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New Committee To Explore Safer Housing For Transgender Inmates At The Allegheny County Jail

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

A committee to create a plan for safer housing for the transgender population at the Allegheny County Jail will form this week. It will include members of the jail oversight board, jail staff and two members of the local transgender community.

The committee, which was approved in a motion last week by the oversight board, will recommend a plan by September to create what the motion called “appropriate housing” for incarcerated trans people. The members of the committee will be determined by the end of this week.

The committee formed as part of talks between the oversight board and SisTers PGH, a local trans advocacy organization. Founder Ciora Thomas applauded the approved motion last week and said she hopes to serve as one of the members of the committee.

As a transgender Black woman who has been incarcerated at the jail, Thomas would bring lived experience if selected, she said.

“[It’s important] to have people that are not only formerly incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail, but trans people who know what we need as far as rehabilitation and getting back into the community.”

The committee could explore creating a pod for trans inmates to opt in to during the intake process. Currently, a person is initially assigned to a pod based on the gender determined by their legal identification. Such documents do not always match a person’s gender identity.

Within 72 hours of intake, a committee appointed by the warden determines a long term housing assignment for the trans inmate. The jail policy states the committee must include representatives from administration, medical staff, mental health staff, classification and the Prison Rape Elimination Act compliance manager.

But, Thomas said, even assigning people to pods based on their gender identity could still pose security risks for trans individuals.

“If you’re putting a trans man in a pod with cis men, you are opening them up to sexual assault, rape, being trafficked within the jail,” she said. “It’s still an issue of safety. Cis[gender] women can be dangerously transphobic. Cis men can be dangerously transphobic.”

Jail Warden Orlando Harper said trans-specific housing could violate the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.

The standard states: “The agency shall not place lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex inmates in dedicated facilities, units, or wings solely on the basis of such identification or status, unless such placement is in a dedicated facility, unit, or wing established in connection with a consent decree, legal settlement, or legal judgment for the purpose of protecting such inmates.”

But oversight board chair Judge Kim Berkeley Clark suggested the county may explore legal avenues, such as a consent decree, although she did not elaborate on who would initiate that action. Consent decrees are court-approved deals between two parties that could establish a new policy as it relates to housing within the jail. Clark said the committee could speak with legal counsel to determine how to proceed with trans-specific housing if that policy is included in the plan developed by September.

“I personally feel that there is a need based upon my conversations with the members of the transgender community who have been incarcerated in the Allegheny County Jail,” Clark said.

Thomas hopes this is just the beginning of new policies for incarcerated transgender people at the Allegheny County Jail. SisTers PGH is exploring how to offer trans-specific re-entry programs at the jail.

“There are no trans-specific re-entry services focused on rehabilitating the trans community,” she said. SisTers PGH already offers housing and addiction services for the trans community, so providing those services through the jail would be a natural expansion, according to Thomas.

“When our folks go to jail, they normally have no support systems,” she said. “If we can meet them where they are, that’s what’s going to be the best for them and the best for us to continue thriving as an organization.”

Until the plan is proposed by the new committee, the jail has agreed to report to the board information about housing decisions for trans inmates made within the jail.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.