Politics & Policy

California’s Transgender Prison Policy Is a Disaster for Women

(Carlo Allegri/Reuters )
A new bill would put female inmates and female prison guards at risk of male violence.

Let’s suppose you care about the safety of women and girls. Where is the last place on earth you would lock up a predator? Might it be a women’s prison: a place where vulnerable women have no escape?

This is the bleak reality of a bill approved in the California senate by 29–7 last month (Senate Bill 132) that has been heard by the assembly’s public-safety committee and will soon appear before the appropriations committee: It would require the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to house, search, and refer to inmates according to their preferred gender identity. No doctor’s certificate or chemical or surgical changes are needed. And what if the individual is a convicted sex offender, wife beater, or stalker? No matter, the person must still be treated according to his or her gender-identity preference.

At first glance, the rationale is understandable. The bill outlines how transgender women in prisons are “particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and sexual harassment.” It cites a study noting that they are 13 times more likely than non-transgender inmates in the same prisons to be victims of sexual abuse. And it references official data collected by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics confirming that in a 2011–12 nationwide survey, nearly 40 percent of incarcerated transgender individuals reported experiencing sexual victimization while incarcerated. To be sure, life must be tough for sexual minorities in prison.

But what the bill and its supporters completely neglect to address is the vulnerability of women. The bill does not include any data, information, or even a single reference to the vulnerability of incarcerated females to violent assault from males. This is striking given that more than 90 percent of rape and sexual-assault victims are women and the overwhelming majority of rapes are committed by males. No one has yet demonstrated how transgender women pose less of a risk to women than the rest of the male population does. But, at any rate, the bill as drafted fails to set forth any way to stop a male — any male, including sex offenders — who identifies as female from getting access to vulnerable women.

Speaking at the California assembly hearing yesterday, Abigail Lunetta (a self-described “Democrat, feminist, and an advocate for women’s rights”) opposed the bill: “Right now, Richard Masbruch, a trans-identified male, is currently housed with female inmates in Corona, even though he is serving time for targeting, raping, and torturing women. Under no circumstances is this morally justifiable.”

Feminists in Struggle, a nationwide feminist organization, were also “strenuously opposed” to the bill. The door would be open for “sexual predators of various types, from voyeurs to rapists, to reinvent themselves as female by taking on female names and identities,” they explained. “Add to this reality that the majority of female prisoners have been molested, raped, sexually assaulted, trafficked, coerced or forced into pornography and/or prostitution, and the potential harm to incarcerated women and girls is greatly increased.”

The radical feminist group Women’s Liberation Front also expressed “adamant opposition,” saying the bill would “put women prisoners and women prison guards and staff, at serious increased risk of male violence.” They labeled the bill a “stunning attack on incarcerated women and one of the most extreme examples of elevating men’s feelings over women’s physical and psychological safety.”

Note: These objections are largely coming from the left. So why won’t Democrats listen?

Other groups, such as the Transgender Law Center, are single-minded in their pursuit of “transgender equity.” They emphasize that the bill “will help ensure the safety and dignity of incarcerated transgender people within the criminal-justice system.” Similarly, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of California ignores women’s concerns, stating that it is “proud to sponsor” the bill. In their pledge of support, the ACLU notes that efforts are already under way in other states, including Connecticut, which “became the first state in the nation to establish a legal right to be housed in a prison that matches the gender with which people identify.”

Indeed, since 2016, under the Obama administration, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons required that federal inmates’ gender identity be “given serious consideration” in housing decisions. This was challenged the same year when three female prisoners at the Carswell Federal Medical Center in Fort Worth filed a federal complaint saying that being housed with males who identify as females would put them at risk. The Trump administration has since rolled back the federal guidelines and suggested a case-by-case approach. But this is not enough to protect vulnerable girls and women.

Perhaps the Trump administration could learn a thing or two from the United Kingdom. Earlier this year, Britain became the first country in Europe to create a transgender prison wing. This is a compromise that could protect vulnerable transgender prisoners without sacrificing women’s safety. The change came after the U.K.’s Ministry of Justice confirmed the findings of a women’s-rights group, Fair Play for Women, that almost half of trans prisoners are sex offenders, compared with 19 percent of the prison population as a whole. “Prison governors and doctors say some sex criminals transition to get access to women,” the Times of London reported in May.

Unfortunately, in the U.K., the issue rose to national attention only after a child sex abuser by the name of Stephen Wood, who identified as female and called himself Karen White, was sent to a women’s prison with his male genitalia fully intact. While there, he sexually assaulted multiple female inmates. With California heading in this direction, we have to ask: How many more women will have to be harmed by these policies before U.S. legislators will care?


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