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Better protections for LGBTQ detainees sought after transgender teen says she was discriminated against at Baltimore jail

A transgender teen detained at the Baltimore jail who says she was discriminated against and feared for her safety is the latest example of the need for reforms, advocates say.

“It was traumatizing. I’m still stressing,” said Kazzy Davis, an 18-year-old trans woman and foster youth, who was acquitted earlier this month of assault charges after spending more than 40 days in the state-run Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center.

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Davis said she feared for her safety when she was housed with men. She said she was repeatedly belittled because she is trans. For instance, when she received her hormone shots, staff sought to demean her by calling her, “Sir,” Davis said.

Mark Vernarelli, a Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services spokesman, said he could not discuss Davis’ case, but said the agency “takes very seriously the preservation of each detainee and inmate’s dignity, as well as his or her safety.”

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Vernarelli said leaders of the department have met with advocacy groups and “crafted policies specific to this issue. ... Our employees are trained to ensure that every detainee and inmate is kept safe and treated with respect and dignity.”

But some transgender rights advocates have been calling for the state to do more to protect the safety of trans detainees and inmates at state facilities.

Advocates met with state officials earlier this year following the death of Kim Wirtz. Corrections officers found Wirtz, a transgender woman, unconscious in a single cell at the Baltimore jail, they said. The department of corrections said that there was no sign of foul play.

But Wirtz’s relatives have said they were concerned about Wirtz’s safety because she was held with male detainees, despite identifying as a woman. Wirtz was awaiting trial on rape and other charges.

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The department’s “Medical Intake” standards require detainees and inmates to be housed based on a physical exam.

“Incomplete surgical gender reassignment require that the patient be classified according to his or her birth sex for purposes of prison housing, regardless of how long they may have lived their life as a member of the opposite gender,” the policy says. The policy adds that those individuals “are usually offered protective custody.”

Vernarelli said the department has been “very vigilant for quite some time on this issue.”

Jeremy LaMaster is executive director of FreeState Justice, which advocates for and provides legal services to low-income lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Maryland residents. LaMaster said the state needs to do more than “the bare minimum” required by the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.

In 2015, a judge ruled in favor of a transgender inmate at another Maryland facility, saying the state had violated the act because it “failed to train all employees in how to effectively and professionally communicate with transgender inmates.”

In that case, the inmate said she was called “it” and “some kind of animal” by guards who watched her shower while she was housed at the Patuxent Institution in Jessup. The grievance resulted in state requiring training on how to treat transgender people.

FreeState will pursue changes to state law in the upcoming session of the Maryland General Assembly, LaMaster said. Among its goals: requiring additional questioning when trans and queer individuals arrive at jails and prisons, including asking their preference for housing and discussing safety concerns they may have.

LaMaster said detainees’ preferences and where they feel safest should be a factor when housing them, and a Maryland bill would be modeled after a California law that addresses the issue. Additionally, FreeState supports creating separate accommodations for trans and queer inmates, he said.

Housing individuals with a gender they do not identify with can be traumatic, and can put a detainee at risk of abuse, he said.

“I felt so traumatized and unaccepted,” Davis said.

“I just think they need to do better with trans youth. They need to treat people equally,” she said.

LaMaster said FreeState is reviewing not only Davis’ treatment at the jail, but the case brought against her, and how the foster youth appeared to be arrested and detained without the Baltimore Department of Social Services noticing. Davis’ foster mother, Alice Cook, said she had to notify social services of the arrest.

A spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Human Services, the parent agency for the social services department in the city, did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment on Davis’ case.

LaMaster also questioned a decision to charge Davis with felony offenses when he said she called police to report a break-in at her home.

“It’s ensuring that other trans folks or community members are protected and helped, but also our foster kids,” LaMaster said.

Asked about LaMaster’s concerns regarding the charges against Davis, a spokeswoman for the office of the Baltimore state’s attorney pointed to accusations in the charging documents that alleged Davis threatened two people who came to her apartment searching for her brother. LaMaster said Davis was the one who called police initially, fearing for her safety.

LaMaster said FreeState is reviewing the different agencies’ responses for possibly civil remedies.

“What we are asking for isn’t new,” LaMaster said of the policy changes. “It’s really to ensure, while detained, you aren’t exposed to violence and further trauma.”

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