photo credit: The Advocate

BreakOUT! Statement Following Orleans Parish Prison Sheriff’s Candidate Forum

by BreakOUT! Organizers
On January 16th, 2014, the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC) hosted a Sheriff Candidates Forum at St. Peter Clavier Catholic Church.
People in attendance might have been surprised to hear the F-bomb in church, as the candidates answered BreakOUT!’s question about the treatment of LGBTQ prisoners.
“That’s f-ed up!” we yelled in response to a Sheriff Candidate’s proposal to subject transgender people to “full psychological evaluations” to determine their gender identity.
We meant no disrespect to St. Peter Clavier Church, OPPRC (a coalition of which we are a part), or the elders present at this important event.
The kind of attitude that the Sheriffs Candidates brought toward other human beings has no place in church either.
The question we submitted asked the candidates essentially how they would treat LGBTQ inmates – asking specifically whether or not they would house transgender people according to their gender identity or where they feel most safe. The candidates’ responses – which ranged from former Sheriff Foti implying that trans people often lie about their “true” identity to Sheriff Gusman saying he’d leave the decision with medical experts (though he currently has no classification process for trans people, who have suffered under his watch) to Sheriff Candidate Thomas arguing that trans people need to undergo a full psychological examination to determine their classification – were definitely F-ED UP.
Here’s why:
To arrest a transgender woman, put her in jail, and then have her go through this process is just B.S., and beyond that, it’s dangerous. It means that doctors and “experts” with little to no understanding of the experience of trans people, and especially transgender women of color, have the right to determine who you are, and to base decisions about your health, housing, and safety on that narrow and ill-informed decision.
Every transgender person transitions differently. Transgender women being on hormones or having surgery doesn’t make them any more or less of a woman.  A medical examiner at the jail might classify people based on physical characteristics, but that isn’t what makes you a woman. What makes you a woman is your mind frame, the way you think and how you feel on the inside, and how you see yourself in the world.  Everyone should respect the way transgender people identify themselves, but when the Sheriff doesn’t, the consequences can be very high.
Transgender women whose bodies don’t fit “expert” understandings of gender are routinely placed in men’s prisons, where a recent survey found that they experience rates of sexual victimization thirteen times higher than prisoners who are not transgender.  When a transgender woman is housed in general population with men, she is more likely to experience being sexually assaulted, beaten, violence, or other ill treatment.
If transgender women aren’t held in men’s prisons, they are often held in segregated isolation.  But protective and disciplinary custody is often the same, which means that transgender women in “protective housing” are still held in a highly restrictive and isolated setting. That stops transgender people from participating in drug treatment, getting education and job training programs, having contact with other inmates or outside visitors, or from receiving access to other privileges.  Plus, the physical and psychological damage caused by any form of isolation is well-documented.
Recently, the story of CeCe McDonald, the trans woman who was sentenced to 41 months in a men’s prison after defending herself from a would-be hate crime, has received a lot of national media attention. But CeCe’s case is not exceptional, it is the status quo for transgender people of color all across the country, and particularly in New Orleans, the incarceration capital of the world.
BreakOUT! has witnessed, one after another, our members taken away from us- either by the streets or the system- and when we land in jail, we are always held with men.  We have testified about stories of rape, broken jaws, being charged with attempted escape for running from our attackers, and even being set on fire.
To hear the candidates for Sheriff deny, one after the other, transgender people’s basic right to gender self-determination is a reminder that we as a community have a lot of work to do.  Laverne Cox said it best in a recent conversation with CeCe McDonald and Melissa Harris-Perry: “We have to have policies that acknowledge we exist, to even begin to dismantle some of the systemic discrimination we experience.”
Though we may have been the only group to say aloud what others were thinking that night at the forum, BreakOUT!’s question wasn’t the only one that didn’t get a satisfying answer. Among questions about jail size and consent decree mandates were questions about ICE holds- something that matters a lot to us that our friends at the Congress of Day Laborers (Congreso) have been working on.
The Congreso doesn’t want the city holding people in jail for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) – a practice that punishes people for merely being suspected of undocumented status, and can trap people in jail indefinitely after being arrested for minor crimes and traffic violations.
BreakOUT! is ride or die with the Congreso, so when several candidates dodged the question of whether or not they would honor ICE holds in the jail, clearly not knowing what ICE holds were, we noticed, and we were concerned.
When BreakOUT! left the forum last week, one of us said, “So basically, we don’t have a Sheriff’s candidate in there.”  But what would a Sheriff’s candidate for us look like?
To quote from CeCe McDonald on the Melissa Harris-Perry show recently, “To be honest, I feel like regardless if it was a men’s or a women’s prison, prisons in general aren’t safe at all. Of course I had to deal with the policies and the discrimination and the demonizing and the delegitimizing of my trans-ness, but you know prisons aren’t safe for anyone, and that’s the key issue.”
Check out these resources for the Sheriff’s Candidates for more information on policies to try to help keep transgender people safer in prisons:
Looking for something specific? Get in touch for more resources.