California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law several LGBT-friendly bills in late September, including a measure which aims to protect transgender inmates by housing them according to their gender identity.
The law, known as Senate Bill 132, "The Transgender Respect, Agency and Dignity Act," goes into effect January 1. It requires the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to ask inmates about their gender identity and house them accordingly, with "serious consideration" given to their sense of health and safety. Prison officials would have to cite security concerns in writing before denying such requests.
Nationwide, advocates say thousands of transgender women inmates face grave dangers as they're being housed with men behind bars. According to a 2015 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality, transgender people are nine times more likely than the general prison population to be sexually harassed or assaulted by other inmates.
Most other states assign inmates to prison facilities based on the gender they were assigned at birth, regardless of their gender identity. However, California correctional facilities now join those in Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York City and Massachusetts in recognizing gender identity when housing inmates.
"There are trans women who prefer to remain in a men's facility, that's their choice," California state Senator Scott Wiener, the author of the bill, told CBS News. "This legislation does not force them to transfer, but many trans women have expressed that they would feel safer in a women's facility."
The law comes at a time when transgender Americans face high rates of violence. LGBTQ+ advocacy groups have called attention to an epidemic of violence against trans women, in particular. So far in 2020, at least 31 transgender or gender non-conforming people have been killed in violent attacks, the majority of whom were Black and Latinx transgender women. But advocates say that's likely an undercount.
In December 2019, Miguel Crespo, a California inmate who was already serving a life sentence for murder, was sentenced to death for the murder of his transgender cellmate. In 2013, Crespo attacked Carmen Guerrero, a trans woman, after sharing a cell for only eight hours. During that time, Crespo bound, gagged, tortured and killed Guerrero in their cell.
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation deputy press secretary Terry Thornton told CBS News that the department is "deeply saddened by any act of violence against staff or individuals in its custody." Weiner called the murder of Carmen Guerrero "horrific" and "tragic," but he added, "unfortunately, it wasn't surprising."
"Transgender people — trans women in particular — experience extreme violence both in and out of prison," said Weiner. "Trans women are housed as men and as a result at huge risk of murder, assault, rape."
In a 2016 report on the issue, the Center for American Progress broke down five ways transgender people are mistreated in the prison system:
- Unsafe placement
- Harassment and assault by facility staff
- Harassment and assault by other inmates
- Lack of access to health care
- Disrespect in daily life
Before Governor Newsom signed SB132 into law, the corrections department told CBS News it could not comment on proposed legislation, but that it has several policies, practices and procedures in place for the screening, housing and treatment of incarcerated people who are transgender, intersex, non-binary or gender non-conforming.
"CDCR is committed to addressing the safety concerns of the transgender, intersex and non-binary population and is working with outside stakeholders to examine where further changes to policies may be needed as well as meeting with incarcerated members of the transgender community and listening to what is important to them," the department wrote.
Jen Orthwein, an attorney and founding partner of the public interest law firm Medina Orthwein LLP, told CBS News that the new law will save lives.
"Trans women having more agency and being able to say 'I am not safe, and I think I would be safer housed [elsewhere],' would be a huge difference," Orthwein said. "By putting safety and preference first in terms of housing, this bill will be a first of its kind to do that. It will give people more agency."