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San Francisco jails to house transgender inmates based on gender preference

By the end of the year, San Francisco's county jails will be among the first in the nation to house transgender inmates by their gender preference, Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi said Thursday.

Currently, San Francisco County puts transgender inmates in an isolated wing of its downtown jail facility. But under the policy announced Thursday, Mirkarimi said, he hopes to have transgender inmates living with their preferred population before 2016.

But transgender inmates who choose to remain in segregated housing or to continue living with other inmates who share the gender they were assigned at birth can do so, according to Kenya Briggs, a spokeswoman for the sheriff's office.

“I carry the perspective forward that the transgender population is marginalized on the streets of America," Mirkarimi said. "Consider how magnified that treatment is inside prisons and jails.”

Currently, six of the county's 1,257 inmates are transgender people, he said.

Inmates who seek to have their housing status changed will be subject to a review process, but Mirkarimi said housing decisions will not be solely based on an inmate having gender reassignment surgery or a diagnosis of gender dysphoria.

“It’s not going to be based on genitalia alone. We will have an advisory committee, experts that help represent the transgender population," he said. "There will be complicated incidences where we’ll have to decide if this is the proper fit or not."

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The policy vastly differs from those of other correctional facilities in California and around the nation.

The state prison system places transgender inmates who have not had reassignment surgery into the prison population that corresponds with the gender they were assigned at birth, according to Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections.

California did become the first state in the nation to agree to pay for a transgender inmate's reassignment surgery, a decision announced last month. But the inmate, a transgender woman, will not be placed in a women's prison until the operation is complete.

California prisons have 385 transgender inmates receiving hormone therapy, according to the Corrections Department. Of those, 363 identify as female and 22 identify as male.

The issue of where to house transgender inmates was also raised Wednesday by Caitlyn Jenner. The former Olympian, whose public transition this summer has been hailed for raising awareness about transgender issues, could face jail time if charged in a fatal crash that took place on Pacific Coast Highway this year.

Jenner expressed concern on NBC's "Today" show about the prospect of being placed in a men's prison.

"That is the worst-case scenario. I don't know. We'll see," Jenner said. "The men's county jail. It is an enormous problem that they would put trans-women in a men's county jail."

Michael Silverman, executive director of the New York-based Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, hailed Mirkarimi's move as an example other correctional agencies should follow immediately.

“If implemented effectively, San Francisco's program can turn out to be a model for the nation," Silverman said. "It’s a positive step towards ensuring transgender people in San Francisco's jail are protected.”

Silverman said transgender inmates are much more likely than other inmates to be sexually assaulted in prison. And trying to protect transgender inmates by segregating or isolating them is also harmful, he said.

“In many prisons and jails around the country, protection today currently consists of isolation. That’s not protection. That’s additional punishment," Silverman said. "It can’t be the case that transgender prisoners are isolated from other human beings for the vast amount of time they spend in jail under the guise of protecting them.”

San Francisco's policy will be rolled out in two phases, Mirkarimi said. First, transgender inmates will be granted access to the jail system's charter high school, substance abuse programs and women's empowerment classes in the next several weeks. The housing moves will come next.

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