Cook County Jail has quietly expanded its transgender policies and services in recent months, opening a protective unit for transgender women and bringing in local advocates to work with detainees and staff
The women file in all at once, in a fit of laughter and hugs, turning a quiet, empty room into a reunion.
Bonnie Wade and Channyn Lynne Parker from Chicago House are here today, and some of the women know them from the outside.
Nastasha Valentino, 38, rushes to hug Parker. Parker and Valentino have been friends for more than 20 years, and Valentino is proud to see Parker doing good work, the kind of work she was destined to do, Valentino says.
Today, Parker's work involves meeting with transgender women detained at Cook County Jail. She is the first out transgender person to work in the Cook County Department of Corrections, a role she fills as part of her job as the Connect to Care program coordinator for Chicago House.
Chicago House, an HIV and transgender housing service agency, has recently formed a partnership with the jail to provide services to transgender detainees.
It has been just three weeks since the protective custody tier for transgender inmates opened in Division 6, and the room is full of cautious optimism about the new programs that come along with it.
On today's schedule is a group meeting on sex work. Brenda Myers-Powell, better known as "Ms. Brenda," runs the "Prostitutes Anonymous" support group for trans women. She also runs a similar group in Division 11 that primarily serves non-transgender women.
Myers-Powell is not transgender, but her history makes her easily relatable, easy to talk to. It's likely one of the reasons her journey away from sex work has been the subject of much media coverage over the years.
She started doing sex work in 1973, at age 14. It's been 16 years since she stopped. Today, as a peer specialist for the Cook County Sheriff's Office's Human Trafficking Team, she tries to steer others away from sex work. She wears street clothes jeans, a white-and-pink top and gym shoes.
Myers-Powell is celebrating an anniversary today, she tells the room. Forty years ago, she started doing sex work. She celebrates this day, Good Friday, because she has since stopped, she says.
A few of the women respond with an "amen."
The meeting room looks much like a middle-school classroommilk-colored tiles and chalk-yellow walls bathed in fluorescent lighting. A couple of posters hang from the cinder-block walls, most of them with inspirational sayings. A black-and-white sign shouts, "NO PROFANITY PLEASE!!" Another lists off the rules for a barbershop, suggesting the room has multiple uses. An anatomy poster hangs in the corner. Otherwise the walls are bare.
Twelve white plastic chairs are assembled in front of an old metal desk. The detainees sit in the chairs. They appear to range from the late teens to middle age. Almost all of them are people of color.
Most of the women wear the same type of blue slip-on shoes, but a couple sport tattered flip-flops. Some of their socks are mismatched or spotted with holes. A few have come carrying personal itemsa comb with most of the teeth missing, a container of what looks like lip balm.
Behind the desk sits a chair, but Myers-Powell sits on the desk itself.
She tells the group about the time she "dated herself." What she means is that she devoted her energy to her own needs and happiness.
"I didn't need nobody to tell me I was fine," she says. "I knew I was."
Myers-Powell talks a lot about self-respect and self-preservation. She'll be 100 percent, regardless of a manregardless of her husband, even.
"People told you that you ain't shit for so long that you bit into it," she says.
This message resonates with the room.
"We feel like we need somebody to love and live our life," says one of the women. "But we don't even love ourself first. You know what I'm saying?"
Still, many are not sold on the idea of giving up sex work, and they tell Myers-Powell this.
Trans policy at Cook County Jail
Before March 2011, Cook County Jail had no official rule for placing transgender detainees together. That year, it became one of the first jails in the country to implement such a measure.
The seven-page order had come at the urging of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart after he discovered a lack of uniformity in policy. A jail employee had asked him what to do about placing transgender detainees, and he responded that jail staff should follow the existing policy.
"I just saw blank stares across the room," he told Windy City Times in 2011. "I said, 'Are you trying to tell me there is no policy?'"
The only policy dealing with transgender detainees dated back to 1984. The "Transsexual Treatment Protocol" detailed guidelines for prescribing hormone therapy, but it did not address gendered housing, clothing or staff training..
As instructed in the new 2011 document, corrections officers were to use preferred names and pronouns for transgender detainees. A committee would meet to determine the needs of each transgender person in detention. Perhaps most significantly, gender identity was to be a major determinant of housing.
The policy made national headlines, and some hailed it as a victory for transgender rights. Others lamented that it had been adopted without consulting local transgender leaders. But for the most part, local advocates waited and watched to see how the policy would play out and if it would be followed.
Reports on its success have since varied. While the policy aims to keep trans detainees safer from their peers in detention, the majority of anecdotal complaints seem to be about corrections officers, not inmates.
In 2012, Monica Scott, a transgender woman, was detained in Cook County Jail on a forgery charge.
Scott, 40, spent four days in a men's lockup with the general population before a staffer approached her about moving to Division 17, where she would be housed with women, she said.
"They made it sound really, really sweet," said Scott.
Scott, who entered the jail with a drug problem, would have access to programs and resources that would both affirm her identity and help break her addiction, she was told. She would be housed with women instead of men. Still, she didn't want to go to Division 17.
Scott had already been locked up with the men. Moving to a women's facility was bound to cause a stir, not just with other detainees but with corrections staff.
In the end, Scott said, she was right.
"When I got there with the women, it was crazy," she said. "I was assaulted by one of the officers."
Scott had been promised confidentiality, she said. But in Division 17, corrections officers knew she was transgender, and they taunted her because of it. Other detainees had also been told about her gender identity, making Scott a target for harassment.
In the showers, other detainees would corner her to study her body, she said.
She also alleges that she was beaten in front of other women by a corrections officer.
And the harassment followed her once she was released, she said, as the same officer tracked her down on the outside.
Keisha Allen, another transgender woman who entered the jail in November 2012, reported similar harassment when she was jailed in a men's lockup, Division 9.
"To me, my experience was horrible," said Allen. "I didn't really have no problems with men. I mostly had issues with the security guards. I felt like, for me, it was torture, waking up like, 'What is this officer going to say about me tomorrow?'"
Allen alleges that despite having a gender marker of "female" on her ID, she was housed with men.
Allen's story and Scott's resemble many coming out of not just Cook County Jail in past years but also jails and prisons throughout the country, where detainees are often confronted by anti-LGBT bias daily.
One Cook County Jail employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said that anti-trans verbal abuse at the jail has been part of the culture there. He has seen it regularly, he said.
"I've heard them called 'faggot' to their face," he said. "I've heard professional people, who are supposed to be professional people, in there like, 'I don't want to deal with this he-she. I don't want to deal with this it. Get this thing out of my office.' I've heard that. I've witnessed that. I've heard like, 'That thing should not be allowed to walk around.' I've heard that 'there's no way in hell I want to deal with that shit.' I've heard all kind of stuff. This is overt. This is what is allowed. It openly exists, and people laugh, and they giggle … . I've heard people say, 'I will not recognize you as a woman,' or, 'I will not recognize you as this person, because you were born this way, and that's the way you are going to be addressed.'"
According to the sheriff's office, the Cook County Department of Corrections has a zero-tolerance policy for verbal and physical abuse against inmates.
"We do have training procedures for staff regarding gender identity and discrimination," said the sheriff's office in a statement. "The Sheriff's Office of Professional Review objectively investigates all allegations against its employees. A new policy is being written to coordinate services with CCSO (The Cook County Sheriff's Office) and Cermak [Health Services, at the jail] to provide appropriate accommodations for all subjects in its custody who identify as transgender or who are identified by Cermak as transgender. CCSO and Cermak strive to uphold the respect and dignity of all subjects in CCSO custody."
The protective-custody tier that houses transgender detainees and the addition of staff training are intended to address some of those issues.
Cook County Jail is one of a few in the country to draft a transgender policy that allows for self-identification. It is rarer still that jails offer several, if any, trans-specific accommodations. In many cases, Cook County is operating without other examples of how to house transgender inmates. Much of the strategy on that work has developed within the Gender Identity Committee with the backing of Sheriff Dart.
While the Division 6 tier is new, many trans women were previously housed in Division 11, where they had access to similar programs for trans women. Still, not all trans women are being held in Division 6; some remain in other parts of the jail for various reasons, including the charges they face.
Officer Erica Rosas
Among those who began work with the Gender Identity Committee early on was Officer Erica Rosas, a representative from Assistant Executive Director Martha J. Salazar's office.
Rosas had not worked with transgender people previously, but she fell into the role quickly and took over as chair of the committee about a year ago.
As chair of the committee, Rosas spent a lot of her off days visiting trans detainees at the jail. It took a long time to build rapport with the women. But in time, she feels she has started to gain trust.
Rosas appears quiet and serious but warm. Her attire is business-casual rather than the uniform that many jail employees sport. A large badge around her neck identifies her as an officer.
In Ms. Brenda's group, Rosas observes silently in the background as Parker and "Ms. Brenda" Myers-Powell talk self-esteem. She pipes up toward the end to encourage the women to seize the moment and turn things around for themselves.
More than anyone, Rosas is charged with seeing to it that trans detainees are safe and are able to express their gender. She meets with each known trans detainee individually when they enter the jail and reports back to the committee. She also does wellness checks on the women.
Challenges range from securing appropriate clothing, underwear and toiletries to making sure that medical care is in order. And then there is the issue of staffing.
"I've become very overprotective," says Rosas, who acknowledges that there have been issues with corrections staff when it comes to transgender detainees.
Under Rosas, the role of the Gender Identity Committee has expanded significantly.
In March, the jail updated its transgender policy, adding more detailed guidelines for corrections staff and more oversight by the committee on the policy's implementation.
Under the current policy, detainees are asked if they self-identify as transgender once they enter the jail's booking area.
Those who self-identify are offered protective custody and are interviewed by Rosas or someone else from the committee. It is also possible for detainees to be classified as transgender by jail staff and placed into protective custody without self-identifying, the sheriff's office confirms.
After meeting with Rosas or another committee member, a detainee is assigned an accommodation plan. The plan includes information about the detainee's needsfrom toiletries and underwear to hormones and other medications.
Many of the trans women who enter the jail receive a care package of feminine toiletries, bras and panties, among other things. The packages are donated either by Myers-Powell or the sheriff's Women's Justice Program. Part of the reason for this, Rosas notes, is that many of the trans detainees who enter the jail don't have money to purchase such things in the commissary.
Special accommodations have also been made for showers in Division 6, according to Rosas. Transgender women are given their own allotted time to shower.
Conspicuously absent from the discussion is anything about transgender men or transgender people who do not identify as strictly male or female. The Division 6 tier, Rosas says, is for transgender women alone. The sheriff's office states that the same services and accommodations are available to transgender men but does not go into specifics.
Trans and locked up
The statistics about transgender people behind bars, particularly transgender women of color, are staggering.
A widely cited 2011 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that 37 percent of transgender people experienced harassment by correctional officers, and 35 percent were harassed by peers. That same study found that 16 percent of trans detainees reported physical assault behind bars. Another 15 percent reported sexual assault.
Among Black transgender people who had interacted with police, 38 percent reported harassment. Fifty-one percent said they were uncomfortable seeking police assistance.
Of those who had been in prison or jail, 29 percent of Black respondents reported physical assault in custody, and 32 percent reported sexual assault.
Employment discrimination coupled with lack of access to gender-related medical care leaves sex work as one of few options for manyeven though people engage in sex work for myriad reasons. For many trans women, who would otherwise go without the surgeries and/or hormones they need in order to live, sex work has become the fastest and most economical option.
That fact, among other things, is a reason for pause about programs such as the "Prostitutes Anonymous" support group at Cook County Jail, say some advocates.
Cassandra Avenatti, a social worker and executive board member for Sex Workers Outreach Project Chicago, said that programs that aim to convince people to leave the trade can be shaming instead of helpful.
"They tend to not allow for sex workers to have any sort of agency or draw a more comprehensive picture of sex workers as a population and honor the fact that some folks do choose to engage in the sex trade, and some folks do feel empowered," Avenatti said. "Not everyone identifies or feels like a victim."
Avenatti also points out that the "Prostitutes Anonymous" support group assumes that all of the trans detainees in the tier are engaged in sex work. The sheriff's office confirmed that the tier attends Myers-Powell's meetings as a group, but added that other topics are open for discussion in the group.
Many trans women not engaged in sex work in Cook County report being charged with prostitution because police profile trans women as sex workers. So common and widespread is that occurrence in the U.S. that trans people have come to refer to it as "walking while trans."
Some trans women also get arrested on purpose, said the jail employee. Some trans people, he said, commit crimes so they can enter the jail because they can't afford medical care on the outside.
"I've heard detainees say this. They do just enough to come in [to the jail] because they need that medical care. That's the only way they can afford to get that medical treatment," he said. "I've heard detainees say, 'You know, I'm in here because I need to get my hormones, and the only way I can get this is to do something on the outside.' And that's sad."
The Gender Identity Committee
On a Friday afternoon, the Gender Identity Committee convenes to review the files of new detainees.
The conference room is small, warm and out of date, lit by the same fluorescent glare as Myers-Powell's classroom.
Around the linoleum table sit George J. Vournazos, assistant general counsel to the sheriff; Scott Bratlen, superintendent in Division 6; Myers-Powell; Rosas; Salazar; and Dr. Kenya Key. Parker and Wade from Chicago House are also present.
Rosas hands each committee member a stack of papers. There are just a handful of new detainees this week, so things proceed quickly.
Rosas reads the name of each detainee, detailing what the woman has and what she needs. For the most part, the committee discusses two things: how a detainee is faring at the jail and whether or not her basic needs as a trans person are being met.
Rosas reports that one of the women needs a brassiere, while she notes that another has received a care package of feminine hygiene products.
In total, Rosas reports that there are 18 transgender people detained at the jail.
The jail employee said he thinks that number is far higher.
A change at the jail
Some of the trans women in custody report that a change in the overall culture at the jail has also changed what it means to be detained there. That's in part because the jail has increasingly focused on rehabilitation over punishment, employees say.
Valentino has been locked up since September. It's her first time being detained at the jail in a decade, she says.
"The Cook County Jail from when I was here 10 years ago was nowhere near close to the same," Valentino says.
In her eyes, things have changed dramatically and for the better.
There are days now, she says, when Cook County Jail doesn't exactly feel like jail.
You can come and go between activities without handcuffs. There are programs here, people to talk to, friends you know from the outside. On good days, the jail feels like a place with resources and opportunities, she says.
"You can get your hair cut," she says. "You can get your hair done. You can get a job here."
But there are other days when the reality of detention hits you, days when the place morphs. It's the mood, Valentino says. You walk through the halls and you feel ittoday you are in jail. Yesterday, this was a different place.
Not everyone in the tier is thrilled to be there. In fact, many feel they have been unnecessarily segregated. A 26-year-old trans detainee who asks to be identified only as Monroe was among them.
"At first, I thought the transgender committee was segregating you," Monroe said.
In Division 6, the women are picked out of the general population and placed in protective custody, a designation for detainees deemed vulnerable by corrections staff.
When the jail's Gender Identity Committee meets to talk about the new tier, Dr. Kenya Key reports that several of the women are requesting psychiatric evaluations in an attempt to have their gender-identity status changed to get out of the tier.
Part of the challenge has been that the women have been plucked out of men's lockups but have yet to see a benefit in the transgender tier, Rosas notes.
Chicago House services at the jail are just beginning. Without those services, some women feel they have been unnecessarily singled out, outing them to the rest of the jail and putting them at risk of ridicule and harassment. Others would rather be in close proximity to men, Valentino notes.
Rosas hopes that the partnership with Chicago House will make the tier more appealing to detainees. Monroe says she is open to the possibility.
Valentino prefers protective custody. Being with the general population feels dangerous, she said. She remains hopeful but skeptical.
"At the end of the night, you're still in jail," she says.