A Wave Forward

San Francisco hopes to lead the charge to address transgender inclusivity in the criminal justice system

“Pronoun Showdown,” announced Stephan Thorne as he stood in front of a classroom of 15 or so sheriff’s deputies—new employees attending a mandated training session.

It’s a catchy phrase that Thorne likes to use when he explains the importance of addressing people by their pronouns. 

Yet it’s also an imperative lesson—one among many that Thorne hoped to instill in his students as he discussed with them the nuanced topics of sex, gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation.

Thorne teaches for the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, where he conducts a gender awareness training for new deputies to increase respectful interactions between law enforcement and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender plus (LGBT+) community. The training is the first of its type to be certified by the California Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission and The State Board of Community Corrections.

There are two reasons why Thorne feels he has some authority in teaching on this subject. He’s a retired lieutenant and a 30-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department. He’s also a transgender man.

“I have a foot in each community,” Thorne likes to say, “and I [want] members of my [transgender] community to have the best possible interactions with [my police family].”
San Francisco Sheriff's Office Gender Awareness Training

The implementation of gender awareness trainings—now part of the curriculum for all new employees—was just one step in a series of policy changes made by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department to address how transgender, gender-variant, and non-binary (TGN) people are arrested and housed at the local county jail.

The policies are an illustration of how a city made famous for being at the forefront of the LGBT+ rights movement is working to advance that movement within the criminal justice system—thus grappling with some of the nuanced questions around gender in an incarcerated setting.

Nationally, statistics on the number of LGBT+ people who are incarcerated are both limited and inconsistent. According to the Williams Institute, the incarceration rate of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in U.S. prisons and jails is three times the general population. Transgender people are also likely overrepresented. Additionally, people who are transgender experience high rates of abuse in incarcerated settings: according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an estimated 35 percent of transgender people in prison and 34 percent in jail reported one or more incidents of sexual victimization during the previous 12 months. 

While the National Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) of 2003 requires prisons and jails to take gender identity into consideration when assigning a transgender person to a housing unit, most corrections facilities continue to house people based on their assigned sex at birth. In January 2017, in keeping with the requirements under the federal PREA standards, the Department of Justice under President Obama published guidelines requiring federal prisons to consider an individual’s gender identity as a part of the housing decision process. Significant portions of the guidelines were retracted earlier this year by the current administration—including the guidance to take gender identity into consideration during initial housing decisions. Under the new guidelines, Bureau of Prison officials are directed to use “biological sex” for initial determinations.

Despite this setback at the federal level, some states and localities are trying to move forward with their own policies and guidelines that take gender identity into consideration in incarceration housing assignments. San Francisco is on the cutting edge of these issues, yet the road so far has not been smooth, and contention remains among local officials and community advocates.

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Gender Awareness Training

“It’s hard being a woman inside the criminal justice system, period,” explained Janetta Johnson, executive director of the Transgender, Gender-Variant, and Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP). “And then being trans and having to deal with a lot of harassment that transgender people face, . . . the way they treat you, the way they misgender you, the way they tell you you’re not who you are . . . [it’s a] painful experience.” 

As a formerly incarcerated transgender woman of color, Johnson is keenly familiar with how it feels to have your dignity and identity stripped from you by an individual—or a system—that refuses to acknowledge your existence or make space for you. Johnson spent several years incarcerated in a men’s prison in Oregon, and has also spent time at the San Francisco jail. Today, she works to empower other formerly incarcerated transgender people as they seek to heal from trauma, successfully reenter society, and develop sustainable support systems. 

Janetta Johnson: Advocate and Formerly Incarcerated Person

The TGIJP office is just 16 miles from the gender awareness training site, which is located at one of San Francisco's three county jails. Thorne notes that harassment and mistreatment by law enforcement remains a reality for marginalized communities who come into contact with the criminal justice system—either on the street or in the jail. Yet he also hopes that education—and speaking to a transgender person who has firsthand knowledge of both viewpoints—will help to increase respect and ultimately erase fear of and stigma about the transgender community. 

The development of the gender awareness training stemmed from an initial announcement made by the Sheriff's Department in early 2016: that they would begin working to allow transgender women to be housed with cisgender women in the local jail, if they desired. The move was praised by local advocates and San Francisco was hailed as one of the first jurisdictions to address this issue on a local level.

Two-and-a-half years later, there are still no transgender women who have been housed with cisgender women. 

“I naively thought it would be easier to do, and it's been a long timeline," Sheriff Vicki Hennessy said. 

The training itself took some time to develop and implement, and Hennessy said it was a priority to ensure that all sheriff’s deputies were trained prior to the implementation of the other policies, which were not formally rolled out until February 2018. 

Under the policies, transgender people who are booked into the jail can now fill out a housing preference form, which must be taken into consideration by jail classification staff. If an individual’s housing preference is not granted, a Classification Review Board (CRB)—comprised of representatives from the sheriff’s department and the San Francisco Department of Public Health—will convene to review and make an ultimate determination. 

This approach is challenging, given that most people housed in the jail have been arrested on serious or violent felony charges, are being held pretrial, and are released from custody within 30 days of booking. The sheriff said the review process can take anywhere from 72 hours to one week. Only three transgender women have requested to be housed in the cisgender women's housing since February, yet none of those requests were granted, and two of the women were released pretrial before the CRB’s decision was finalized. 

The sheriff’s department also updated its arrest and search policies, so that people can assert their names, pronouns, and gender identity both at the time of arrest and at booking. They can also state the preferred gender of the deputy who will search them.

The two-year long development process involved conversations with other law enforcement stakeholders; local elected officials; and transgender community advocates, including TGIJP. According to the sheriff, the process was drawn out in part due to resistance from the Deputy Sheriff’s Association, whose members work inside the jail and who were concerned about the change in search policy. The transgender community also expressed disagreement over the housing policy, which continues to leave ultimate decision making power for housing assignments in the hands of the department, not the person who is incarcerated. 

“It would not be correct to say that the policy that the sheriff’s office [implemented] has TLC’s blessing, because that’s kind of the opposite of our history,” noted Shawn Meerkamper of the Transgender Law Center (TLC), another organization that was involved in the policy discussions.  

TLC’s position is that if a transgender woman states that she wants to be housed in a cisgender women’s unit, then any accommodations necessary should be made for that to happen. Currently, preference is just one of multiple factors taken into consideration, including mental health status, behavioral health history, criminal sophistication, and gang affiliation.  

Most TGN people—less than 1 percent of San Francisco’s jail population, according to the sheriff—are housed instead in a separate unit that has access to private facilities (showers, restrooms, etc.). While still located within cisgender men’s housing, the unit is also adjacent to women’s housing located in the same building. The location allows TGN people to pursue various education opportunities together with cisgender women. 

“The whole point is to keep everyone safe.” Hennessy said. “That is our ultimate goal.”

The theme of safety—particularly regarding who should be protected from whom—is especially contentious. According to Clair Farley, director of the Office of Transgender Initiatives and senior advisor to the mayor, transgender women are regularly stereotyped as being dangerous to other women—a label that only serves to marginalize the transgender community.  

In fact, transgender women themselves are victims of high rates of violence. According to the Human Rights Campaign, identified murders of transgender women nationally reached all-time highs for the past three years in a row—in 2015, 2016, and 2017. 

“It has definitely taken some education on our part to help push departments to understand and move away from that kind of fear perspective, around seeing transgender women as potentially dangerous or harmful to other women,” Farley said. “There’s a lot of misinformation around transgender people causing violence, when in most cases transgender people are the ones experiencing violence, or sexual harassment, or sexual violence.” 

Farley added that it’s important to reframe the public narrative on safety so that transgender people who are incarcerated—who are potentially a danger to themselves or others—can get the services they need in a way that is equal to cisgender people. She said that situations where a transgender person is deemed to be dangerous should be addressed on an individual basis, rather than ascribing violence as a trait associated with transgender people.

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Janetta Johnson at TGIJP offices

During the gender awareness training, Thorne shared an anecdote about one night when he attended a municipal hearing on transgender policy. After the meeting was over, he left the building and just happened to be walking behind a transgender woman who had also attended the hearing and testified. As they walked in the same direction, just feet away, Thorne saw firsthand the way that strangers stared at her in disrespect. The experience profoundly impacted him and renewed his commitment to fighting ignorance and transphobia.

Part of this strategy involves sharing such stories, as well as his own story of transition, including some of the harassment he faced while serving at the police department. “If you want to let social change occur, you have to let people see you,” he said.

According to Thorne, one of the biggest issues with harassment is not addressing a transgender person by their self-identified name and pronouns—a point he emphasizes strongly to the deputies in his class.

Some people incarcerated within the TGN unit at the San Francisco jail, however, said that misgendering and misusing pronouns remains an issue there. Yet, those same people said that they feel the misuse is typically by accident, and they have received apologies from deputies in the past.

Moreover, people interviewed at the jail generally said that they preferred to be housed in the TGN unit. One person, who identified as intersex, remarked on the importance of having a separate unit for TGN people to be among members of their own community—an option that the vast majority of jail systems in the United States do not have. Access to women’s clothing, undergarments, and makeup through the commissary was also listed as a positive change—both for dignity and for health purposes.  

San Francisco's New Jail Unit for TGN People

San Francisco has a relatively low jail population—between 1,230 and 1,300 on any given day—compared to similar-sized cities, and the TGN unit typically only houses six to 12 people on any given day. While sheriff’s deputies within the jail emphasized their efforts to learn and educate themselves on ways to be most respectful—the training helped—they also admitted that the department is undergoing a huge cultural shift. Some deputies expressed frustration in trying to keep up with an ever-changing culture on appropriate language.

Despite the difficulties and disagreements, Farley thinks that the measures being undertaken by the sheriff’s department are a step in the right direction, particularly given the rollback of protections for transgender people at the federal level.

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San Francisco County Jail- TGN unit

“I think we need to continue to look at cities and leaders . . . to push forward policies on a local level that mirror the values and the policies that we want to have in our communities,” she said. 

Farley also said she plans to meet with the sheriff later this year to do a first-quarter review and evaluation of the policy implementation. Both Farley and Janetta Johnson said they would ultimately like to see an increase in alternatives to incarceration, as well as access to reentry services for transgender people in San Francisco.

Sheriff Hennessy, meanwhile, says she is not going to announce these policies and then walk away. She expressed trepidation about being seen as a leader, given that the reforms are still in their early stages, and said she wants to ensure that the new policies are not seen as a sham.

“We want to be respectful and treat [TGN people] according to how they see themselves, as much as we can,” she said. “We've come a long way, but we're still not 100 percent where we need to be.”

While San Francisco has always been known as an LGBT+ friendly city—rainbow flags adorn nearly every city block and hang even from local 7-11 stores—Thorne believes that what is happening now is a wave of progress compared to when he transitioned in 1994:

“The other activists that were active in the ‘90s with me in working toward human rights and civil rights for gender non-conforming people, we were the crest of a wave. And, as you know, the crest of a wave is a small part. It’s the body of the wave that’s behind the crest that can be massive . . . We are experiencing [now] the body of the wave of people realizing that they are transgender in some way, and realizing that they have a need, and they have a right to be authentic.”

As San Francisco continues to embrace this pride, justice reform and LGBT+ rights advocates will certainly be keeping an eye on how these policies may evolve—and pushing the wave forward.

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Gender Awareness Training quiz