By Michelle Larkin, Capital News Service
When Nicole Wells, a trans woman, was incarcerated in 2018 at the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center, she experienced the mistreatment that many trans women inmates go through, according to testimony this week on an anti-discrimination bill.
“I was assaulted by staff. I was raped by staff,” Wells said during a Maryland House Judiciary Committee hearing on a bill that would protect transgender, nonbinary and intersex individuals from discrimination while housed in correctional facilities. “(The correction officer) exposed himself to me and proceeded to force me to perform inhumane acts with him. From there, I was placed in protective custody and in protective custody, you are locked down 24 hours a day…sometimes I didn’t take a shower for weeks.
HB 0426 was heard Tuesday and its chief sponsor is Del. Lesley Lopez, D-Montgomery. The bill would require the Commissioner of Correction to report data regarding the gender identities of inmates along with more customary reporting about the number of inmates who have escaped, been pardoned or discharged.
The bill would prohibit correction staff from discriminating against gender nonconforming individuals through housing, improper use of pronouns, housing or activities. And it specifies that inmates should not be punished, harassed or face retaliation based on their gender identity.
The bill would allow transgender, nonbinary and intersex inmates to be housed in the facility that most closely aligns with their gender identity to try to reduce gender-related violence in prisons. The bill would also allow correctional officers to remove another inmate who poses a threat to the nonconforming gender inmate.
“This bill addresses the bureaucratic process in our correctional system that really opens the state up to liability,” Lopez said to the committee during the hearing, adding that the processes of determining gender identity at the point of intake for correctional officers violates the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003. “We can’t have different policies that correctional officers are trained on. That’s not fair to them to have ambiguity,” Lopez said to Capital News Service.
Because the gender identification process is not compliant with the PREA, Maryland is at risk of losing Department of Justice grant money. The PREA was signed on Sept. 4, 2003, by President George W. Bush to eliminate prisoner rape in all types of correctional facilities in the country.
The process has also increased the risk of violence and assault for an already vulnerable demographic: “40 percent of trans women have been reportedly sexually assaulted in prison, which is 10 times the general population rate. 85 percent of LGBTQ people report spending time in solitary confinement while incarcerated,” Lopez said. “This violence is not only from fellow inmates but it’s also from correctional officers, which is the scenario that we saw in Baltimore City where a transgender inmate was placed in a chokehold by a correctional officer and then dropped on her face.”
Lopez was referring to an incident that happened in June 2019, where a trans woman named Amber Canter was being held at the Baltimore City Central Booking and Intake Center when a corrections officer choked her until she passed out, dropped her on her face and then proceeded to drag her, according to The Baltimore Sun. This resulted in Canter suffering bone fractures and severe bruising in her face and being taken to an intensive care unit.
The bill also aims to prevent discrimination among transgender, nonbinary and intersex inmates by having feminine hygiene products and hormone medications available for purchase at commissaries and determining annual average costs about individuals’ phone calls to medical providers. Ethnicity, age and pregnancy status would be protected under the bill, too.
According to a Survey of Prison Inmates study, nearly 5,000 transgender people are incarcerated in state prisons, and trans people are frequently denied routine health care in prison.
If passed, reports on this information shall be submitted on Oct. 31 each year by the Commissioner to the secretary and the governor.
The bill is in its early stages of the legislative process, but some Republican legislators, including Del. Lauren Arikan, R-Harford, questioned aspects of the bill.
“This wouldn’t preclude a biological female from refusing to bunk with somebody?” Arikan asked at the hearing, trying to determine whether an inmate would have the right to refuse to share a room with a transgender inmate.
Lopez told Capital News Service that the bill hasn’t gotten a lot of backlash from Republican legislators because this is a state liability issue. The bill has 23 other delegate sponsors in the House, and is cross-filed with SB 0761, which is sponsored by Sen. Jill Carter, D-Baltimore City.
“There is a history and a tradition of discriminating against (transgender) persons in particular; there’s a history of violence in the Baltimore City Jail and other correctional facilities for transgender people,” Carter told Capital News Service. “It’s critically important to send a message that discrimination will not be tolerated (and) also to keep people safe and honestly respect their gender identity.”