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In Harris County, Texas, jail confronts issue of safety for LGBT inmates

Sunday, February 2, 2014
Pat Sullivan, APInmates hang out on their bunks in a new unit in the Harris County Jail for gay, bisexual and transgender inmates in Houston.

Pat Sullivan, AP
Inmates hang out on their bunks in a new unit in the Harris County Jail for gay, bisexual and transgender inmates in Houston.

HOUSTON — Black eyeliner rings Tyniesha Stephens’ large brown eyes. Her long, dark hair is pulled back in a ponytail, and she excitedly shares pictures of herself in the blonde wig and skirts she dons when she’s not in orange jail garb.

Yet Stephens lives among men in a Texas jail where she is serving a sentence for prostitution. And she knows she is nothing like them.

“I am feminine, a feminine person, a transgender woman, and some guys look at me, you know, with that eye,” Stephens, 28, said. “I feel very uncomfortable.”

Pat Sullivan, APTyniehsa Stephens visits with cellmates in a new unit in the Harris County Jail for gay, bisexual and transgender prisoners in Houston.

Pat Sullivan, AP
Tyniehsa Stephens visits with cellmates in a new unit in the Harris County Jail for gay, bisexual and transgender prisoners in Houston.

Pat Sullivan, APA prisoner leans against a bed frame in a new unit in the Harris County Jail for gay, bisexual and transgender inmates in Houston.

Pat Sullivan, AP
A prisoner leans against a bed frame in a new unit in the Harris County Jail for gay, bisexual and transgender inmates in Houston.

Stephens, whose legal first name is Marques, has been taking hormones for 10 years and is partly transformed into a woman. She’s hopeful that soon, she can serve out her time in a women’s jail. But how soon — or if — that can happen is in question.

The Harris County Jail in Houston, the third-largest in the country which processes some 125,000 inmates annually, is one of many nationwide implementing changes to the way it treats its gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender population. The changes stem from a law passed by Congress under former President George W. Bush that requires federal, state and local lockups to eliminate rape in part by adjusting regulations about how the population lives behind bars.

It’s not easy. As jails sort out how to put the law into place, conflicts are arising between existing state laws and the federal rules, making the implementation process slow and difficult.

Housing is one of the most difficult questions. Until now, gays, lesbians and transgender inmates were often housed separately, but based on their biological gender. Stephens lives with gay men. The new rules say it is discriminatory, as well as potentially unsafe, to house people based on sexual orientation and gender, and so now they hope to house inmates based on where they will be safest, and consider gender identity when making that decision.

“Transgender women have to be eligible for women’s housing. That is where they will be safest,” said Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy for the Washington-based National Center for Transgender Equality. “These are women who are psychologically women.”

For someone like Stephens, even something seemingly as simple as whether she should be considered a man or a woman while in jail is complicated. The federal law, called the Prison Rape Elimination Act, says it should be up to the inmate. But Texas law requires a person to be housed according to their biological gender, said Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Commission officials testified before a Texas statehouse committee during the recent legislative session and explained the new federal rules, including the possible funding implications for prisons that could lose grant dollars if they fail to comply, Wood said. However, the Legislature chose not to tackle the law.

“Female inmates do not want someone who identifies as a woman, but isn’t, in their housing,” Wood said. “The potential for something very bad to go wrong does exist.”

Stephens has been in and out of jail 18 times on various prostitution and drug-related charges. She said she was once assaulted by another inmate. And there are some guards who call her derogatory names or insist on addressing her as Mister no matter how many times she tells them she is not a man, she says.

Statistics show why resolving the conflicts between state and federal law are necessary. Often, rape cases are difficult to prove, and few are prosecuted.

In a 2011 survey, the Department of Justice found a high rate of inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization in one of the Harris County Jail’s four buildings in downtown Houston. With a rate of more than 6 percent, it was nearly double the national average of 3.2 percent.

National studies also show that overall, more gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender inmates report being raped than straight inmates.

Maj. Debra Schmidt, who oversees inmate classification, booking and release for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, acknowledges that making the changes is difficult. A system that uses the type of crime, arrest record and gender to assign inmates has to be revamped. Staff needs to be retrained, and a culture among staff that may have allowed some to air their prejudices and go unpunished must change, she said.

“This is going to be a real challenge for law enforcement agencies,” Schmidt said.

Housing isn’t the only challenge. Jails also have to confront staffing levels to reduce rape, said Robert Goerlitz, president of the Harris County Deputies Organization, a group that represents more than 1,600 law enforcement officers, including jail guards.

“It’s awful dangerous for both sides of this thing, not only for the prisoners, but for the guards,” Goerlitz said, noting that each guard is responsible for monitoring 48 inmates. The new rules will not reduce rape if staffing is insufficient, he said.

The jail is also confronting things that are a part of everyday life behind bars, like strip searches. Houston’s new policy allows an inmate to choose the gender of the person who does a search, which conflicts with state law that requires inmates to be searched by someone of the same sex.

Recently, one transgender inmate, who — similar to Stephens — had only had a partial sex transformation was searched from the waist up by a woman and from the waist down by a man in order to comply with state law, said Lt. Walter Bailey, supervisor of inmate classification.

Some officers could be uncomfortable strip searching someone of the opposite sex, said Wood, with the Texas agency that oversees jails.

“I’ve created not one, but two issues,” he said.

For Stephens, the new policies are long overdue, and she is hopeful they lead to a better environment for inmates like her.

“There would be officers in there who had grudges against gay people and they would just come in here and tear up our stuff for no reason. They would come in and talk to us like we’re animals and handle us like we’re animals,” Stephens said. “It was unfair and unjust.”

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9 more reader comments:

  1. Its jail there is non unless its for pety things

    Posted on Sunday, February 2, 2014 at 8:21pm
  2. So I wanna see the survillance tapes #shower scene rtfol.

    Posted on Sunday, February 2, 2014 at 8:25pm
  3. What bothers me is that she’s been in jail repeatedly for prostitution and drugs. How is that going to help her? Clearly it’s not. Here’s an idea: Stop arresting people because they are drug addicts. Or, I dunno, put her in rehab. :/

    Posted on Sunday, February 2, 2014 at 8:34pm
  4. I was in prison with someone who was technically a man. They couldn’t put him in a male facility because he was in danger of being raped. What should be done about that situation? Females as males are in far more danger than the reverse.

    Posted on Sunday, February 2, 2014 at 8:36pm
  5. They should. Texas lives in the dark ages due to oppressive conservative politics brought on by redistricting games. And in all their not truly Christian, more like “christian” bollux comes validated homophobia, hatred and ignorance. Life there in Texas is Fabulous if you’re a white heterosexual but watch your back if you’re Of Color or GBLT! Hopefully Texas will turn Blue and get the ancient, White-Racist-Homophobic anti-semitic phony “christian” head out of its Ass!

    Posted on Sunday, February 2, 2014 at 8:47pm
  6. Stacey Allison: Wow that must have sucked to be in prison. And even as a fully Female female I can’t even imagine how horrible it was for you. Hope you are ok? They placed her there because she was technically Female identified! Calling her a man is not accurate. Such people are said to be genetically prenatally feminizied while in the womb and her brain says female while her body does not match. She is a transgender woman and unfortunately when people think she’s a man presenting female she was open to already horrific shit prior to coming into the joint.Ultimately all human beings need compassion. She is female for all intents and purposes probably chemically feminized by the time she came in the joint via hormones which make the body and brain female. And yes they could not put them in a male prison or they’d get raped and exploited if not killed. And can you imagine a woman being put into an all male facility? Be blessed in love and light girl. XO GG

    Posted on Sunday, February 2, 2014 at 8:58pm
  7. Glorya Galicia thank you. I am a MtF trans-sexual myself and hit the nail on the head explianing Trans-sexualism in such a perfect way explaining the female brain and male body.

    Posted on Sunday, February 2, 2014 at 10:42pm
  8. Of course this would happen in f***ing Texas!

    Posted on Monday, February 3, 2014 at 11:26am
  9. Okay how about this….are you concerned for your “safety in jail” america? DON’T GO TO JAIL.What is texas supposed to do charge the tax payers even more to make “gay and transgender ONLY facilities” I think it is funny that LGBT wants all the same rights as straight people ex Marriage AND THEY DESERVE THOSE RIGHTS! BUT….you DON’T deserve special treatment. If your a man who identifies as a woman….guess what MALE prison/jail….you have a penis I am sorry bu your GENETIC DNA is XY. Your a female that identifies as a male I am sorry you go to FEMALE prison/jail your GENETIC DNA is XX. You wanna be safe? Don’t go to jail. It isn’t “safe” for straight people either, it’s also not meant to be the fucking holiday inn.

    Posted on Monday, February 3, 2014 at 12:48pm