Recent lawsuits about the treatment of transgender people in Baltimore’s state-run corrections facilities have sparked calls by LGBTQ+ activists for an overhaul of state policies on how transgender people are housed behind bars.
Transgender women have alleged in lawsuits that they were subjected to harassment and violence in unsafe housing assignments and denied hormone therapy while incarcerated.
Unlike most Maryland jails, which are operated at the municipal level, Baltimore’s pretrial detention facilities are managed by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. That state agency operates the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center, which holds an average daily population of slightly fewer than 1,000 defendants awaiting trial.
Last week, Chelsea Gilliam, a transgender woman who was incarcerated for about six months in the Baltimore jail system, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court alleging the state corrections agency violated her civil rights. Gilliam said she was held for three months in a men’s facility where her hormone treatment was withheld and where she was sexually assaulted by another detainee.
The Baltimore Sun does not typically identify victims of sexual assault, but Gilliam consented to being identified, according to her attorney Eve Hill of the Baltimore law firm Brown, Goldstein & Levy.
The allegations rang true for LGBTQ+ activists affiliated with Baltimore Safe Haven, a local outreach that offers services for trans people. The group held a small rally at the city’s downtown correctional complex Wednesday afternoon, citing Gilliam’s case as a reason for Maryland to overhaul rules impacting trans people incarcerated at state facilities.
About two dozen people protested during rush hour Wednesday near several corrections facilities on East Madison Street, briefly snarling traffic as they stood in the intersection with Greenmount Avenue, waving signs and chanting in favor of reform. The group then moved to Central Booking, chanting messages of support to those on the other side of the jail’s concrete walls.
Iya Dammons, Baltimore Safe Haven’s executive director, said the rally’s purpose was to raise awareness related to the safety, violence, death, health care and housing conditions at the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center.
Dammons said her organization wants the state corrections department to review its “outdated” policies and procedures when it comes to working with members of the LGBTQ+ community, specifically rules that guide where trans people are housed.
“When it comes down to classification and housing, we must adopt policies for LGBT folks,” Dammons said. “This protects our trans siblings, LGBT folks, from being maliciously attacked or, you know, raped or anything like that.”
Dammons herself has been incarcerated, she said.
”I have been in those backgrounds. I’ve been in their shoes. I’ve been in their shackles. I’ve been called derogatory statements. I’ve been called he, him,” said Dammons, who is a trans woman. “We’re not asking for something that’s unconstitutional. We’re asking for our given rights as any other cisgender person who is behind that wall.”
In addition to Gilliam, Dammons cited two other trans women who she said suffered abuse while incarcerated in Baltimore.
In June 2019, surveillance cameras captured a correctional officer holding Amber Canter in a chokehold when she refused to move; the incident led to the indictment of three correctional officers on charges of misconduct. The involved officer allegedly let go of Canter while she was unconscious and she hit the concrete floor, resulting in severe bruises and fractures, prosecutors wrote at the time.
Like Gilliam, Canter also alleged in a lawsuit that she was denied hormone therapy while incarcerated. In February, the state corrections department and the Office of the Attorney General recommended a $92,000 payment to settle Canter’s lawsuit related to her gender-affirming care, while other suits related to her detention are still pending.
Dammons also questioned the death of Kim Wirtz, a trans woman who was housed with men at Central Booking. In February 2021, Wirtz was found unconscious in a single cell by correctional officers at Central Booking, which is run by the state. She died shortly after.
Asked about several of the activists’ concerns before Wednesday’s rally, Mark Vernarelli, a spokesperson said the state’s corrections department, would not comment on any specific matter, but “takes very seriously — and treats with urgency — the protection of every single incarcerated person’s dignity and safety.”
The state corrections department is “committed to updating its policies as necessary based on correctional and medical professionals’ recommendations to ensure the safety of everyone in our facilities,” Vernarelli said.
Vernarelli declined to share the department’s current policies on transgender prisoners.
Dammons said she doesn’t understand what the corrections department’s policies are, and her organization mostly relies on what it is told by current and former prisoners. She said some transgender people incarcerated at state facilities are separated from gendered housing by being placed in solitary confinement.
“It’s a scary place to be,” said Dammons, noting that the isolation causes lasting trauma.
Dammons and other trans activists are advocating for state facilities to individually assess placement for transgender individuals, taking into account their preferences. Dammons also wants the department to consider creating separate dormitories dedicated to housing incarcerated LGBTQ+ individuals.
Vernarelli said the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act’s standards “prohibit the placement of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex incarcerated individuals in dedicated facilities, units, or wings solely on the basis of such identifications or status.”
Safe Haven also is asking for clarity on how identity documents are used by corrections officials to decide placement, noting that some trans individuals do not have the financial ability to legally change their name or gender. Dammons said transgender individuals also should get a say in the gender of the correctional officer who strip-searches them.
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Her organization also called for open communication between the corrections department and the transgender community. Dammons said the community deserves a “fair shake” within the jail system.
”Just because I am incarcerated does not mean that I should be traumatized, discriminated against, left without hormone therapy, adequate health care, the right garments to hold up my breasts or for trans men, the right binders that they would need. Hormone therapy should not stop, reversing the process of what I’ve already started,” Dammons said. “It creates trauma and a lifetime commitment to mental health, which I did not sign up for.”
While the trans community saw a victory during the recent session of the Maryland General Assembly with the passage of the Trans Health Equity Act, which requires Medicaid in Maryland to cover gender-affirming procedures for transgender patients, other legislation protecting trans people in jails and prisons failed to pass. The corrections bill, named the Transgender Respect, Agency, and Dignity Act, would also have encoded a list of policies related to searching transgender prisoners and deciding their housing assignments. It failed to pass in either chamber this past session.
Dammons said Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott and other city agencies have been supportive of her group and its demands for policy changes at correctional facilities, but that those efforts have struggled to make headway as the city’s jail is run by the state government.
“The [state corrections department] has met with advocacy groups and has tirelessly worked on the complex issues related to the transgender incarcerated population,” Vernarelli said.
Dammons disagreed, noting she had yet to meet with the department’s LGBTQ+ liaison.
Vernarelli noted the corrections department is probed for compliance with the federal prison rape law by independent auditors who survey one-third of state correctional facilities every year. He said the department “is not aware” of any of its facilities “that has ever received a corrective action for a transgender-related issue.”