After holding a trans woman inmate for more than a year in a men’s prison, North Carolina has announced that it will finally move Kanautica Zayre-Brown to a women’s facility.
The surprise decision came on Friday afternoon with a letter from the state’s Department of Public Safety. DPS, which had come under the threat of legal action by the American Civil Liberties Union for violating both federal law and Zayre-Brown’s constitutional rights, said it would be moving Zayre-Brown to a women’s prison “no later than August 22.”
Explaining the August move, DPS said they needed time to “continue researching and implementing best practices” from states that have successfully transferred trans women in men’s prisons to women’s facilities.
“Implementation of best practices will help ensure the safety and preparedness of correctional officers and offenders,” wrote Public Safety General Counsel Jane Gilchrest. DPS also promised the ACLU biweekly checks on Zayne-Brown’s welfare until she is transferred.
The decision came after months of advocacy and action from civil liberties organizations, criminal justice and LGBTQ groups.
“I feel good that there is a plan in place, but I will feel much better when my transfer is finalized,” said Zayre-Brown, in a statement sent by the ACLU. “My mental health is still depleting, and I would have broken a long time ago if it weren’t for the community behind me.”
Zayre-Brown has been serving a 10-year sentence for insurance fraud at Harnett Correctional, where she’s still referred to by her birth name (her “dead name”) and classified by the state as male, despite having undergone multiple surgeries and medical treatments to affirm her gender identity.
In March, the ACLU said it would take legal action against the state if it continued refusing to transfer her.
During her time at Hartnett Correctional facility, Zayre-Brown has been “subjected to intrusive searches by male officers,” despite multiple requests to be searched by women officers, wrote the civil liberties organization. She was denied wearing pants when she sleeps at night because it’s against the prison’s policy, and was forced to shower and change in full view of male inmates and correctional staff. Zayre-Brown was also forced to wear male undergarments, and when she received female underwear through commissary, she was punished. A prison nurse even “repeatedly threatened to thwart her transfer and medical treatment, citing her religious beliefs,” wrote the ACLU. Earlier in her incarceration, DPS disrupted Zayre-Brown’s hormone therapy, which the 37-year-old has been taking consistently for nearly 10 years.
In treating Zayre-Brown this way and forcing her to stay in a men’s facility, DPS was violating the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which specifically outlines protections for LGBTQ inmates, the ACLU said. The department was also 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.
“This is a situation where you have a clear constitutional standard, you have very clearly enumerated requirements under federal regulation,” Chase Strangio, Staff Attorney for the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project, told The Root in March. “Yet what we see time and time again is trans women who are in prison ... being denied the most basic health care [and] are being subjected to absolutely undeniably violent conditions of confinement.”
Throughout her time in incarceration, Zayre-Brown hasn’t protested being held in prison for the crime she committed. She’s only asked to be held in a facility most appropriate for her, and one in which she can be safe.
“I understand I’m in prison,” Zayre-Brown told the Raleigh News and Observer earlier this year. “I just want fairness.”
“We are relieved that there is a date by which Ms. Zayre-Brown will be transferred to a prison for women, but this isn’t over,” said Strangio, following DPS’ announcement on Friday. He promised vigilance until Zayre-Brown is transferred.
“Each day that Kanautica is held in a men’s facility is a day that her constitutional rights are violated and her health compromised,” the attorney added. “So many trans women across the country—particularly black trans women—are funneled into the criminal legal system where they face severe risk of harm once incarcerated. Our community is under attack and we are working to minimize that violence.”