New LAPD lockup exclusively for transgender detainees — 5 years in the making and the 1st of its kind in the nation — is really just a start
The Los Angeles Police Department will open the first jail facility exclusively housing transgender detainees in May, marking a significant advancement for a group that often suffers violent discrimination and seldom gets relief.
LAPD recently announced in a community meeting in Hollywood that it would open the 24-bed facility for both male and female transgender people at the downtown women’s jail, according to a Los Angeles Times article. Transgender advocates who attended the meeting with police officials in Hollywood praised the initiative, noting that police officers historically showed little concern for the fate of transgender people who wound up jailed.
Previously, transgender people arrested by the police landed in the station closest to where they were detained, which often would be the Hollywood Community Police Station. Transgender women suspects resided with the jails’ male populations, putting them at risk of sexual assault and other violence.
The LAPD policy change includes a provision requiring police officers to treat transgender people with respect and courtesy and prohibits physical searches of them designed to determine their biological sex. Police officers also will be trained to address transgender people by their preferred name and gender.
Masen Davis, executive director of the Transgender Law Center, noted after the meeting that the new policy took five years to develop. The process involved numerous meetings, a survey of transgender people regarding their experiences with the LAPD and the preparation of a report recommending policy changes.
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said disciplinary action will be taken against any police officers who violate the policy.
The new policy appears to be a promising first step for the police department of one of the nation’s largest cities, but it fails to address the issue of what happens to transgender suspects who are arraigned in court and transferred for longer stays in the Los Angeles County Jail, run by the sheriff’s department. Suspects are typically held in the city facility for a maximum of three days before being transferred, and the county facility remains unaffected by the progressive measure, which places the Los Angeles transgender community back in the same predicament — one that transgender communities across the nation face if they get confined to jail.
There’s no escaping the reality of jailhouse violence, and it’s a dangerous setting for anyone. The threat is greater for LGBT people, and it is even more dangerous for transgender people who tend to stand out in such a close, basic environment.
The Dallas County Jail holds both suspects arrested by police prior to court appearances and people sentenced to jail terms. Others housed there are awaiting transfers to prisons to serve sentences.
Dallas County Jail’s policy concerning LGBT people allows inmates to self-identify themselves as gay or transgender and request confinement in a separate tank, but it is optional, according to a spokesperson for Sheriff Lupe Valdez, who reportedly was consulted by Los Angeles police officials about their project. In years past, previous sheriff’s administrations allowed jail personnel to place inmates in gay or “queer” tanks, but that policy was dropped after gay activists protested the practice as discriminatory.
Lesbian inmates have always remained with the general population in Dallas County Jail.
Dallas community activist Pamela Curry, who is a transgender woman, said she raised the issue of inmate safety to Valdez several years ago because she was concerned about the treatment of transgender women who had complained about being “felt up” by police officers and tossed into all-male tanks. She praised Valdez for her concern about inmates and efforts to ensure their protection from mistreatment.
Jails in some other major cities segregate gay inmates as it used to be done in Dallas, and it is unlikely there is going to be much movement in other states toward adopting the LAPD model without significant pressure being brought against public officials.
In addition to the prohibitive cost of establishing such facilities during tough economic times, there is little compassion among taxpayers and public officials for transgender people — or any others for that matter — who get confined to jail. The attitude of, “They are getting what they deserve,” that pervades society and the criminal justice system is likely the major stumbling block in making jails and prisons safer.
Many a crime victim has been advised by a prosecutor that a plea deal should be satisfactory to them because the defendant would be unlikely to survive the prison term.
It seems incredible that anyone serving a jail or prison term would more than likely be threatened by rape or other violent assault while under the supervision of law enforcement officers, but that is the reality. Amazingly, rampant drug and alcohol use reportedly accompanies widespread criminal activity being committed in state prisons across the country under the very noses of the guards.
Some people probably think that if jails and prisons remain scary places it will act as a deterrent to crime, but the statistics contradict that. Over the years the number of jails and prisons being built has barely kept up with the number of people being sentenced to confinement, and many of those are repeat offenders.
Until the general public becomes concerned about ensuring humane, safe and lawful living conditions in jails and prisons, they will remain terrifying places for transgender people and everyone else. Imprisonment shouldn’t be a pleasurable experience, but it shouldn’t be life-threatening one either.
David Webb has covered LGBT issues for the mainstream and alternative media for three decades. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 27, 2012.