Transgendered inmates in Houston’s Harris County will now be housed based on the gender with which they identify, instead of their biological sex.
The sweeping new policy, designed to protect and guarantee equal treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender inmates, is being implemented by the sheriff of Houston’s Harris County.
The policy is believed to be one of the most comprehensive in the country. Houston has the third-largest county jail in the United States and processes around 125,000 individuals annually.
Sheriff Adrian Garcia joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss the new policy.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
Transgendered inmates in Houston's Harris County jail will now be housed based on the gender they identify with instead of their biological sex. It's part of a new policy implemented by the Harris County sheriff, and designed to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender inmates. And it's believed to be the most comprehensive in the country. Adrian Garcia is Harris County sheriff. He joins us on the line. Sheriff Garcia, why this policy, especially allowing transgendered inmates to be housed with the gender they identify with?
SHERIFF ADRIAN GARCIA: Well, Robin, the reality it is, is that the federal government is imposing what is called PREA, the Prison Rape Elimination Act. And to get compliant with that particular law, we started to research how we contend with this very vulnerable population.
And after about a year's worth of work and study and looking for best practices, we realized that, number one, we have to be compliant with the law, and then secondly, we want to make sure that our attempts to comply with the law are one that makes sense, resolves any issues and prevents us from getting ourselves in court and waste the taxpayers' money when we could've developed a comprehensive policy to contend with this population.
YOUNG: Well, what - and what is the population? I understand you're a big jail there - third largest county jail in the U.S. after Los Angeles and Chicago's Cook County.
GARCIA: That's right.
YOUNG: One hundred twenty-five thousand inmates annually. Of those, how many are identifying as transgender or gay and lesbian?
GARCIA: The population is hard to measure prior to this policy because we didn't really have a consistent way to measure this. Now, we will. But to that end, whenever we did have particular inmates that identified, we were really moving heaven and earth. But we realized that that didn't necessarily make sense for the inmate, and it didn't really make sense for the taxpayers. So this policy is going to allow us to contend with that population in a much more mainstream manner without using up more resources than we need.
YOUNG: Well, it sounds like you're saying that, before, you were trying to deal with this on an individual by individual basis, and now you're going to have a program.
YOUNG: Yeah. Yes.
GARCIA: We'll provide training for our staff. We're going to have particular supervisors that will have specific roles. Our medical staff will also be a very intricate part of the process.
YOUNG: Well, we understand you're going to now have a safe zone project that will promote a, as the document says, positive relationship of solidarity between your office and the gay community, and part of that is to have staff that will have obvious identifiers in case inmates have any concerns and want to talk to someone directly. These will be people that will be trained to talk to them. And as we said, allowing transgender to be housed with a gender they identify with, how common is that across the country?
GARCIA: Again, it's hard to read because there's not a whole lot to go by. And I guess, you know, one of the biggest points of reference for this policy announcement is that we're leading the way.
YOUNG: Well, another key section of the new policy says that members of the transgender community can be addressed by their chosen names.
GARCIA: That's correct.
YOUNG: That you'll have a zero tolerance for staff sexual misconduct or harassment. But what do you say - I mean, you are in a conservative area in a red state. What do you say to people who feel that their values are that nobody should get special treatment when they're in prison? Are there things that you are seeing that you think might change their mind?
GARCIA: Well, you know, I think the folks here in Harris County are principally conservative with their dollars. And that's what this policy is intended to do. Make sure that we are saving the taxpayers' money. They don't - we don't create a class action - or a legal action, rather, that would end up wasting their money when we could've prevented it all along by developing a good policy like we now have.
YOUNG: I guess that's what I'm asking, are you seeing this, as you said, vulnerable population suffer from that abuse?
GARCIA: Look. I've had complaints as a sheriff from segments of the community, the issue that you pointed out with the transgender population being referred to by their chosen name or their now legal - legally changed name. That wasn't necessarily the case prior, because the system is an automated system. And if you had visited the facility prior to your transition, the system only recognizes you from the first time you entered the facility. Not in your state of transition. So these are all things that make sense. You know, in Texas, we live and let be, and that's, you know, we just want to get out in front and do what is right. But also do what will protect the taxpayers' money.
YOUNG: Adrian Garcia, sheriff of Harris County in Houston. Sheriff Garcia, thanks so much.
GARCIA: You're welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.