State struggles with placement of transgender inmate

The status of one transgendered teen in the custody of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF) has triggered questions of both juvenile justice and transgender rights.

The teen, whose name is not being released because she is a minor, spent the past six months in a residential placement facility, a rehabilitative center for juvenile delinquents. Due to her recent violent behavior within the facility, the teen has been transferred to an adult women’s correctional facility while the state weighs whether to transfer her case to the state Department of Corrections (DOC), which handles adult offenders, and what type of facility should house the teen.

Adult correctional facilities historically separate inmates by gender based on their biological sex, rather than by the gender with which they identify. Accordingly, the DOC originally petitioned to place the teen in a male facility, but the court ordered that she be housed at the all-female York Correctional Institution for the time being.

“Allowing anyone to be incarcerated without even being charged with a crime is a frightening precedent in itself,” said Sandra Staub, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut. “When the result is that a transgender teen is housed with adults, the implications are also terrible for children’s rights and transgender rights.”

The DCF filed the motion on Feb. 4 to move the teen from the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, a rehabilitation center for troubled minors. She has been in DCF custody since she was five years old and was first admitted to a juvenile facility as a juvenile delinquent in Nov. 2013. The motion was subsequently granted on April 8, ordering her transfer to York Correctional Institution, a prison for adult women.

The motion is under a statute that allows for the transfer of juveniles who are “dangerous to [themselves] or others or cannot be safely held at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School,” according to court documents. This case marks the second time the statute has been invoked in Connecticut, said James Connolly, the public defender for the case.

The transfer was initiated following an incident at the teen’s previous facility in Massachusetts, where she was involved in an altercation with a staff member that temporarily left that staff member blind. Her record bore multiple other assaults on peers and staff at several programs, according to a written statement from the DCF.

While the teen’s legal team acknowledges the teen’s aggressive nature, they attribute this to past trauma. In an affidavit to the court, the teen details the sexual, physical and emotional abuse that she has experienced. The incident at the Massachusetts facility, for example, was the teen’s response to a male staff member suddenly restraining her from behind, which she misinterpreted due to her past trauma, said Aaron Romano, the teen’s court-appointed attorney.

“She responded to protect herself,” Romano said. “Residential facilities should know more than anyone else that children who have suffered trauma are sensitive.”

The teen is currently being held at York in the mental health unit. Although she is not in solitary confinement, she is not permitted to leave her cell due to laws that keep juveniles in adult prisons out of sight of adult prisoners. In her affidavit, she stated that she can hear the screams of other inmates and cannot sleep at night.

The move to an adult prison has incited outrage among activists, who point out that the teen was not charged with an adult crime and, rather, is being moved to the adult prison due to a lack of the right facilities to treat her. Additionally, when making her initial plea as a juvenile delinquent, she was told that her maximum sentence would only be at a juvenile residential facility, not an adult prison, Connolly said.

“We’re punishing a victim,” said Abby Anderson, executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance.

The original motion for transfer called for a move from the teen’s juvenile residential facility to the Manson Youth Institution, a high-security male facility for juvenile offenders. The counsel for the DOC has stated that there are currently no plans to move the youth to Manson, but there is still some chance that she will be placed in a male prison, Connolly said.

The teen is receiving hormone treatment to develop female features and fears that she would be physically harmed in a male institution, according to her affidavit.  Her gender identity has contributed to her alienation in the prison system, Romano said.

“[The original motion to transfer to an adult facility] was filed because of her transgender status,” Connolly said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that, if she were identifying as male, she would be at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School now.”

The teen’s legal team now aims to facilitate her removal from York and move her into a different, more appropriate facility. One appealing possibility is the recently constructed institution at Solnit South, Connolly said. This residential center was built to house aggressive or assaultive girls.

As of April 1, Connecticut prisons house 16,568 prisoners.

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