didn’t do, that caused the pregnancy loss,” Sussman said.

“We of course know how common pregnancy loss is and how it’s been really sort of understudied, as so many sort of health issues that predominantly affect women are, and thinking about sort of all of the economic, social, structural reasons why people might experience pregnancy loss … And yet here we are holding women criminally liable when they can’t guarantee a healthy pregnancy.”

Sussman said Poolaw now has a short window of time to decide whether to appeal. Four years is the minimum sentence for manslaughter in Oklahoma, and she could have gotten life in prison, Sussman said.

“I think she has been through a deeply, deeply traumatic experience,” Sussman said. “It’s trauma layered upon trauma. And so we’re going to be driven by what she wants. But regardless of what decision she makes, it’s not the end of our fight in Oklahoma because more cases are coming.”

NO TOUCHING ALLOWED

solitarywatch.org

No Touching Allowed for Many LGBTQ+ People in Prison

Sept 16, 2021


After a Thanksgiving Day meal, “J,” who was incarcerated at North Central Correctional Institute in Massachusetts, complained of a stomach ache. His friend Carlos, who requested to be identified by his first name only, leaned down from his top bunk and rubbed J’s head jokingly. “There, there,” he said, as the men laughed. Later that day, Carlos, who identifies as gay, was taken to solitary confinement in the Special Housing Unit (SHU). 

Carlos’s friendly head pat had been noticed by a correctional officer, who told him, “I don’t care what you are, but you’re a man, and what I saw was PREA.” The officer was accusing Carlos of violating the rules laid out in the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a 2003 federal law that aims to protect incarcerated people from sexual violence by establishing clearer procedures, collecting better data, and providing resources to correctional institutions. 

Fortunately for Carlos, other prison officials took his side and he was soon released from the SHU. But he should never have been there in the first place: Platonic physical touch, like his interaction with J, is not prohibited by PREA standards. Despite his unfair placement, Carlos’s weekend stay in “the hole” caused him to permanently lose his place in his housing unit and, therefore, his job, as well as the good time credits he had built up to reduce his sentence by participating in programming.

Carlos’s story is not unique. Although PREA was backed by many advocacy groups and passed by Congress with unanimous bipartisan support, a law is only as good as its implementation. From Carlos’s letter to Solitary Watch, multiple interviews with other formerly and currently incarcerated individuals, and accounts from advocates, it is clear that PREA’s intent is at times being twisted or misinterpreted to cause additional harm. 

Correctional officers in many prisons and jails prohibit platonic touching, issue disciplinary infractions based on their own personal biases and beliefs instead of the official rules, conflate consensual sex with rape, and appropriate PREA standards not to protect, but to punish. This misuse of PREA leads to unfair punishment, including time in solitary confinement, and is far more likely to affect LGBTQ+ individuals, who are already incarcerated at disproportionately high rates. Several LGBTQ+ people also emphasized to Solitary Watch how their treatment in the system was further compounded by their racial identities. 

Punished for Platonic Touching

Michael Cox, executive director for Black and Pink Massachusetts (which is not affiliated with the national organization of the same name), had an experience similar to Carlos’s. When he was incarcerated in the same Massachusetts prison in 2011, Cox and his friend—both of whom were openly LGBTQ+—hugged goodbye in the prison yard. He said correctional officers approached them, led by a lieutenant, who ordered, “Lock them up.” 

When Cox asked why they were being punished, he was told the hug was a PREA violation. Like Carlos, he spent the weekend in solitary before the administration reviewed his case and let him out.

“It was very apparent that it was just a hug,” Cox said. “And even if the suspicion was that we were in an intimate relationship, that shouldn’t be enough to put someone in solitary confinement. It is stigmatizing for LGBT people that we are treated differently than others while in the system. It happens all the time.”

In the largest-ever survey of incarcerated LGBTQ+ individuals, 85 percent of the 1,118 respondents reported spending time in solitary confinement—half of whom said they were in solitary for two or more years. The survey, which was conducted by Black & Pink, a national nonprofit organization that advocates for the abolition of prisons, further found that respondents of color were twice as likely as white respondents to have experienced isolation. Transgender individuals were especially likely to be placed in solitary, often as “protective custody,” a form of solitary confinement used with the intent of removing people from unsafe environments. 

And although PREA does not ban hugging, some prisons have. Kelly Savage-Rodriguez, a program coordinator with the California Coalition of Women Prisoners (CCWP), was incarcerated in a California prison for almost two decades; for eight years of that time, the prison had a memorandum prohibiting hugs. 

She said the ban made her job as a grief counselor more difficult. “It was really inappropriate when we would have somebody who the sergeant or captain notified of a loss, and [the individual] couldn’t even get a hug in a serious grief moment,” Savage-Rodriguez said.

Risks of Consensual Relationships

While platonic touching is prohibited in certain prisons and jails, consensual sex is banned almost everywhere, and often leads to time in solitary. But some people who are in consensual relationships are targeted by correctional officers more so than others. Savage-Rodriguez, for example, was incarcerated in the same facility as her spouse, both of whom are white. They were allowed to remain housed together, which Savage-Rodriguez believes was because they looked feminine and led programming in the prison.

Krystal Shelley, an activist who also works at CCWP, was not as fortunate. Shelley, who does not identify as male or female and is Black, said that while they were sharing a cell with their partner at Valley State Prison for Women, correctional officers planted a shank under their mattress. Shelley was sent to the SHU.

“It was falsified documentation upon me, just due to the fact that they did not want me living with my partner,” Shelley said. Then a second shank was planted under their bed, they said, leading to another six-month stay in solitary.

Dominique Morgan, the executive director of Black & Pink and a Black trans woman, was punished with solitary confinement and separated from her partner as well during her incarceration. At age 19, Morgan entered the Omaha Correctional Center, an adult facility for men, after having spent many of her teenage years in juvenile detention. Around that same time, she started to identify as female.

Morgan met Doug, who was incarcerated in the facility as well, and fell in love. They made plans together for when they got out; they introduced each other to their families. Morgan leaned on Doug as she grieved the death of her father. “I was building a family in a space where I felt alone,” she said.

But after two years, their consensual sexual activity was reported by another incarcerated individual, and they were sent to solitary for 90 days, which she says was an unusually long stint. 

“The irony was that I would see people who were being pressured [into sex], and the state would never step in in those situations,” Morgan said. 

After those 90 days, Morgan and Doug were sent to solitary in separate prisons—Morgan to a maximum security facility. The review board at that facility repeatedly recommended her release from solitary, but each time the warden appealed to keep her in.

“I remember thinking: ‘I’m not violent…I’m stuck in this hole. I’m scared. I’m alone,’” Morgan said. “It was sad to realize it was all because of my sexual orientation and gender identity.” 

After 18 months, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Nebraska intervened, and Morgan was released from solitary. 

“I was happy to [go to the general population], but I was even more afraid because you took me from a minimum security prison and then you are going to put me in the general population in the supermax prison?” Morgan said. 

She added that this happened 20 years ago, and she is hearing similar stories from incarcerated people now.  

PREA Problems Abound

The PREA Resource Center (PRC), which is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), is charged with carrying out the work of PREA by implementing training sessions and reviewing audits. The PREA standards require all correctional facilities to track incidents and undergo PREA audits at least once every three years, which are conducted by third-party individuals trained and certified by the DOJ.

Since the PREA Standards were implemented, reports of sexual victimization filed by correctional officers have increased significantly, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Researchers at the Urban Institute believe that the increase in reports may be a sign that incarcerated individuals are increasingly likely to trust the system now that PREA has been in place for some time.

Yet, experts are still concerned about the usage of the policy.

Amy Fettig—the executive director of the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit fighting against mass incarceration—was trained as a PREA auditor and spent years working to help finalize the standards in her former role as deputy director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. 

Many are concerned that PREA is “being used as a sword instead of a shield,” Fettig said. “Anecdotally, we have heard from clients that affectionate behavior is being criminalized because there is animus towards the LGBT community in prisons.” 

But this is not the law’s intent. Fettig said that correctional officers and facilities are interpreting the law differently. “PREA doesn’t say no touching…I think when we have seen PREA abused, it is more about homophobia than anything else.”

Cox, from Black and Pink Massachusetts, agrees. He said he does not believe he would have been punished for giving a hug if not for PREA. In his view, after their training, “the takeaway from guards was that anything LGBT-related is now criminalized.”

Julie Abbate, the national advocacy director for the nonprofit Just Detention, which works to end sexual abuse behind bars, noted that physical touch is complex.

“In men’s facilities, what looks like what might be consensual [to staff] could be what is called ‘protective pairing,’ where somebody who is maybe more vulnerable agrees to pair up with a stronger inmate and provide sex in exchange for protection,” she said. 

But women’s behavior is often different from men, according to Abbate.

“Women have platonic relationships oftentimes where they might hold hands, or hug each other, or put their arms around each other.” She, too, said she has heard of certain jurisdictions incorrectly punishing platonic touching as alleged PREA violations.

To address this, correctional staff should receive a “deeper, nuanced training and understanding of human sexuality,” Abbate said, as well as better training for the signs of coercive or protective relationships.

Morgan, from Black & Pink, believes PREA generally leaves too much discretion in the hands of correctional officers. “You left the power in the institutions who were harming them [incarcerated individuals] in the first place,” she said.

Some of the PRC’s weakness stems from a general lack of resources, as well as a reliance on private contractors to act as the auditors overseeing PREA implementation, Fettig said. She would rather see more power and authority in the hands of a government oversight agency.

Abbate said the PRC has taken on an increased workload since its creation, to the point where it could double in size. 

Asked to comment on Solitary Watch’s findings, the PREA Resource Center provided a statement saying that if facilities request support in “achieving and maintaining compliance with the PREA Standards,” the PRC and PREA Management Office offer assistance. Requests from facilities “regularly” pertain to protecting LGBTQ+ individuals, according to the statement.

Long-Lasting Trauma

Being sent to solitary confinement for any length of time or for any reason can have devastating mental health effects. Since his time in solitary for platonic touching, Carlos said he has developed issues with anxiety. “The sound of keys and [hand]cuffs ‘triggers’ me—even a phone ringing or my name being called by an officer,” he wrote to Solitary Watch.

Isolation has also left an indelible mark on Shelley, who spent two one-year stints in solitary confinement, as well as additional sporadic time throughout their incarceration. Although they came home in 2012, they said the experience of solitary continues to make it harder to communicate, which in turn makes everyday tasks difficult.

“It is 2021. Solitary confinement is still affecting me today,” Shelley said. “I tend to want to be alone often…And don’t get me wrong, I go out—but I definitely don’t go out and live life as much as I should.”

A grandmother didn’t answer her phone during a class. She was sent back to prison.

Washington Post

By Justin Wm. Moyer and Neena Satija
June 26, 2021 PDT

Gwen Levi, shown in Baltimore while on home confinement, is now at the D.C. jail awaiting transfer to a federal facility.

In the year she was out of prison, Gwen Levi, 76, was thriving.

After serving 16 years in different federal facilities for dealing heroin, Levi was allowed to leave last June and finish her 24-year sentence in home confinement under the supervision of federal prison officials. She moved in with her 94-year-old mother in Baltimore and volunteered at prisoner advocacy organizations, hoping for a paying job to come along. She was also building her relationships with her sons and grandsons.

But Levi’s season on the outside ended June 12 after she attended a computer word-processing class in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. A Federal Bureau of Prisons incident report said she was out of contact for a few hours with the officials supervising her.

Levi is now at the D.C. jail awaiting transfer to a federal facility, according to her attorney, Sapna Mirchandani, of Maryland’s Office of the Federal Public Defender.

“There’s no question she was in class,” Mirchandani said. “As I was told, because she could have been robbing a bank, they’re going to treat her as if she was robbing a bank.”

Levi is one of about 4,500 federal prisoners sent to home confinement last year to protect them from contracting the coronavirus. Advocates celebrated the move by the Trump administration and expected that President Biden would continue to keep former inmates home even after the pandemic receded.

But while Biden has taken steps supported by criminal justice advocates, the White House has appeared to follow President Donald Trump’s lead with respect to a Justice Department memo calling for nearly all people to return to prison when the public health emergency ends.

Inmates sent home amid pandemic may have to return under Trump-era policy

The administration hasn’t weighed in on the binding Justice Department memo, issued in the final days of Trump’s presidency. The White House and Justice Department wouldn’t comment when asked by The Washington Post about the return of inmates to prison on seemingly minor violations.

Kristie A. Breshears, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Prisons, said in an email that the agency cannot discuss individual cases. However, sanctions “are not imposed in a capricious or retaliatory manner,” she said, and bureau staff “are the determining factor when making determinations regarding transferring an inmate back to secure custody.”

Breshears added that the Bureau of Prisons could decide to allow inmates near the end of their sentences to stay on home confinement after the pandemic.

“For the more difficult cases, where inmates still have years left to serve, this will be an issue only after the pandemic is over,” she said. “The president recently extended the national emergency and the Department of Health and Human Services has said the public health crisis is likely to last for the rest of the year.”

Biden administration endorses bill to end disparity in drug sentencing between crack and powder cocaine

According to Levi’s Bureau of Prisons incident report, the officials supervising her were alerted by her ankle monitor at 10:51 a.m. that she was not home. She did not answer calls to her phone for the next few hours. By 1:17 p.m., the ankle monitor showed she was back at her approved address. The report noted the incident as an “escape.”

In a statement released by Mirchandani, Levi said she was “devastated.”

“I feel like I was attempting to do all the right things,” Levi said. “Breaking rules is not who I am. I tried to explain what happened, and to tell the truth. At no time did I think I wasn’t supposed to go to that class. I apologize to my mother and my family for what this is doing to them.”

Biden launches an effort to head off violent crime — and political peril for his party

Other prisoners released to home confinement during the pandemic also are being sent back.

Lynn Espejo was sentenced to 45 months for filing false tax returns, wire fraud and money laundering in the Eastern District of Arkansas in 2017. In an interview, she said she was released in May last year, got a job at her church and re-enrolled in graduate school, where she was completing a master’s degree in clinical and mental health counseling. She also writes a blog focused on inmates’ rights and hosts a radio show

On Jan. 12, according to Bureau of Prisons documents, Espejo was written up for emailing inmates — “[v]iolating a condition of a community program” by “communicating with inmates currently incarcerated in numerous Federal Prisons,” according to the incident report. She was reincarcerated Jan. 12 and released Jan. 27 after a judge allowed her to be returned home because of health issues.

Espejo, who has since completed her degree, said she believes she was sent back to prison as retaliation for her activism. About 153,000 inmates are in the custody of the bureau, a 20-year low.

“You cannot hold someone’s freedom of speech over their head on home confinement,” she said.

Breshears said she could not comment on an individual inmate’s conditions of confinement.

Frail inmates could be sent home to prevent the spread of covid-19. Instead, some are dying in federal prisons.

Kevin Ring, president of nonprofit prisoner advocacy organization Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said returning people on home confinement to prison for minor violations is “counter to human nature.” The Biden administration should say whether it will rescind the Trump administration memo, he said.

“This is exactly what we feared from them delaying resolution of this issue,” he said. “Every day is torture. They’re worried about going back to prison. .?.?. Waiting is the hardest part.”

Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor and professor of law at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, said that if the Justice Department won’t rescind the memo, the Biden administration could use another legal tool: clemency. Osler said he has spoken to administration officials about that possibility.

But such grants could prove controversial as Biden announces measures to combat violent crime amid an increase in violenceacross the country.

The transfer of prisoners to home confinement during the pandemic has proved to be safe, Osler said. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in April, Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal said three inmates transferred to home confinement have been arrested on new charges.

“The facade of their incarceration in the interest of public safety has been knocked over,” Osler said.

As national leaders debate criminal justice, Levi is back behind bars. Her son Craig Levi said it was a blessing to have his mother home. Now, she’s gone.

“We don’t understand how it escalated,” he said. “It’s unjustified — the stress that they put on the family.”

By Justin Wm. Moyer—Justin Wm. Moyer is a breaking news reporter for The Washington Post. After a long stint as a contributing writer at the Washington City Paper, he came to The Post in 2008, becoming an editor in Outlook and for the Morning Mix, The Post’s overnight team. He became a reporter in 2015. Twitter

By Neena Satija—Neena Satija has been an investigative reporter for The Washington Post since January 2019. She was previously an investigative reporter and radio producer for the Texas Tribune and Reveal, a national radio show and podcast. Twitter

Trans women are still incarcerated with men and it’s putting their lives at risk

CNN

Story by Nora Neus
Wed. June 23, 2021


Jennifer Orthwein, a public interest attorney in California, filed a lawsuit on June 11 on behalf of a currently incarcerated trans woman, Syiaah Skylit, and the entire class of trans prisoners in similar situations in California. “As people have begun to assert their rights under SB 132, they have been met with severe retaliation, distressing delays, tactics intended to police their genders, dangerous rumors and misinformation, and systemic outing of transgender, nonbinary and intersex people,” Orthwein tells CNN.

She’s incarcerated in a men’s prison facility. Why she’s suing Georgia corrections

(CNN)—Jasmine Rose Jones is a woman. But for much of the last 23 years, she was incarcerated in a men’s facility, and she says she was subjected to rape, sexual assault and abuse, just because she is transgender. Jones, who was released from prison in May 2020 and is now a legal assistant at the?Transgender?Gender-Variant & Intersex Justice Project in San Francisco, says she was repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted by male prisoners and abused by male correctional officers across multiple facilities throughout her multiple stints in custody.

At the time, Jones did not feel like she could report the assaults to corrections officers, for fear of retribution, including being thrown into solitary confinement. But she says she had told officers that she was transgender and feared for her safety.She heard similar fears from other trans women serving with her.”We lived with it,” she says. “We lived with the abuse.”

Jones is not alone. As recently as last year, the vast majority of incarcerated trans people in America are still housed in facilities based on the sex they were assigned at birth, according to a 2020 investigation by NBC News.

Jasmine Rose Jones

This is despite robust evidence that trans women are at a significantly higher risk of abuse and assault than the general prison population, according to academic research and surveys of incarcerated trans people. And that is still the case nearly 30 years after a landmark Supreme Court decision in Farmer v Brennan that found deliberately failing to protect incarcerated trans people from abuse or violence behind bars qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment. Activists say not much has changed. Now, they are working to change policies on both the federal and state level to allow trans prisoners to decide for themselves where they would feel safest being housed — or at least have their voice heard, even if prisons or independent decision-making boards still get to make the final call.

2007 study from the University of California, Irvine, found that incarcerated transgender people were 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than a random sample of incarcerated men. Fifty-nine percent of transgender prisoners reported having been sexually assaulted within a California correctional facility compared to just 4.4% of the incarcerated population as a whole.”Transgender women are not safe behind bars, period,” says Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, the incoming executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE). “Nobody should be in danger just because they are in government custody.”

In 1994, the US Supreme Court ruled on Eighth Amendment grounds that failing to protect trans people in custody is unconstitutional because it qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment. Farmer v Brennan centered on the alleged prison rape of a trans woman, Dee Farmer. She says only a few days after a transfer to FCI Terre Haute, a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, she was raped by a cellmate. Prior to her incarceration, she had been living as a transgender woman, and argued that that fact, coupled with what court documents called the “violent environment and a history of inmate assaults” at the Terre Haute facility, meant that officials deliberately failed to protect her from harm by placing her there.

A California lawmaker wants to repeal an anti-loitering code that critics say has been used to target trans women
A California lawmaker wants to repeal an anti-loitering code that critics say has been used to target trans women

“He just kept repeatedly punching me all over,” she remembers, voice strong but still emotional more than 30 years later. “He started kicking me and I saw a knife in his tennis shoe. And it scared me so bad that I just stopped resisting. And he threw me on the bed and raped me.””A prison official’s ‘deliberate indifference’ to a substantial risk of serious harm to an inmate violates the Eighth Amendment,” wrote Justice David Souter in the court’s opinion. While a jury ultimately found for the defendants in her case, her win at the Supreme Court is still hailed as a victory.

Activists like Dee Farmer are still fighting to institute national and state-level policies that would require a facility to house transgender, nonbinary or intersex people in the facilities where they feel safest, which would often mean according to their gender identity.”They should not feel that they have to settle for being assaulted or violence or being harassed or being abused,” she tells CNN. “Make it known that this is what is happening. Let your voice be heard.”

‘I never murdered anyone or anything like that’

Transgender people are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system to begin with, incarcerated at significantly higher rates than other groups.According to the NTCE’s last national US Transgender Survey conducted in 2015, the rate of incarceration for transgender people was double that of the nation-wide rate of incarceration, and about 10 times higher for Black transgender women.In many states, being transgender in public can lead to an arrest under so-called “Walking While Trans” laws: anti-loitering codes officially used to target sex workers, which in practice target primarily trans women of color regardless of whether they are sex workers, advocates say.

“I was certainly profiled” as a transgender woman on the street, says activist and transgender woman Bamby Salcedo. “It was always a thing. I would always be stopped for just walking to get groceries from the store.”Salcedo says she was first incarcerated at age 19, shortly after she began her transition process, and spent the next 14 years in and out of prison and jail for a variety of drug charges and petty theft charges, which she says primarily entailed shoplifting makeup and food.

Activist Bamby Salcedo is seen at the AIDS Monument Groundbreaking earlier this month in West Hollywood, California.

“I never murdered anyone or anything like that,” Salcedo says. “Back in the ’80s there weren’t any services related to us. So anything we needed we got from the street, from our sisters. Participating in the street economy was the only way for us to live and survive.”Salcedo says the “inhumane” and “disgraceful” treatment of trans women in custody often starts immediately upon the intake process, a sentiment echoed by Jones and others.”We are told to get undressed in front of many men” including both corrections officers and other male prisoners, Salcedo describes, which “automatically creates this sense of fear for many of us and this sense… that it’s ok to sexually harass us and oftentimes sexually assault us.”Jones similarly spent a lot of time on the street as a teen, after becoming homeless when she says her mother kicked her out of the house after coming out as gay.”The streets were my best friend. That’s where I learned to become who I am today,” Jones says.But soon, for Jones too, life on the street turned to life behind bars.

Violence on the Inside

Once they are incarcerated, trans people are at significantly higher risk of violence. Trans prisoners are over nine times more likely than the prison average to be assaulted or abused by fellow prisoners, and over five times more likely to be assaulted or abused by facility staff, according to a national survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality. According to the 2015 survey, within the year leading up to the survey, almost a quarter of transgender prisoners reported being physically assaulted by other people in custody or staff.Salcedo describes being raped in custody by a man who held a razor blade against her neck. On other occasions, she says she was beaten by other prisoners, including one time being beaten with a four-by-four piece of wood.”Every single day I was at least verbally attacked. Every single day,” she remembers.Formerly incarcerated trans women say that abuse often comes at the hands of correctional officers.

Deadly attacks on Black trans women are going up. This grieving mom is fighting back
Deadly attacks on Black trans women are going up. This grieving mom is fighting back

“They have this whole language they used toward the trans community,” Jones remembers. “They call us horrible names, they used to have us strip out in front of other inmates to embarrass us. They used to come and ransack our cells and take our make-up. They wouldn’t let us eat in chow halls if we were wearing any make-up at all.”Opponents of housing people in custody according to gender identity argue that men could falsely claim to be transgender so they are housed with women they can then assault. There is no evidence to support that this happens, while there is overwhelming evidence that trans women in men’s prisons are being sexually assaulted at exponentially higher rates than the general incarcerated population.”There is no evidence whatsoever to support this argument of false claims. It simply doesn’t happen,” Heng-Lehtinen says. “There are criteria for determining that someone really is transgender… It’s not as simple as simply declaring that you are transgender.”There is limited data available on whether incarcerated transgender women in women’s facilities are at a lower rate of sexual assault because so few transgender women are currently being incarcerated in women’s facilities. However, formerly incarcerated trans women speaking to CNN shared that they would feel more comfortable being strip searched by guards who are women — standard practice in women’s facilities — and would feel safer with cellmates who are women.

Laws on the books

In 2003, President George W. Bush signed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA, into law. It required the Department of Justice to develop federal rules for prisons and jails aimed at preventing and eliminating sexual assault and rape of prisoners. The DOJ issued those PREA Standards in 2012, which still stand today.Among them, the PREA Standards say that prison staff “must consider [housing assignments] on a case-by-case basis,” and not simply on the basis of a person’s “genital status.” The rules also say “serious consideration” should be given to an incarcerated person’s “own views regarding his or her own safety.”In practice, activists say those standards rarely lead to trans women ever being incarcerated in a women’s facility, despite their requests to be housed as such.”We’ve heard from so many trans women that prison officials will ask them if they have a penis during intake,” says Richard Saenz, a senior attorney with Lambda Legal. “And that’s how they decide where they should be housed.”

This Black trans activist is fighting to shield her community from an epidemic of violence
This Black trans activist is fighting to shield her community from an epidemic of violence

Saenz says Lambda Legal gets hundreds of letters and phone calls every year from trans people in prison who say they are being assaulted, abused and otherwise are unsafe in their housing situation specifically because they are transgender. .”[PREA is] still not enforced consistently enough,” Heng-Lehtinen says. “We need clearer and more detailed policy about exactly how to determine the housing assignment and it needs to be reevaluated periodically because circumstances change.””Best practice would be for a trans person’s housing to be re-evaluated every year. And if that’s not going to happen, it should be revisited every five years.”

The Department of Justice tells CNN that the Federal Bureau of Prisons “follows and enforces PREA standards and recognizes the importance of ensuring that inmates are and feel safe while in custody. Under current policy, a transgender or intersex inmate’s own views with respect to his or her own safety must be given serious consideration when BOP makes housing and programming assignments.”

Part of the problem, activists say, is that there is a “patchwork” of federal and state regulations that is often “exploited to ignore the transgender person who is unsafe,” explains Heng-Lehtinen.This patchwork includes the federal government’s Transgender Offender Manual, which the Trump Administration revised in 2018 to roll back protections for trans people in custody. It required officials “use biological sex as the initial determination” for housing placement, but it did not define the term “biological sex” — a controversial term for which there is not one standard set of medical criteria.

Despite the Biden administration’s assurances that they want to improve the quality of life for transgender Americans, it has not yet revised these Trump-era regulations or issued a new Transgender Offender Manual.

“We do expect the Biden administration to update and fix the Transgender Offender Manual,” says Heng-Lehtinen, who says the NCTE has been working closely with the Biden administration and Department of Justice to make these changes.Salcedo is now the CEO and President of Los Angeles-based TransLatin@ Coalition, an organization dedicated to improving the conditions of trans people in America. She says revising the Transgender Offender Manual is a good start, but not enough.”More than that, it’s important that we understand the reasons why trans people are incarcerated: we are criminalized because of who we are. An alternative to that is to provide trans people with the resources and support that we need, rather than… having to resort to survival which gets us put in prison.”

State level action

Individual states are also working on legislation requiring their state corrections facilities to house transgender people in the place they feel safest. That includes SB 132 in California, which Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law in September of 2020, effective January 1. This law requires transgender, non-binary and intersex prisoners to be housed in “a correctional facility designated for men or women based on the individual’s preference,” according to the bill text. It also requires all carceral staff to address prisoners by their correct gender pronouns and to search prisoners in a way consistent with their gender identity.But activists say this law is also unevenly implemented.

“Since I’ve been out, I’ve been hearing stories of trans people being assaulted …, being stripped out,” or strip searched, by male correctional officers says Jones, alleging that is happening because the trans women are still being housed in men’s facilities with officers who are men. “Even though SB 132 is now law, they are not implementing it right. They need to be held accountable for that. People are really under attack now.”

A transgender woman placed in a men's prison after alleging abuse has been moved to a women's facility
A transgender woman placed in a men’s prison after alleging abuse has been moved to a women’s facility

Jennifer Orthwein, a public interest attorney in California, and now a friend of Jones, filed a lawsuit on June 11 on behalf of a currently incarcerated trans woman, Syiaah Skylit, and the entire class of trans prisoners in similar situations in California. “As people have begun to assert their rights under SB 132, they have been met with severe retaliation, distressing delays, tactics intended to police their genders, dangerous rumors and misinformation, and systemic outing of transgender, nonbinary and intersex people,” Orthwein tells CNN.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation tells CNN, “CDCR has remained committed to providing a safe, humane, rehabilitative and secure environment for all transgender, non-binary, and intersex people housed in the state’s correctional facilities… All housing transfer requests are being reviewed by a multi-disciplinary team to include institution leadership, mental health professionals, and Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) Compliance Managers. We’ve also developed and provided specialized training to staff to ensure they are aware of laws and departmental policies and to give them the knowledge and tools they need when interacting with the incarcerated transgender community.”

According to the court filing, “Defendants and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (“CDCR”) have repeatedly tortured, sexually assaulted, threatened, and pepper sprayed Plaintiff Syiaah Skylit, a 30-year-old Black transgender woman.” Orthwein says Skylit has attempted suicide and gone on a hunger strike.

On the day the lawsuit was filed and CNN requested comment, Skylit was informed that her transfer request was approved and she will be transferred within the next few days, according to Orthwein.

“CDCR cannot comment on pending litigation, nor can we comment on a specific incarcerated person’s housing requests. But again, we take the health and safety of all those in our care very seriously and are ensuring thorough reviews are completed for each request.”

According to CDCR, out of 1,277 incarcerated individuals that identify as transgender, non-binary or intersex, 272 have requested gender-based housing transfer requests. 265 are from people being housed at male institutions requesting to be transferred to female institutions and seven are from people being housed at female institutions requesting transfer to a male facility.CDCR says that a total of 33 requests have been approved and 19 of those approved incarcerated people have already been transferred. They say the remaining 239 requests are “being evaluated.”

While both lawsuits and policy efforts are underway to ameliorate the conditions for transgender, non-binary and intersex people behind bars, advocates say lives are at stake.

“The need is urgent,” Heng-Lehtinen says. “There are trans people behind bars right now suffering.””We want people to understand that we are under no delusion that this bill will make prisons safe for anyone, including gender variant people,” Orthwein says. “We just hope that this bill makes it possible for transgender, nonbinary and intersex people to survive prison with as much of their mental and bodily integrity intact as possible.”