Trans Woman on 31st Day of Hunger Strike to Protest Housing Conditions in Jail

In the San Francisco County Jail, trans women are currently being housed alone in an area of the men's facility, a move that seemingly violates federal regulations as well as the city's own proposed policies.
July 1, 2016, 4:40pm
Photo by Paul Edmondson via Stocksy

A transgender woman is reportedly on her 31st day of hunger strike in the San Francisco County Jail, in protest of the city's ongoing refusal to house her with other women.

Athena Cadence, a 29-year-old woman of color and combat veteran, has been on hunger strike since June 1 and is refusing to eat until the city agrees to issue a new gender housing policy. In recent months, trans women at the county jail have been housed alone, in a segregated area of a men's re-entry pod, instead of in a women's facility, a move that seemingly violates federal regulations as well as the city's own proposed policies.

"She is weak, but wanting to go forward," said Flor Bermudez, the detention project director at the Transgender Law Project who has been working closely on Cadence's case.

Read more: The Shocking, Painful Trauma of Being a Trans Prisoner in Solitary Confinement

Activists from TGI Justice, a group that advocates for transgender people inside and outside of prisons, have also been supporting Cadence since she went on hunger strike to demand a new housing and search policy in San Francisco's jails. Although Sheriff Vicki Hennessy is reportedly working on such a policy, according to SF Weekly, she has no timetable to implement it.

"Six months into her time in office, Sheriff Vicki Hennessy has repeatedly missed deadlines set by the city and community leaders to implement a policy that respects the safety and gender self-determination of TGI folks held behind bars," the group said on its site.

Cadence's hunger strike comes amidst of series of disappointments for trans activists and their allies working to ensure that trans people can be housed where they feel safest.

In January, newly sworn-in San Francisco Sherriff Vicki Hennessy voiced support for policies proposed by her predecessor, under which trans people would be housed according to their gender identity, not the sex they were assigned at birth. That month, Hennessy told the Bay Area Reporter she aimed to have the policy shift implemented within three months, but the process has been marred by delays.

She is weak, but wanting to go forward.

In March, Eileen Hirst, chief of staff of the San Francisco sheriff department, told the Bay Area Reporter that implementation had been slow "because when [they] got here there had been no work done on any policy around that."

Efforts to enable gender self-determination in prison housing have also been progressing on the federal level, at least on paper. In March, the United States Department of Justice released new guidelines prohibiting jails and prisons from placing prisoners into sex-segregated facilities based solely on their external genital anatomy. The new rule seemingly mandates correctional institutions to take other factors into consideration, including the prisoner's gender identity and their health and safety.

Yet neither the city's proposed housing policy, nor the DOJ's revised regulations, have enabled Cadence or the vast majority of other incarcerated trans women from being housed according to their gender identity or preference. Only a handful of localities, like Denver, have established policies enabling trans people to share where they would prefer to be housed or whether they would prefer male or female guards to search them.

"Unfortunately, Cadence's experiences being denied placement with other women are not unique," said Chase Strangio, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union LGBT & HIV Project. "It seems there are no consequences for automatically assigning trans prisoners to placement based on their genitals and birth-assigned sex, despite some clarification from DOJ that this is impermissible."

The vast majority of jails and prisons either isolate trans people or place them in the general population according to the sex they were assigned at birth—both contexts where trans people can be vulnerable to physical, sexual, or verbal assaults from prisoners or guards.

There have been some improvements for trans women held at the San Francisco County Jail since Hennessy came into office. Before they were transferred into the re-entry pod, transgender women were held in a high-security section of the facility, where they were isolated and had no access to programming. The re-entry pod had been described as an "intermediate" step by the sheriff's office until the new gender housing policy could be put into place.

When asked to explain the delays that prompted Cadence to go on hunger strike, Hirst stressed that creating and implementing the new housing policy would take time. "The complexity of making a change of this nature is pretty daunting, from the moment an individual enters the jail system and [is booked], until they are housed, until they have programs, until they are released."

Read more: Why Are Trans Women Being Sent to Male Prisons?

"This is a change that Sheriff Hennessy is absolutely committed to," Hirst added.

Flor Bermudez is not so sure. "Transgender advocates have been fighting for this policy for years," she said when asked about the sheriff's explanation for the delays. "Sheriff Hennessy met with us in early January and promised that things would be expedited and happen rather quickly. Here we are six months later, and they have not happened."

As Cadence moves into the second month of her hunger strike, she has been placed in co-ed medical facility, where her health is being closely monitored, according to Hirst.

Advocates at TGI Justice have also called for transgender, gender variant, and intersex people to be released on their own recognizance until the sheriff's office can bring the proposed policies on gender housing into force—a decision that would have to be made by a judge.

Meanwhile, for the 31st day in her act of resistance, Cadence continues to refuse food.

Said Bermudez, "She is determined to continue until the changes she has requested happen."