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Strawberry Hampton
Strawberry Hampton, a transgender woman, was released from an Illinois prison in December.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

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EDITORIAL: Strawberry Hampton and the plight of transgender prison inmates

Transgender people are not trying to trick anybody, they are not confused and their gender identity must be respected

Today we’d like to argue in support of better treatment for prison inmates who are transgender, and we know we’ve got two strikes against us.

To begin with, we’re going to bat for prison inmates. Most of us don’t lose sleep worrying about prison conditions for criminals.

Secondly, the inmates are transgender, which means they live on the margins of social acceptability. A great many Americans hardly understand what it means to be transgender. They find it difficult enough to accept all-gender restrooms — or to call a cousin Larry instead of Laura — without being asked to concern themselves with transgender prison inmates.

Americans, though, like people everywhere, are more inclined to come around to a new appreciation of injustice if only they can better understand. That simple truth has driven every social reform, from women’s suffrage to the civil rights movement to equal rights for gay people to a fairer shake for people with disabilities.

Every advancement in human dignity has made somebody — and at times almost everybody — feel uncomfortable and threatened.

Until one day they are not.

Meet Strawberry Hampton

Our own developing awareness of the problem of how transgender people are treated in prison owes much to a single former inmate, Strawberry Hampton. She is a transgender woman who waged a two-year court battle to be housed with other women. It is impossible to hear the story of Hampton’s mistreatment in Illinois prisons — shuttled among four facilities for men before being housed with other women — without questioning the level of care and safety for all transgender inmates.

Hampton, a Chicagoan, was released from prison last month after serving two years of a 10-year sentence for residential burglary. She was released early thanks to “good time” credits, but we suspect the Illinois Department of Corrections also was cutting its losses. Hampton had filed suit, and her story had been picked up by the media.

The heart of Hampton’s complaint against IDOC is that the department long refused to classify her as a woman, effectively throwing her in with the wolves in prisons for men. She suffered at the hands of both male prisoners and guards.

“On one occasion where I was physically assaulted, I was stomped, I was spit on, I was dragged, my clothes were sliced off me with a knife,” Hampton told Sun-Times reporter Rachel Hinton on July 10, two days after she was released from prison.

A corrections officer pulled down her shorts and asked about her genitals, she stated in court documents, and she was forced to engage in sex acts with a cellmate while corrections employees watched.

In December, Hampton was transferred to the Logan Correctional Center, a prison for women, but only after more than a year of being assigned to four correctional centers for men — Dixon, Pinckneyville, Menard and Lawrence.

A national problem

This is not an issue unique to Illinois, as you would guess.

A 2015 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that trans people in prison were more than nine times more likely to be assaulted by other inmates. In June, a transgender woman died of complications from epilepsy in a New York City jail, which her family has blamed on her being placed in “punitive segregation.”

Yet the Trump administration has rolled back protections for transgender prisoners. New guidelines issued in May established that the “biological sex” of an inmate will dictate “the initial determination” as to where an inmate will be housed regardless of the inmate’s gender identity.

This new policy is part of an overall Trump administration rollback of rights and protections for transgender people. In February 2017, the administration rejected an Obama administration rule that schools must allow transgender students to use the bathroom that fits their gender. In April of this year, the administration effectively barred transgender people who have transitioned from enlisting in the military, and it prohibited already-enlisted troops from undergoing hormone therapy.

A principal of fairness

The Illinois Department of Corrections has stepped up transgender training of all staff, as ordered by a federal judge in the Hampton case. IDOC also notes that it has in the past assigned other transgender women to women’s prisons — Hampton’s case was not the first — and carefully considers the unique needs of each inmate.

Allow us, right here, to acknowledge the formidable challenges this issue creates for IDOC. The department must protect and do right by transgender inmates in an environment — the typical American prison — that is hardly broadminded about human differences.

But the guiding precept is not complicated. Prisons must treat women who are transgender as women, and men who are transgender as men. Transgender people are not trying to trick anybody, they are not confused and their gender identity must be respected.

That means, as the ACLU has said, that hormone therapy for transgender inmates must follow basic medical standards for the dosages, types of hormones and monitoring. IDOC cannot wait, as the ACLU says, until people are “distressed” and even “suicidal.”

IDOC should arrange surgical treatment for all transgender inmates who need it. All medical care should be provided by professionals who have expertise in treating transgender people.

Four years after Caitlyn Jenner

For so many Americans whose gender identity conforms with their biological sex at birth, this transgender business continues to be a tough sell, even four years after a Hollywood celebrity, Caitlyn Jenner, came out as a trans woman. We get that.

But we also get that Americans — enough of us, anyway — are capable of rethinking long-held but outdated convictions.

Often it’s not the evidence of science that brings us around, or the lecturing of activists. It’s the personal stories of injustice and cruelty.

We think of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who could not be seen in public in a wheelchair. We think of Rosa Parks, an African American woman who was not allowed to sit at the front of a bus. We think of Matthew Shepard, a gay man who was tied to a fence, beaten and left to die.

We think of Strawberry Hampton, a convicted criminal, yes.

But she had a right — a human right — to do her time in prison without being singled out for particularly cruel treatment because she was transgender.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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