SAN FRANCISCO -- By the end of the year, transgender women in San Francisco's jail system will be housed with other female inmates.
San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi announced the new policy in a press release Thursday. A striking component of the approach is that it covers inmates who have not had gender confirmation surgery.
But despite the sheriff's announcement being touted as an unprecedented move, the union representing sheriff's deputies and one transgender rights advocate found flaws with the plan.
Within weeks, transgender women will begin participating in programs like high school classes and substance abuse groups with other women behind bars. Transgender inmates will then be moved into women's facilities by the end of the year, after jail staff receive new training.
"Transgender people are marginalized on the streets of America, so it's not hard to deduce how that's magnified in prisons and jails," Mirkarimi told The Huffington Post. "It's inherently dehumanizing."
There are currently six transgender women segregated on a floor of the city's Hall of Justice, which also holds medium- and maximum-security male inmates.
The policy could create as many safety and privacy problems for inmates and guards as it's trying to solve, according to the president of the union representing sheriff's deputies.
"I will not support a safety issue where you’re going to have men who still have their genitalia tell me that 'Oh I'm female' just so they can get in the female unit," said San Francisco Deputy Sheriff's Association President Eugene Cerbone. He wondered how to assign guards to conduct strip-searches of inmates who haven't undergone gender confirmation surgery, or how to ensure the safety of a female inmate who might be housed with a transgender inmate with male anatomy.
"The issue is safety for the transgender [people], but he is making it like an experiment," Cerbone said of Mirkarimi.
Mirkarimi waved off the worries, saying that federal guidelines clearly spell out how to conduct searches and complete other routine tasks.
"It's easy to critique from the bleachers. This is something that we’ve been designing for several years. It wasn't done on a whim," Mirkarimi said. "Where there are practical concerns where safety is our utmost priority, we can’t allow any breaches."
Staff training could be one of the most important issues when it comes to protecting inmates' safety. A federal study of sexual abuse of transgender inmates showed that victims reported being abused by staff as frequently as by other inmates.
Mirkarimi, a Democrat, is in a contest for reelection, and Cerbone said the sheriff timed the announcement to boost his standing with the city's liberal voter base. The change in policy comes after two years of negotiations.
Because of the timing, an official from the Transgender Law Center that the policy might not be fully implemented if Mirkarimi loses his campaign.
"It's been an arduous process, and we've only had a verbal reassurance that this is going to happen," said Flor Bermudez, the law center's detention program director.