SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A woman's rights group is suing the state to overturn a new law that requires prisons to place transgender and gender nonbinary inmates in facilities that correspond to their gender identities, alleging the practice puts incarcerated people in danger.
The Women's Liberation Front filed a lawsuit last week in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California on behalf of several incarcerated women as well as a group, Woman II Woman, that advocates on behalf of incarcerated women.
Two of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, both incarcerated women, allege they were sexually assaulted by inmates who identify as transgender or gender nonbinary.
The lawsuit said that one of the alleged assaults occurred after the law went into effect, while the other alleged assault does not specify when it occurred.
Several of the plaintiffs report being victims of domestic violence in the past. Several of the plaintiffs also cite their religious beliefs, which they argue are impaired by being placed in shared custody with transgender women.
Amie Ichikawa of the group Woman II Woman said she was shocked when she first read the bill that later became law, adding that she wasn't alone.
"We've gotten so many calls, letters, different messages of women feeling forgotten, completely excluded," Ichikawa said.
Ichikawa said that she supports transgender women being safe behind bars, but not in a way that she said allows sexual predators to slip in under the umbrella of transgender identity.
"We're about making sure everybody is being safe here," Ichikawa said.
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Terry Thornton said on Tuesday that the department has not yet been served with the lawsuit, and that the department does not comment on pending litigation.
"However, the department is committed to providing a safe, humane, rehabilitative and secure environment for all people in its custody. Federal and state laws impose legal obligations related to the treatment of people in custody with specific provisions for gender non-conforming people," Thornton said.
According to the department, 291 people housed at male correctional institutions in the state have requested to be transferred to a female correctional institution.
Of those, 41 transfer requests have been approved, six have been denied, 10 have been withdrawn and the rest remain under review by the department.
In addition, seven incarcerated people at female institutions have requested transfer to a male institution. All of those transfer requests remain under review.
The author of the law, state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, characterized the lawsuit and its advocates as transphobic in their portrayal of transgender inmates as potential threats. The California Family Council, a conservative group that lobbied against the law, also promoted the lawsuit this week.
"To broad brush the trans community and claim that basically all trans women are sexual predators is false, it's completely slanderous, but it's out of the right wing playbook in terms of attacking trans people," Wiener said.
Transgender inmates face well-documented dangers in prisons and jails.
A 2015 National Inmate Survey, administered by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics found that more than a third of transgender inmates in prisons and jails have experienced sexual assaults by facility staff or other inmates over a one-year period, according to a report from CBS News.
The federal Office for Victims of Crime reports that 15% of transgender individuals report being sexually assaulted while in custody, with that number more than doubling, to 32%, for African-American transgender people.
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