Monday, April 11, 2011

Creating a new transgender policy for county jail proof we’re looking forward

The Cook County Jail now has a specific policy for dealing with transgender inmates, which is much more than most law enforcement agencies have. Photograph provided by Cook County Department of Corrections.

I’m sure some people are going to view the Cook County Jail’s new policy concerning transgender inmates as a sign of our society in decline. As though having a policy that respects people and the way they perceive themselves is somehow bad.

If it reads like I believe Sheriff Tom Dart had his staff do the right thing when it comes to the policy implemented last month (and which the Associated Press reports has already affected the treatment of seven county jail inmates), that would be true.

BECAUSE IN MOST cases, this is an issue that most law enforcement officials somehow manage to ignore – as though it will just go away if we don’t think about it.

In fact, that was the case for Cook County up until a few weeks ago. Reports that started with the Windy City Times newspaper and escalated last week into national news coverage indicate that Dart himself was shocked to learn there was no specific policy for what to do with inmates whose sense of their own gender doesn’t match up with their birth.

In most cases, police departments that have to deal with such individuals in their holding cells try to get away with merely lumping individuals according to their birth – even in cases where they have gone several steps toward becoming someone of the opposite sex.

The few law enforcement agencies I have heard of that have tried to address this issue go in terms of having policies that take into account how far along a person is in their transition – almost as though they’re looking for any excuse to keep someone in their original gender rather than respect any change they may be making in their lives.

CONSIDERING THAT IS the status quo for much of the country, it is what makes the new Cook County Jail policy so unique. We’re the first in Illinois, although jails in the District of Columbia, San Francisco and in Maine have created their own rules for addressing the issue.

Inmates who are transgender actually come before a committee that assesses them as individuals. There is now even specific policy concerning what types of clothes and toiletries an inmate in the process of changing gender ought to receive, and which gender of corrections officers are allowed to search which inmates.

I’m sure there are law enforcement types around the country who are chortling at the thought of a “Gender Identity Committee.” If anything, those officers are most in need of the sensitivity training that the new Cook County policy also requires for jail employees.

It ought to be pure common sense that inmates are assessed as individuals, and their unique characteristics be taken into account when trying to incarcerate them.

THAT IS PARTICULARLY true in the case of the county jail, where the bulk of the inmates are those individuals still awaiting trial. Which means they fall into that category of “presumed innocent” until otherwise found guilty of their criminal charges.

That is why the people who are going to view this issue as one of “coddling criminals” misses the point. Although I still remember once visiting the Stateville Correctional Center and seeing some of the extra-curricular activities that inmates can participate in, with some of the most hardened prison officials telling me words I can’t forget.

“They’re still human beings,” I was told. “They’ll behave just like they’re treated.”

So perhaps a little respect for these particular county jail inmates is a step in the right direction, particularly if it helps reduce the climate of violence that exists within the penal systems of this country. And if that means somebody’s homophobia has to be challenged, then so be it.

NOW I REALIZE that a segment of our society is always going to have its hang-ups about anything that is in any way related to non-heterosexual conduct (and I write that sentence knowing full well that sex-change is more about oneself than acting with others).

But I also realize that this is an issue where it is the older generations that are keeping hostility alive, and a younger generation doesn’t seem to care as much. In fact, some younger people think the only thing absurd about such issues is that anyone cares at all.

Because at a time when some of our political people are determined to pass policies meant to reinforce the idea of gay people as deserving to be excluded from society as a whole, it is nice to see that some of our government officials are willing to implement policies that show some simple respect.

Which means it is likely that the day will come a few decades from now when people look back at us and the fact that it was an issue at all to create a transgender policy and scratch their heads in bewilderment at how our society ever thought it could get by without one.


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