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Family, advocates seek answers following a trans woman’s death at Baltimore city jail

Family members and transgender rights advocates are seeking information about the death last month of a trans woman at the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center.

Kim Wirtz, 43, was found by correctional officers unconscious in a single cell just after midnight Feb. 25, according to a statement from the state’s Department of Safety and Correctional Services, which runs the jail.

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“Just after midnight on February 25, officers found the detainee unconscious in their single cell. Officers immediately began CPR and called for medical assistance and emergency paramedics,” the statement said. “At this time, DPSCS has found no evidence of foul play. The investigation continues, and the Department is awaiting a cause and manner of death to be determined by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.”

Wirtz’s niece said the family was frustrated by the lack of information about her death, and that Wirtz was housed with male detainees even though she identified as a woman.

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“We haven’t been able to get any information,” said Shakisha Glass, Wirtz’s niece, who lives in Baltimore County. “My biggest concern is that she deserves justice and making sure this doesn’t happen again.”

The corrections department did not respond Tuesday to additional questions from The Baltimore Sun about what policies are in place for trans detainees.

Online court records show Wirtz was charged under her given name with first-degree rape and additional charges, and that she was being represented by the public defender’s office.

“We were very saddened to learn of Kim Wirtz’s death and express our deepest condolences to her family,” said Gregg Fischer, chief of the felony division for the city public defender’s office, in a statement. He did not comment on her case or the circumstances of her death but said the office has regularly expressed concerns about the safety of clients housed at the jail.

“We have raised concerns about the conditions at Central Booking for everyone incarcerated there, and transgender women are exceptionally vulnerable. We hope that an investigation is conducted with meaningful steps taken to ensure such a tragedy does not occur again,” Fischer said.

According to charging documents, a woman told Baltimore Police that Wirtz threatened her with a gun, placed the barrel in her mouth and forced her to perform oral sex Jan. 31 inside a Southwest Baltimore home. The victim identified Wirtz to police.

Glass said her aunt was born in Minnesota but has lived in Baltimore for more than 20 years. She said Wirtz transitioned at 13 and has struggled to find jobs and housing over the years because she was a trans woman. However, despite her hardships, Glass described her aunt as resilient.

“She was a very strong person,” Glass said. “She tried to find her place in this world. I watched her for years to try to assimilate in a society that wasn’t built for her.”

Iya Dammons, the executive director of Safe Haven Baltimore, a trans advocacy organization, said more needs to be done to protect trans people when they enter the criminal justice system. Dammons led a protest following Wirtz’s death.

“We wanted to let everyone know that her life mattered. It wasn’t about what she did or what landed her in Central Booking,” Dammons said in an interview Tuesday.

Dammons said city and state agencies are not doing enough to help trans individuals.

“We’re dying at an alarming rate,” said Dammons, who is also a trans woman. “If we don’t protect us, who is going to protect us better than we are? We are tired of dying. We are tired of dying of overdoses. We are tired of people ignoring the fact that we too exist here in Baltimore City and that they need to step up and do something.”

Dammons has called for an LGBTQ coordinator to work inside the jail system to advocate for trans detainees to ensure they receive proper health care and therapy and are not victimized by others in facilities or discriminated against by staff, Dammons said.

“We too should be cared for and have the same rights as everyone else” awaiting trial, Dammons said.

Michael Collins, the policy director for Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s office, said he could not discuss the case against Wirtz but said the office had been in contact with trans advocates after Wirtz’s death.

“This death has sparked a conversation about trans people in the criminal justice system,” he said. Members of the state’s attorney’s office plan to meet with trans groups to discuss concerns raised by Wirtz’s death, he said.

Jeremy LaMaster, executive director of FreeState Justice, which advocates for and provides legal services to low-incomes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Maryland residents, said the organization wants to make sure the family gets answers about Wirtz’s death.

“We understand there are a lot of challenges” to placing individuals in jails and prisons, he said. But FreeState is advocating for individualized assessments of LGBTQ pretrial detainees and inmates at state facilities to make sure they are housed in the most safe ways, he said.

LaMaster said policy should allow detained individuals to be consulted in the decision of where they are housed. He noted that people face challenges for gender marker changes; for instance, it wasn’t until 2019 that court orders were not needed to change a driver’s license.

Glass said she hopes Wirtz’s death will bring about positive change for the trans community.

“I think she would want me to do this — I think she would want me to fight for change,” she said.

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