by Michael Lyle, Nevada Current
Prison officials told lawmakers Tuesday that, in accordance with federal law, they already have policies to maintain the safety of transgender and gender nonconforming people who are incarcerated.
But several people housed within the Nevada Department of Corrections, who provided written testimony about their experiences dealing with abuse by other inmates and staff, said it’s not nearly enough.
“Being transgender in prison is 100 times more difficult because our existence, our stories and our voices are constantly being preyed on without any oversight,” wrote Deidra, who is currently being housed at Lovelock Correctional Center. “Folks assume predators are other inmates. Sometimes they are corrections officers. There is no backing out once you come out as transgender in prison.”
After similar legislation failed in 2021, Democratic state Sen. Melanie Scheible brought back the bill this year to bolster some protections for transgender and gender nonconforming inmates.
Senate Bill 153 had its first hearing Tuesday in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“The bill requires regulations prescribing standards for supervision, custody, care, security, housing, medical and mental health treatment for offenders who are transgender, gender nonconforming, gender nonbinary and intersex within the Nevada Department of Corrections,” she said.
It would be up to the Department of Corrections to write a regulation outlining those standards, which would then need to be approved by the Board of Prison Commissioners.
Board members include Gov. Joe Lombardo, Attorney General Aaron Ford and Secretary of State Cisco Aguilar.
If passed, the department would have until January 2024 to adopt a regulation.
Other state correctional departments, Scheible said, have been sued for “failing to provide adequate protections and care for transgender and gender nonconforming individuals in their care.”
“I don’t want Nevada on that list,” she said.
Adopting policies to protect trans inmates, while also humane, could prevent Nevada from facing costly lawsuits for violating civil rights.
Sy Bernabei, the executive director for Gender Justice Nevada who presented the legislation to the committee alongside Scheible, said federal courts have found that failing to protect trans inmates is a constitutional violation.
“The Federal Bureau of Justice statistics reports that 35% of trans and intersex inmates have reported sexual assault or abuse just in the past year by either another prisoner or staff,” Bernabei said. “That’s just what has been reported.”
The bill would also require cultural competency training for officers.
Bernabei said that sometimes the harm caused to transgender inmates can be unintentional “because of lack of knowledge about trans and intersex people when it comes to language.”
“When bias creeps into these spaces and people believe our very identity is invalid, it means they have license to abuse us or disregard reported abuse in the name of morality,” Bernabei said.
NDOC officials during testimony took a neutral position on the bill, also its position in 2021.
“Since 2013, the Department of Corrections has complied explicitly with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which covers many of the topics, if not all, in the bill,” said Kurt Widmar, the chief of NDOC’s offender management division. “The codification of this into state law I believe will support the continued efforts of the department’s compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act.”
Scheible said PREA doesn’t do “enough to capture all of the unique challenges that gender nonbinary and gender nonconforming people face when they are in a correctional setting.”
When questioned by Republican lawmakers about the merits of the bill in light of PREA, she said it’s not uncommon for the legislature to write bills that mirror existing federal law.
“The goal of SB 153 is to make clear in statute our commitment to protecting the same rights and protections of all offenders and to require that our correctional system carry out that commitment,” she said.
Scheible said the legislature has worked to increase protections for the LGBTQ community, particularly trans folks, but “one place we still have work to do is within the Department of Corrections.”