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Transgender Protesters Allege Discrimination at Miami Jails

Left to right: Christian Pallidine, Gabriela Amaya Cruz, and Jae Bucci were arrested and processed last year at Miami's Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center, where they say they were discriminated against because they're transgender.EXPAND
Left to right: Christian Pallidine, Gabriela Amaya Cruz, and Jae Bucci were arrested and processed last year at Miami's Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center, where they say they were discriminated against because they're transgender.
Photos by Sonia Revell and Emely Virta/Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund
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Three transgender protesters who were arrested last year and taken to the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center (TGK) in Miami-Dade County say they faced gender discrimination and severe mistreatment from officers. Now represented by a host of nonprofit advocacy groups, the three are seeking an overhaul of jail policies and compensation for their experiences.

Christian Pallidine, Gabriela Amaya Cruz, and Jae Bucci were arrested at separate Black Lives Matter protests in Miami last summer and detained at TGK, where they allege that officers with the Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Department (MDCR) subjected them to genital inspections and humiliation because of their gender identities.

In an April 28 letter to County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, lawyers from the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Harvard Law School LGBTQ+ Advocacy Clinic asked the mayor to enter into a structured negotiation, an alternative to a lawsuit wherein both parties try to resolve a claim without going to court. The advocacy groups want to discuss holding the officers responsible for violating MDCR's own policies on transgender people.

Although MDCR has a policy that outlines procedures for how staff members are to handle transgender people who are jailed, the advocacy groups argue that staff members aren't following them.

"[E]ven in those areas where the language of the policies may be adequate, our clients' experiences and our subsequent investigation make clear that MDCR staff, including supervisory personnel, do not follow the policies and are not held accountable for misconduct," the groups wrote.

According to the letter, MDCR conducted an internal affairs investigation into the incidents and found no misconduct on the part of the officers.

In accordance with federal law, MDCR staff members are not allowed to frisk or strip-search transgender inmates to determine their gender. But two of the protesters represented by the advocacy groups allege that MDCR staff violated that procedure when they arrived at TGK.

Pallidine, a transgender man, was arrested while attending a protest in downtown Miami on May 31, 2020, and charged with a curfew violation, although the charge was later dismissed. Pallidine alleges that he was forced to strip in front of four officers and made to display his genitals after he told staff he was trans; he also says he was not asked which gender of officer he was comfortable being searched by. He was then taken to a separate room with a nurse to conduct a second strip-search. After he asked to speak to a lawyer, medical staff didn't conduct the second search.

Pallidine also alleges that when he informed staff that he was a trans man, he was asked invasive questions, such as whether he wanted a penis in the future and whether he was a "hermaphrodite" — a term that's considered a slur for intersex people who are born with sexual anatomies that don't fit the binary of male or female.

Bucci, a transgender woman, was arrested at a Black Trans Lives Matter protest on July 19 for obstructing traffic, a charge that was later dropped. Taken to TGK, Bucci was originally processed as female. But when she was asked to change clothes and officers learned she was a trans woman, Bucci alleges, MDCR staff rebooked her as a male and referred to her by male pronouns, despite her ID, which identifies her as female.

Bucci says she was then made to strip in front of four officers, although cisgender protesters who were arrested with her were not strip-searched. An incident report noted that "Inmate Bucci was strip-searched in the presence of Charge Nurse A. Komninakis, identifying the gender," seemingly in violation of MDCR's own policy.

"I was moved to the male section of the jail and forced to an illegal strip-search in front of several officers," Bucci said at an April 28 Zoom press conference about the incident. "They tugged at my piercings, drawing blood, and forcibly tried to remove my hair, assuming it to be a wig."

While staff members are not allowed to strip-search trans inmates to determine their gender, the policy states that inmates are to be taken to medical staff for a physical examination "if for any reason a determination cannot be rendered regarding whether the inmate is transgender." In an 18-page memo outlining their issues with MDCR policy, the advocacy groups assert that a person's self-report of their gender identity should be enough for a determination and that a "physical examination" is merely a euphemism for "strip-search."

According to the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which sets standards for prison regulations regarding transgender people, searches and physical examinations may not be undertaken for the sole purpose of determining a transgender or intersex inmate's "genital status."

"As noted in PREA Standards...if an inmate's, resident's or detainee's genital status is unknown, an agency can determine it through conversations with the inmate/resident/detainee, by reviewing medical records, or, if necessary, by learning that information as part of a broader medical examination conducted in private by a medical practitioner," the National PREA Resource Center says.

MDCR's policy previously stated that transgender inmates are to be searched by officers with the same "external genitalia." That portion of the policy was amended by a 2017 memorandum that staff should consider an inmate's gender identity and preference to be searched by male or female officers for privacy or safety reasons.

But, as the advocacy groups point out in their memo, another county policy seems to contradict that.

MDCR's strip- and frisk-search procedures, provided to New Times in response to a public-records request, still state that transgender inmates are to be searched by male or female officers based on their genitals rather than their self-professed identity and comfort preference.

"Inmates that self-identify as being hermaphrodite, intersexed, or transgendered shall also be examined to determine their gender identification. The inmate shall be frisk or strip-searched by sworn staff of the same external genitalia as the gender identified by the [medical] staff," the procedure states.

According to the advocates' letter, the searches conducted on Pallidine and Bucci, who were arrested on misdemeanor charges, may have also violated Florida statutes, which prohibit strip searches of people arrested for traffic or misdemeanor offenses.

The MDCR policy also states that staff members are to call transgender people by their last names and pronouns consistent with their gender identity.

Bucci and Amaya Cruz claim that officers violated that provision by repeatedly misgendering them in front of staff and other inmates. Amaya Cruz, a transgender woman who was arrested alongside Bucci on July 19, alleges that officers repeatedly referred to her by her deadname because her ID had not been updated with her correct gender markers. Although she was originally placed with women, Amaya Cruz says, she was moved to the men's area when they discovered she was transgender.

When officers went to pat and frisk Amaya Cruz, she asked to be searched by a female officer but says her request was refused.

"They told me I was being difficult and I wasn't complying with the standards," Amaya Cruz said at the press conference. "The police officer said, 'He's a man, he's a man, he's saying he's a woman, but he's a man. He has a dick still.'"

Bucci and Amaya Cruz claim they were forced to wear men's clothing while housed at TGK and when they were released. Bucci says the men's T-shirt revealed her breasts and nipples while she was in the presence of male inmates. Amaya Cruz says an officer forbade her to wear her own clothes when she left the detention center because the officer would feel "embarrassed," so Amaya Cruz was forced to wear men's clothes. (According to MDCR procedures, people released from custody are given release garments, or "scrubs," in exchange for their county-owned uniforms.)

The advocacy groups have called on Cava to sit down with them and negotiate revisions to MDCR's policies. They want to ensure that transgender inmates are not subject to strip-searches and physical examinations solely because of their gender identity, and that MDCR staffers abide by a trans person's gender identity when electing male or female officers to conduct searches for valid security reasons. They also want to see more accountability for MDCR staff who violate established policies regarding transgender people.

Additionally, they are calling for a change in placement procedures. Current policy states that transgender inmates may be classified and housed based on availability, safety concerns, and gender identity. The groups argue that a transgender person is most capable of determining which housing assignment would be safest for them to avoid harm or harassment from other inmates.

Under best practices set by PREA a transgender or intersex inmate's own views about their safety should be given serious consideration. By not including that consideration in MDCR policies, the advocacy groups say, the county is violating federal law.

Finally, the lawyers for the three protesters say they are entitled to monetary compensation. Alejandra Caraballo, a staff attorney for the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York, says it's possible for the county and the plaintiffs to come to an agreement on compensation outside of a lawsuit.

"We do believe our clients are entitled to proper compensation for the terrible treatment they received at TGK, and it's not abnormal to seek that in a structured negotiation," Caraballo tells New Times.

Caraballo says the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund has spoken with people in Miami's transgender and nonbinary community who have been arrested and found their stories to be consistent with what Pallidine, Amaya Cruz, and Bucci allege.

Transgender people across the nation often report being harassed and mistreated by law enforcement. According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 65 percent of transgender respondents in Florida said they experienced some form of mistreatment from law enforcement officers who knew they were trans, including misgendering, physical and sexual assault, and verbal harassment.

"Our goal is ultimately to change the way TGK and MDCR treat trans people in custody," Caraballo says.

The groups gave Cava an open invitation to sit and negotiate with them by May 19. As of now, a Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund spokesperson tells New Times the mayor's office has not yet scheduled a meeting.

In an email to New Times last month, Cava said that her team is investigating the allegations outlined in the letter and that she is consulting with Miami-Dade County's LGBTQ Advisory Board to review MDCR's policies.

"I am firmly committed to protecting the rights of the transgender community and of all LGBTQ people, and my administration takes any such allegations of mistreatment based on gender status extremely seriously. What is alleged in the letter is deeply disturbing and doesn't reflect our commitment to ensuring the wellbeing of all Miami-Dade residents and visitors regardless of race, sex, gender identity, gender expression, or any other protected classification," Cava said.

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