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Transgender inmate recalls civil rights violations in Virginia jail

Brad Kutner | August 16, 2016

The Richmond Times-Dispatch has released a long form story on reported civil rights violations of a transgender inmate who spent time in a Virginia jail.  Lacy Ferguson-Hernandez, the woman at the focus of the piece, has been in and out of jail for the last 20 years and is currently behind bars at Haynesville  Correctional Center. Prior to Haynesville she spent time a Pamunkey Regional Jail in Hanover where she claims to have experienced discrimination at the hands of jail administration.

According to Ferguson-Hernandez, the discrimination took the form of both verbal abuse and forced isolation and solitary confinement:

From the TD:

For eight weeks at Pamunkey [Jail], Ferguson-Hernandez said she was confined for all but one hour in a day in a cell that smelled of urine, isolated from the general jail population solely for identifying as transgender. She said passing jail officers pilloried her with taunts and insults.

“This is your choice. If you had been a real man, you would never have had to come back here,” Ferguson-Hernandez, 35, recalled one of the officers saying.

“This is God’s way of punishing you for being what you are,” she said another remarked.

The TD article also focused on a study from last year that looked at LGB inmates, not transgender, and examined the use of restrictive housing on them vs. the general population from 2011-12.

According to the study,  27.8% of LGB inmates reported spending time in restrictive housing vs. their heterosexual peers who were reported at a rate of 18%.

On average, up to 4.4% of state and federal prisoners and 2.7% of jail inmates were held in administrative segregation or solitary confinement over the course of the year.

The data from the study showed “a clear link” between the percentage of inmates who identified as LGB and the greater use of restrictive housing.

In an interview with the TD, Gail M. Deady, a legal fellow of secular society women’s rights at the ACLU of Virginia, said the use of segregated housing on trans people is a often used to cut them off from resources that could “reaffirm their gender identity, that affirm their humanity.”

“By putting them in isolation, it exacerbates the gender dysphoria they may be feeling,” she said.

While the study did not examine transgender inmates, it did find similarly high numbers of segregated housing in prison populations that suffered from mental illness.

Pamunkey jail’s superintendent James C. Willett didn’t answer questions specifically about Ferguson-Hernandez lobbed by the TD, but in an emailed statement Willett said “the jail complies with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.”

“All of Pamunkey’s LGBT inmates are screened for risk of victimization and abusiveness and the jail considers their inmate housing assignments on a case-by-case basis in order to ensure the inmate’s health and safety and that a given placement would not present management or security problems,” he wrote according to the TD. “Inmates are not placed in involuntary segregated housing unless there is no alternative means of separation from likely abusers.”

The use of segregated housing to increase the safety of an inmate is controversial if not illegal. The Federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (2003) includes a number of points about jailing LGBTQ people in federal and sate facilities which specifies isolating someone because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. However it does allow placing someone in separated housing if it is ”in a dedicated unit or wing established in connection with a consent decree, legal settlement, or legal judgment for the purpose of protection.”

Read more via the Times-Dispatch here.