State prison and Baltimore city jail policies are effectively funneling transgender people into solitary confinement-like settings for long stretches of time, according to formerly incarcerated trans people and advocacy groups who testified before the Maryland Senate last week while pushing for new housing and search policies.

They described how trans prisoners in certain facilities spend entire days locked in cells with no way to occupy their time, an environment the United Nations compared to torture. Isolation is meted out to trans people for no other reason than the prison or jail’s inability to safely house them in a less restrictive setting, advocates from several civil rights and transgender rights groups said.

Some of the testimony centered on Baltimore’s sprawling jail complex, which has been run by the state for decades.

Last summer, a team of attorneys from the ACLU’s National Prison Project visiting the jail on behalf of plaintiffs suing over its conditions encountered two trans women. One told the team she was being housed against her will in the male general population dorms, despite a previous assault and injury by her cellmate. Another said she was threatened in the male dorm and then involuntarily placed in the Inpatient Mental Health Unit, a wing of the jail with “extremely harsh” living conditions, according to a report by the attorneys late last year.

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“This unit is beyond administrative segregation. It’s beyond solitary confinement,” said Debra Gardner, legal director for the Public Justice Center, which is also a lawsuit plaintiff, during Senate testimony. “This is a highly restrictive and highly intrusive environment. Basically, total lockdown: deprived often even of clothing, leaving this transgender woman constantly subject to the prying eyes of guards and medical staff, ostensibly for her protection.”

The corrections department declined to say how many trans women were housed in the mental health unit, but contended in an emailed statement that the wing was “for immediate crisis intervention and care” and “is not used as an alternative to administrative housing.” People incarcerated there are provided with a “suicide safe smock,” the department said, ”that covers them from their neck to their shins.”

“They are not permitted to keep their clothes as clothing may be easily ripped and becomes a safety concern,” said Lt. Latoya Gray, a spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

At least 78 people in Maryland prisons and Baltimore jails self-reported as transgender as of March 15, which could be an undercount due to a fear by some of being identified as transgender. Trans people face an outsized risk of being sexually assaulted while incarcerated, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, adding urgency to efforts to reform the corrections department policies.

Advocates want to overhaul Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services policies to prevent those assaults before they happen, starting with the intake process but also touching on discrimination policies, housing and transfer procedures and searches. To that end, lawmakers introduced the Maryland Transgender Respect, Agency, and Dignity Act, originally modeled after California legislation passed in 2020 that allows trans people to be housed and searched in a manner consistent with their gender identity.

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Trans people booked into Baltimore jails and transferred to state prisons are typically assigned to general population housing based on their sex assigned at birth, without regard for the status of their transition or how they identify. Housing transfer requests for trans prisoners who wanted to live in general population dorms consistent with their gender identity have been routinely denied, according to advocacy groups representing trans prisoners.

It is also unclear whether the prison and city jail systems are complying with the Prison Rape Elimination Act and other federal guidelines when it comes to their treatment of trans prisoners.

Experts who testified in support of the Transgender Respect, Agency, and Dignity Act, including a former PREA officer who now works for the public defender’s office, said the corrections department facilities violated that law and that the state was risking its federal funding by allowing the agency’s policies to continue. They cited federal case law and Supreme Court rulings.

The corrections department pushed back, saying its facilities are routinely audited and found to be PREA compliant.

“The department takes very seriously — and treats with urgency — the protection of every single incarcerated person’s dignity and safety,” Gray, the spokesperson, said in a statement. “The department has met with advocacy groups and has tirelessly worked on the complex issues related to the transgender incarcerated population, and is committed to updating its policies as necessary based on correctional and medical professionals’ recommendations to ensure the safety of everyone in our facilities.”

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Jamie Grace Alexander, policy coordinator for FreeState Justice, said she thought the corrections department was taking the issue more seriously, especially compared to last year, when she said corrections officials paid little attention to the General Assembly hearings.

Lawmakers working with advocates to advance the policies said they are eyeing budget language that would compel the corrections department to report various details about how many trans people are incarcerated in their facilities, where they are housed and other specifics about their confinement.

Grace Alexander said that data would help resolve a major question for them; estimates range from 75 to as many as 400 trans people in state and local facilities. Lawmakers and advocates have also indicated that new budget language could also compel the corrections department to retool nondiscrimination policies for staff so that they also cover gender identity and sexuality, as well as other classes such as pregnancy and ethnicity.

The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which has signaled it is willing to consider changes, has so far declined to detail any policies it might alter.

Despite potential shifts in policy, Grace Alexander said that she didn’t believe true reform will come without legislation. For her, that means codifying policies that specifically guide how and where trans people are housed.

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“I truly don’t believe that change can come from within the system,” Grace Alexander said. “There are a lot of trans incarcerated people who are advocating as hard as they can while incarcerated for this change, but the department is not going to make that change unless they are forced to.”

Though state legislation won’t get traction this year, formerly incarcerated trans people nonetheless traveled to Annapolis to be heard, painfully reliving their experiences.

Iya Dammons, the executive director of Baltimore Safe Haven, a trans-led drop-in wellness center, told state lawmakers about becoming “the laughing stock to everyone, from correctional officers to inmates” when incarcerated at Central Booking.

“I could barely obtain my food during meal times,” Dammons said. “I was completely numb.”

Dammons remembered how she was sent to a special housing unit. She spoke through tears.

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“I was in a cage inside of a cage and labeled as a threat to security because I looked like a woman,” she said. “I was shipped and re-shipped and sent to places I had never been in my life, afraid of my own shadow. … I‘m afraid when I wake up in the morning, because this trauma still haunts me today.”