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Government, Politics & Issues

LGBT rally arrests, allegations prompt look at how jails treat transgender prisoners

Janie Oliphant, left, fixes a LGBT rights flag held by Cody Copp and Samuel Taylor so they can have their picture taken at a rally and march in St. Louis on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017.
File Photo | Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
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Janie Oliphant, left, fixes a LGBT rights flag held by Cody Copp and Samuel Taylor so they can have their picture taken at a rally and march in St. Louis on Saturday, Feb. 25.

Two of the three people arrested at Saturday's LGBT march in St. Louis were transgender women. And allegations made by one of them have raised questions about how transgender prisoners are treated in St. Louis.

St. Louis Public Radio could not independently confirm claims made by activists on social media that corrections officers threatened to put a transgender woman in a cell with men and deliberately used the wrong pronoun to identify her.

The transgender woman was never in a cell with men, said Maggie Crane, a spokeswoman with Mayor Francis Slay's office. The city houses prisoners based both on sexual identity and where they feel safest, not on biological sex, Crain said.

But the allegations did not surprise transgender activist Jaimie Hileman, who said deliberately dismissing a person's identity is an act of aggression.

"When it comes from an authority figure such as a law enforcement officer, it can become very frightening," she said. "And when all of those micro- and macro-aggressions that trans people are subject to are put together over a period of time, they add up."

Steph Perkins, the executive director of the gay rights group PROMO Missouri, also pointed to purposely using the wrong gender when referring to transgender people as a common problem in prison and jail settings.

Best practices

According to 2012 guidance from the Department of Justice, decisions about inmate housing at all correctional facilities, including holding cells and local jails, must be made on a case-by-case basis and not determined solely by biological sex.

"An individual’s views regarding their personal safety must be seriously considered," according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.

Federal funding for jails and prisons is supposed to be contingent on how well the facilities comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which governs inmate housing, according to Shawn Meerkamper, a staff attorney for the Transgender Law Center in Oakland, California.

"Unfortunately, we've seen widespread non-compliance and widespread lack of enforcement," Meerkamper said.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

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