In a Windy City Times exclusive, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart announced that Cook County Jail has instituted a policy for housing transgender detainees based on their gender identity, rather than birth sex.
The policy became effective on March 21. It is thought to be the first of its kind in the United States.
"Particularly with this issue, we wanted to do it right," Dart told Windy City Times, adding that "medical and sociological" concerns for transgender people "even superseded security issues."
The seven-page policy mandates that transgender detainees be allowed to consult with a "Gender Identity Panel" of physicians and therapists before being placed into male or female housing. It also directs correctional staff to allow transgender people to wear clothing/ own hygiene products consistent with their gender identity. Further, it requires that corrections staff, physicians, and therapists undergo gender-related sensitivity training administered by the sheriff's department. The policy is a far cry from old standards, which, officials said, were nonexistent.
The only known policy to deal with transgender issues at Cook County Jail dates back to 1984. The "Transsexual Treatment Protocol" policy made recommendations for jail physicians regarding hormones, but it did not address housing, clothing or transgender men ( FTMs ) . The policy also uses language that, by today's standards, is largely considered offensive, classifying transgender people as "transsexual men."
Owen Daniel-McCarter is a project attorney of the Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois ( TJLP ) , an organization that provides transgender people with free criminal legal services. He said that most of his clients have had bad experiences at Cook County Jail.
Daniel-McCarter said the under older rule, many transgender women were placed in men's facilities and transgender men in women's. He called this practice "dangerous, not only for mental health but physical health."
Limited research on transgender people behind bars exists. However, it is generally believed that transgender detainees face violence and sexual assault at rates far higher than non-transgender detainees, especially for transgender women placed in men's facilities. A 2011 report from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that 37 percent of transgender people polled reported being harassed by correctional officers, and 35 percent reported harassment from peers. That same study also found that transgender people of color were especially vulnerable to violence and discrimination behind bars.
Dr. Avery Hart, the chief medical officer at Cermak Health Services, which oversees healthcare for Cook County Jail, estimated that at least two to three transgender people are in custody at the jail at a given time. Hart worked closely with the sheriff's department to draft the new policy. He did not comment on any specific reports but did say that he thought that "what's been reported in the country about trans people detained reflects Cook County Jail."
Dart said he discovered the jail had no transgender policy over a year ago when the issue was raised at a jail staff meeting. He said that questions arose about where to place transgender people in housing, and Dart recommended that staff defer to the policy.
"I just saw blank stares across the room," Dart said. "I said, 'Are you trying to tell me there is no policy?'"
According to Dart, his office, Cermak Health Services and the Department of Corrections collaborated with experts ranging from therapists to LGBTQ activists to other jails in order to draft a comprehensive policy. Unlike the 1984 directive, the new policy includes clinical information on gender identity disorder, a glossary of terms and, most significantly, a recommendation that transgender people be placed in accordance with their identity ( as opposed to genitalia ) . Dart hopes the policy will be adopted elsewhere and said it will be featured on the Department of Justice website.
Other jails have adopted policies for placing transgender detainees, most notably in San Francisco. The Cook County Jail policy is unique, however, in that it not only aims to place transgender people based on how they identify, it defers to a "gender identity panel" of doctors and therapists to make that decision, not just correctional officers. It also requires transgender sensitivity training for jail employees, and is backed by a system of supervisor check-offs to ensure it is followed.
"We're really trying to stay away from a cookie cutter approach," Hart said, noting that the policy does not list requirements for what qualifies a detainee for "male" or "female" housing. Hart asserted that the policy is designed to approach every detainee as an individual. "We want to be contemporary in our approach," he said.
Daniel-McCarter remains skeptical. "I don't like that this was sprung on us," he said, noting his suspicions that Chicago's transgender community was not consulted on the policy. Daniel-McCarter questioned why the sheriff's department will oversee staff trainings, rather than local experts.
Dart did say that his office had reached out to local LGBT activists such as Rick Garcia and Art Johnson. Windy City Times was not able to confirm this by the press deadline.
Daniel-McCarter also criticized the language in the policy, which is based on the concept of "gender identity disorder" ( GID ) , a term used by the American Psychological Association to diagnose transgender people. That diagnosis has become increasingly controversial over the past several years for a host of reasons, including offense taken to the labeling of transgender people has having a disorder. Daniel-McCarter worries that, as a consequence, the gender identity panel has too much power and too little knowledge to decide where a transgender person should be placed in the jail.
However, Daniel-McCarter also remains hopeful. He said the policy is the "most progressive" he has seen in Illinois yet.
"My overall response is that it is a step forward," he said. "I am grateful that Tom Dart is concerned about trans people. I think that's commendable." Daniel-McCarter added he wants the sheriff's office to sit down with transgender Chicagoans and talk about the policy.
[ Readers have pointed out that the Chicago policy is similar to the 2009 D.C. policy. It is true that like the D.C. policy, the Chicago policy requires that the jail convene a panel to determine placement for gender-variant detainees. The Chicago policy is unique from other policies ( including the D.C. ) policy in that it not only convenes a panel, it mandates staff trainings on gender identity and gender identity disorder, multiple supervisor check-offs, and 3-month review period for gender-variant detainees. In essence, the Chicago policy has borrowed from other policies, and with several additions, makes up one comprehensive policy for placing detainees as well as educating medical and correctional staff. ]