Despite numerous requests to be transferred, North Carolina continues to hold Kanautica Zayre-Brown, a trans woman, behind bars at a men’s correctional facility, a choice that imperils Zayre-Brown’s safety daily, she and her advocates say.
On Monday night, the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter (pdf) to North Carolina’s Department of Public Safety, demanding it move Zayre-Brown to a woman’s prison or risk legal action.
In the letter, addressed to North Carolina Director of Public Safety Kenneth Lassiter, the ACLU calls for the state to transfer Zayre-Brown from Harnett Correctional in Lillington, N.C. where she is deliberately misgendered by correctional staff and has been denied medical treatment and women’s clothing, which she’s entitled to under federal and state law.
“Every day she is housed among men, forced to shower in group showers for men, and subjected to the constant indignities and threats to her health and safety that come with being stripped of her core identity,” the ACLU writes. “These gross violations of Ms. Zayre-Brown’s constitutional rights are putting her at great risk of serious harm.”
With the letter, the ACLU requests North Carolina’s Department of Public Safety (DPS) transfer Zayre-Brown to a women’s facility, and provide her with a private shower, all necessary medical treatments, grooming tools, and clothing. If DPS doesn’t take action on these items by April 1, 2019, the ACLU says it will follow up with formal legal action against the department for violating the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which specifically outlines protections for LGBTQ inmates, and for infringing upon Zayre-Brown’s rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth amendments, which protect against cruel and unusual punishment and guarantee rights to due process and equal protection.
As the ACLU states in its letter, given the specific vulnerability of trans inmates to physical and sexual abuse, PREA lays out clear standards for classifying, housing and protecting trans prisoners. These include individual assessments of trans women prisoners with serious consideration of their personal safety when authorities determine which facilities they should be housed in. PREA also mandates “the opportunity to shower separately from other inmates if they wish, regardless of where they are housed.”
Zayre-Brown, who is currently serving a nearly 10-year sentence for insurance fraud, says this has not been the case at Harnett Correctional, where despite legally changing her name, she is still referred to by her birth name (her “dead name”). She’s also classified by the state as male, despite having undergone multiple surgeries and medical treatments to affirm her gender identity.
But those are just the beginning of the daily humiliations Zayre-Brown faces, and the real harm she is being exposed to, the ACLU says.
Although she’s requested to be searched by female officers, Zayre-Brown has been “subjected to intrusive searches by male officers,” writes the civil liberties organization. She’s been denied wearing pants when she sleeps at night because it’s against the prison’s policy. She’s been forced to wear male undergarments, and when she received female underwear through commissary, Zayre-Brown was punished. And a prison nurse has “repeatedly threatened to thwart her transfer and medical treatment, citing her religious beliefs,” writes the ACLU. Earlier in her incarceration, DPS disrupted Zayre-Brown’s hormone therapy, which the 37-year-old has been taking consistently since 2010.
“At this time, Ms. Zayre-Brown’s physical and emotional health is greatly deteriorating and if DPS does not act soon, dire consequences are likely to result,” the ACLU’s letter warns.
In denying her rights guaranteed under federal and state law, DPS has effectively become the sole arbiter of Zayre-Brown’s gender identity, points out Chase Strangio, staff attorney with the LGBT & HIV Project at ACLU National. By doing so, North Carolina not only places Zayre-Brown at great physical and psychological risk, but underscores the systemic violations imposed on trans people by the government.
“We have a society that has validated a significant amount of discrimination against the trans community, and the danger of that discrimination is especially acute when you look at someone like Kanautica, who’s incarcerated in the state of North Carolina,” Strangio told The Root, citing the state’s history with its transphobic bathroom bill, HB2, and President Donald Trump’s anti-trans rhetoric and policies.
“You’re seeing someone who is experiencing the absolutely worst repercussions of that,” Strangio said.
He points to studies that show 50 percent of black trans women are incarcerated at some point in their lives.
“This is obviously related to systemic discrimination in society,” Strangio said. “We have people being funneled into prisons and jails because of employment discrimination, housing discrimination, family rejection and other factors that lead people to have criminal legal system involvement.”
Once incarcerated, trans people suffer disturbingly high rates of sexual and physical violence, especially when one considers that trans inmates typically underreport the violence they face.
Strangio cites a study in a California men’s prison that found over 60 percent of trans women in men’s facilities experienced sexual assault while incarcerated.
“These are rates that are just so staggering,” he said. “And untenable in terms of both the legal standards but also our sort of moral and ethical obligations as a society.”
In interviews with the media, Zayre-Brown has not contested the prison term itself, merely her right to serve out her punishment in a facility appropriate for her. As of Saturday, the ACLU told The Root, Zayre-Brown has been placed in solitary confinement at Harnett Correctional—a “protective” measure frequently imposed on trans inmates, despite the U.N. finding the psychological effects of the solitary confinement “cannot be justified” and constitute an act of torture.
“I understand I’m in prison,” Zayre-Brown told the Raleigh News and Observer back in February. “I just want fairness.”
And the law would appear to be on her side. But the gap between what’s codified in federal and state law with regard to the prison system and what is actually enforced is a longstanding issue, Strangio confirms. Inmates, while a vulnerable population, are not a visible one, and many facilities are opaque in providing information on their procedures and policies.
This pattern is magnified with LGBTQ prisoners who don’t receive the same support as their peers, Strangio says, noting that many of the organizations that go into prisons and jails are faith-based, and may discriminate against LGBTQ inmates.
“One of the most disturbing things about our prison system is the fact that no matter how many victories we have in Congress, or in state law, or in the court, we continue to see gross violations of people’s basic constitutional and human rights ... particularly for trans people, who may not have as many outside supports, who may not have as many advocates,” Strangio said.
“This is a situation where you have a clear constitutional standard, you have very clearly enumerated requirements under federal regulation, and yet what we see time and time again is trans women who are in prison— the great majority of whom are trans women of color—are being denied the most basic health care, who are being subjected to absolutely undeniably violent conditions of confinement.”