The Treatment of Transgender Women in Prisons

“[The correctional officers] didn’t see me as the human being I am. They treated me like a circus act. They gawked, pointed, made fun of me and tried to break my spirit” – Sandy Brown in a statement to FreeState Legal, 2015

On February 26, 2021, Kim Tova Wirtz was housed at the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center, a facility operated by Maryland’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. Staff placed her into one of the facility’s single, male cells, ignoring her preference for gender-affirming housing just as many other Maryland facilities do with their transgender inmates. She was found unresponsive that night, and at 1:16 a.m, Ms. Wirtz was officially pronounced dead.

Maryland correctional institutions have a historically poor track record for providing proper care to incarcerated transgender individuals. In 2015, six years before the case of Kim Tova Wirtz, a transgender woman named Sandy Brown successfully sued the Patuxent Institution for violation of her rights while in the custody of Maryland’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. Upon intake, Ms. Brown was strip-searched under guidelines that deviated from standard strip search procedures by officers who later admitted to having little training on policies that safeguard vulnerable prison populations from assault. She was then placed in involuntary administrative segregation for 66 days, with only one hour of recreation allowed per day. During her incarceration, the guards insisted that she be surveilled during showers and, in one case, ripped open a shower curtain to reveal her naked form to multiple correction officers. Ms. Brown experienced this torment at the same time that she received death threats and calls for her suicide from multiple other prison guards. She has since stated that this constant abuse nearly drove her to suicide and has attributed her housing assignment and the assault she endured to her transgender identity, remembering how correctional officers often told her that she was not a woman.

The ruling of Judge Denise Shaffer in Brown v. Patuxent Institution provided individual relief and monetary compensation for Ms. Brown and began a precedent of holding correctional institutions accountable when they violate the standards of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003. This decision required Maryland to establish clear policies and mandatory training for correctional officers regarding the proper treatment of transgender inmates. Nevertheless, as the case of Ms. Wirtz several years later demonstrates, Maryland policies involving the treatment and standards of confinement for transgender inmates remain subpar. Brown vs. Patuxent Institution shows that even when regulations dictating conditions of confinement for inmates exist, facilities often fail at abiding by them and keeping all inmates safe and healthy while incarcerated. Because of this, it is crucial to closely examine Maryland policy regarding conditions for the confinement of transgender inmates.

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