Philadelphia Prison Commissioner Defends Transgender Policy

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City prison commissioner Louis R. Giorla says the department’s new transgender policy may not be perfect, but it’s a work in progress and he’s fully committed to the humane treatment of transgender inmates.

The policy, which went into effect earlier this month, reflects recent federal regulations that implement the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003.

“It’s our intention to be fully compliant with the federal regulations,” Giorla told PGN. “Anybody who becomes incarcerated in one of our facilities — and their family members — can be assured that we’re committed to their safety, which includes their physical health and well-being.”

The new policy was lambasted by some transgender activists because it doesn’t specify that, in some circumstances, it’s appropriate to house a pre-operative female in a female prison or a pre-operative male in a male prison.

But Giorla said that omission doesn’t mean housing decisions are made solely on the basis of an inmate’s genital status.

“Potentially, we can house them anywhere, depending on what we feel is right for their safety and our operational needs,” he explained.

Gioral cited the example of a post-operative transgender male who was housed in a female facility, largely due to the inmate’s request.

Giorla said prison officials take into account an inmate’s own perceptions of their vulnerability, but many other factors are considered.

“I’m going to talk to the psychologist and the doctor. What’s the best situation? It has to be a case-by-case basis,” Giorla said. “We don’t want to deprive anybody of their rights. It’s all about the safety and the good order of the facility.”

The new policy sets forth the rights of post-operative transgender inmates to gender-appropriate housing.

“In the event that a transgender inmate who has completed a surgical sexual-reassignment treatment program is admitted to [a city prison], the inmate will be placed in a correctional facility appropriate for his/her reassigned gender,” the policy states.

The policy permits transgender inmates to receive hormone therapies at pre-incarceration levels, but it rules out the possibility of initiating hormone therapies.

Giorla said the hormone-therapy provision may be revisited.

“We have to look at it. We don’t initiate hormone therapy. The doctor would have to explain to me what the medical need is. I don’t know of any requests to initiate hormone therapy while in custody. But I wouldn’t necessarily be informed of those requests.”

Activists also blasted the policy for not ending the practice of gender-segregated commissary items.

For example, transgender women in male prisons aren’t routinely given access to panties or bras.

“Traditionally, we’ve blocked the female items from inmates in male facilities and vice versa,” Giorla acknowledged. “But that’s something we’re looking at.”

He said he’s aware of at least one pre-operative female inmate who was able to obtain a bra.

“The deputy warden made arrangements for her to get one,” he said.

The new policy also doesn’t specify the right of transgender inmates to be addressed by their preferred name and pronoun.

“We haven’t addressed the pronoun preference or name preference. We refer to the name on the commitment paper, regardless of who you are. The pronoun issue is something we’re examining.”

Jordan Gwendolyn Davis, a local transgender activist, blasted the new policy.

“When prison officials are given so much [housing] discretion, it never ends up good for the transgender inmates,” Davis told PGN. “They’re placed in settings where they can’t express their gender identity safely.”

Davis added: “The city’s policy forces transgender inmates to choose between being in general population and being in danger of sexual assault, or going into protective custody, where they’re isolated and don’t have the same program, job and educational opportunities.”

Giorla conceded that protective custody results in a more isolating experience for an inmate. But he said efforts are made to offer the protective-custody inmate as many activities as possible.

Davis also slammed the hormone-therapy provision. She said a categorical rejection of transition-related procedures, absent a sound medical reason, could be unconstitutional.

“Denying hormones to someone who needs them serves no penological purpose and amounts to torture,” she contended. “Prison officials have a duty of care — whether the inmate is in a long-term or short-term facility. Philadelphia prison officials are derelict in their duties.”

Additionally, Davis said inmates should have unfettered access to gender-appropriate commissary items. Otherwise, they’re thwarted in their ability to express their gender identity in daily-life activities, as recommended by many physicians.

“I don’t feel the policy is friendly to the transgender community, and it’s especially terrible for pre-operative women because it places them at risk for rape and other forms of violence,” Davis concluded.

Leon A. King 2d, a former city prison commissioner, expressed support for a more transgender-friendly policy.

“[Prison officials] need to sit down, revisit this issue and have a good conversation with LGBT advocates,” King told PGN. “In the past, we thought you can’t have a penis and a vagina in the same prison area — or else there’s trouble. But that’s 19th-century thinking. This is the 21st century. And we now know that’s not always the case.”

Giorla said he’s reached out to many LGBT individuals and groups in the past, and he’s always open to hearing from the transgender community.

“I’d like to hear their concerns, complaints if any, and proposed solutions,” he said. “I don’t know it all. And we don’t know it all. But we’re always willing to listen. Yes, we’ve got to tweak the policy somewhat. But we’re not just blatantly denying anyone. The policy will evolve.”

From our media partner PGN-The Philadelphia Gay News.


Greg Kabel

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