Transgender inmates at Cook County Jail can now be housed, dressed and searched according to the gender they identify with rather than their sex at birth under a new policy that advocates hope will keep some of the facility's most vulnerable detainees safe.
Since March 21, transgender inmates entering the jail have been screened by a Gender Identity Committee that decides where and how they should be housed. Previously, all inmates automatically were assigned to live among the gender they were born with, regardless of how they self-identified, a situation that attorneys said put them at high risk for physical and sexual abuse.
"You've got people who are in every way a woman -- but for their genitalia -- who are being placed in male prisons," said John Knight, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Project of the ACLU of Illinois.
Sheriff Tom Dart first revealed the new policy to the Windy City Times newspaper, saying it came about when he realized the jail didn't have a policy for housing transgender inmates.
Owen Daniel-McCarter, project attorney with the Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois, said his transgender clients at Cook County Jail have "faced really horrendous treatment there across the board," including nearly constant verbal harassment from correctional staff and other inmates. Conditions are especially hard for transgender women.
"There's a lot of ridicule of anybody in a masculine space who is effeminate in any way," Daniel-McCarter said. There's also the challenge of getting the right clothes, such as bras.
The new seven-page policy applies to housing, clothing, showering, grooming and searches, among other categories. The Gender Identity Committee has broad discretion over what clothes and toiletries inmates should have access to and what gender security officers can search them. The policy requires sensitivity training on gender identity disorder and the Gender Identity Committee for all officers and supervisory staff.
Policies for transgender inmates are becoming more common across the country, with jails in Washington, San Francisco and Maine adopting them, advocates said. Cook County Jail is the first in Illinois to institute one, according to Steve Patterson, spokesman for the Cook County sheriff's office.
The rules took effect March 21 and have been applied to seven inmates since then, and staff already have seen some early success with one woman in particular, Patterson said.
"Since coming into our women's division, we've seen her absolutely thrive," Patterson said. While she has a lengthy criminal history and has served time in state prison, this marks the first time she's been able to talk about her gender identity while being incarcerated, he said. She has group therapy sessions and counseling with other women, and officers and detainees refer to her by female pronouns, he said.
Advocates said they're cautiously optimistic that the policy will improve conditions and security for transgender inmates, but that only time will tell.
"I definitely commend Tom Dart's office for having concern about the treatment of transgender people," Daniel-McCarter said.
"I really hope that there's follow-through and that it's actually enforced, and that it's enforced in an affirming way."