By Ramit Plushnick-Masti
HOUSTON — The sheriff of Houston's Harris County has adopted a sweeping policy designed to protect and guarantee equal treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender inmates, including allowing transgender individuals to be housed based on the gender they identify with instead of their biological sex.
Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia's office believes the new policy is one of the most comprehensive in the country. It states that "discrimination or harassment of any kind based on sexual orientation or gender identity is strictly prohibited," and outlines how such inmates will be searched, booked and housed, according to a copy of the policy obtained by The Associated Press.
The policy also covers intersex inmates, defined as people born with sex chromosomes or reproductive systems that are not considered standard.
Houston has the third-largest county jail in the U.S., behind Los Angeles and Chicago's Cook County, and processes some 125,000 inmates annually. Other major jails, including those in Los Angeles, Denver and Washington, D.C., have taken similar steps to meet new federal standards for protecting inmates from sexual abuse and assault.
But Harris County is the first in Texas to adopt this extensive of a policy, according to Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. The state agency inspects, regulates and provides technical assistance to county jails.
The 11-page policy, along with a separate three-page document protecting this population from workplace discrimination, went into effect Wednesday and was the culmination of a thorough review that began in July 2012.
Garcia's office reviewed policies in 20 other law enforcement agencies across the country, including in Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami-Dade County in Florida and Las Vegas, as well as an International Association of Chiefs of Police database, said sheriff's spokesman Alan Bernstein. Harris County borrowed from each to come up with a policy it perceived to be more comprehensive, he said.
"It represents a significant step forward," said Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy for the Washington-based National Center for Transgender Equality, which worked closely with Garcia's staff.
The new policy may be notable because it's occurring in a staunchly red state proud of its conservative values, Tobin said. But she emphasized it's not about politics.
"This is not a red or blue issue," Tobin said. "It is an issue of preventing violence, of meeting the state's legal and moral responsibilities to keep people safe and safeguarding public funds that when sexual abuse happens in prison need to be spent on medical care and mental health care and recovery."
In officially announcing the policy on Thursday, Garcia said Harris County — like other municipalities that deal with federal law enforcement agencies — is required to comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act signed by President George W. Bush.
But the sheriff noted that Harris County implemented the changes ahead of schedule.
"We stay ahead of the curve, we respect the public's rights, we embrace innovation and best practices, looking for chances to lead to be a model 21st century law enforcement agency," he said.
According to the sheriff's office, the jail currently has about 8,900 inmates, and at least 250 of them, or 2.8 percent, identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. About 225 are housed in an area designated for gay inmates, though not everyone asks to be put there.
The new policy includes a "safe zone project" that will promote a "positive relationship of solidarity" between the sheriff's department and the gay community, according to the document. Members of Garcia's staff will wear an obvious identifier so they can be easily spotted.
The sheriff's department will also have zero tolerance for staff sexual misconduct or sexual harassment toward members of the gay community. Under the policy, violations could result in termination or referral for criminal charges or other action.
Another key section of the policy states that members of the transgender community will be addressed by their chosen name, even if it has not legally been changed, both when spoken to and on their identification bracelets.
Such an issue arose recently at the jail and was one of several things that prompted the department to begin its review, Bernstein said.
That incident involved Nikki Araguz, the transgender widow of a fallen firefighter who was sentenced to 50 days in jail for stealing a Rolex watch off the wrist of a woman she met in a bar. Araguz had previously been in jail, but had been booked as Justin Purdue. Because the name Justin was attached to her fingerprints in the computer system, the officers booking her initially refused to put the name Nikki Araguz on her wristband, Bernstein said. Higher level officers in the department made "ad hoc adjustments" so Araguz's wristband could accurately reflect her name.
Because Araguz had undergone surgery, she was housed with the women when she returned to jail. But under the new policy, even if she hadn't had the operation she could still have been housed with the women, Bernstein said.
To fully implement the new rules, the sheriff's office will train and certify about 80 staff members to be "gender classification specialists" authorized to hold discussions with inmates about gender issues, Bernstein said. It is unclear how long it will take to be fully staffed for the task, he added, but he called it a "top priority."
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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press