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Facing ACLU deadline, N.C. officials balk on transferring transgender inmate from men’s prison

Kanautica Zayre-Brown in 2017.

Kanautica Zayre-Brown, a transgender woman seeking transfer out of a men’s prison in Lillington, spent much of last month in solitary confinement.

But last week, as the deadline to avoid a lawsuit from the ACLU [2]approached, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety transferred Zayre-Brown from the Harnett County Correctional Institution [3]. Not to a women’s prison, as she and the ACLU had requested, but to the smaller Warren Correctional Institution [4] for men in Warren County, near the Virginia border.

“At Warren, Zayre-Brown is housed in a single cell as opposed to an open dormitory, which has been deemed the most appropriate placement at this time,” said DPS spokesman John Bull in a statement Monday. “Prisons has been and will continue diligently conducting research on legal precedent and best practices across the country with an eventual goal of moving Zayre-Brown to a female facility.”

The Department of Public Safety declined to answer questions or comment beyond its statement about Zayre-Brown’s transfer.

That’s not nearly good enough, according to the ACLU.

“Kanautica is a woman,” said Molly Rivera, spokesperson for the ACLU of North Carolina [5]. “Moving her to another men’s facility does not ensure her health, safety, or dignity. We will keep fighting for Kanautica until she is moved to a women’s facility.”

Rivera said the ACLU’s legal staff was reviewing next steps.

Zayre-Brown is a 37-year-old transgender woman serving a sentence for insurance fraud and obtaining property by false pretenses. She says she has accepted her sentence but should not have to serve it among male prisoners where she fears for her safety and her gender identity is not acknowledged.

Gender transition is not the same for everyone. Zayre-Brown identified as female from childhood and began actively transitioning in 2010, undergoing hormone therapy to treat gender dysphoria [6]. Though many transgender people elect not to have any surgical procedures related to their transition, she has had her breasts augmented and genitals altered as part of gender confirmation surgery. She also legally changed her name.

Despite this, after her arrest in 2017, she was held in a series of all-male facilities.

Initially, she was held in the men’s ward of the Wake County Jail’s medical unit while she was still recovering from a surgery. She was later transferred to Craven County Detention Center, where her request for transfer to the North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women was denied. She was told DPS makes prison assignments based on gender assigned at birth, according to the ACLU.

That would prevent her from being transferred to a women’s prison even if her gender marker were legally changed.

At Harnett County Correctional Institute, she was made to shower and sleep and use the toilets with men. She was not allowed women’s undergarments and was not allowed to sleep with pants on. The staff would not refer to her by her legally changed female name or acknowledge her as female, said the ACLU.

At several points during her confinement, the ACLU said, Zayre-Brown was not given access to hormone therapy she needed which caused her adverse physical and psychological effects.

Fearing she would be assaulted or raped, Zayre-Brown and her husband, Dionne Brown, continued to push for transfer from Harnett Correctional. In 2019, she took her case to the facility’s Transgender Accommodation Review Committee or TARC.

According to the letter from the ACLU, one of Ms. Zayre-Brown’s treating providers said she wouldn’t be transferred to a women’s facility – not because of the gender she was assigned at birth, but because she had not “completed reassignment surgery.”

The ACLU letter also quotes Melanie Shelton, the prison’s superintendent of programs, as saying “she did not care what Ms. Zayre Brown ‘was thinking in her head’ about what gender she wanted to be and that she will be treated just like every other ‘male’ housed at Harnett C.I.”

Reached by phone this week, Shelton declined to answer any questions about the case.

The Department of Public Safety’s espoused understanding of transition isn’t based in medical science, said medical experts who treat transgender people in the state.

Dr. Deanna Adkins is a pediatric endocrinologist who helped establish Duke Child and Adolescent Gender Care at Duke University Hospital [7] last year. With more than 300 transgender patients now being treated at her clinic, Adkins is one of the most widely-sought medical experts on the issue in the state.

“It’s very frustrating,” Adkins said. “The government is saying they can’t possibly be transgender if they haven’t ‘completed’ their transition by having a surgery — and many of these surgeries are not available because they’ve been excluded from coverage in their health policies. [8]

Talking about transition only in the way in which it relates to surgery is not a scientific conversation, Adkins said. Those who work with transgender patients recognize that the issue is much more complicated.

“Everyone’s path is different,” Adkins said. “Your path may wander many different ways compared to other people. You may take different roads. You may take the hormone split when you’re 17, the top surgery split when you’re 20.  But everyone’s path is different along the way. Peoples’ lives change, surgeries change — how do we tell these people they can’t be transgender unless they have certain surgeries and have certain surgeries right now?”

Last month, spokespeople for Gov. Roy Cooper said he was working with DPS Secretary Erik Hooks to resolve Zayre-Brown’s case and make sure similar cases don’t arise in the future.

“Kanautica is a North Carolinian,” said Jeremy Collins, Cooper’s director of community engagement. “She’s a family member, a community member. She’s a sister, a family member to all of us. We take that seriously. We want her safety.”

Those pushing for Zayre-Brown’s transfer said that promise has yet to be fulfilled.

“Gov. Cooper, your ‘family member’ Kanautica Zayre-Brown spent 17 more days in solitary confinement after you made this statement of support,” said Tommi Hayes, an activist and gender non-binary person who spoke at an event outside Cooper’s office on Monday.

North Carolina lawmakers and LGBTQ advocates have also expressed their frustration.

State Rep. Allison Dahle (D-Wake) said she called the governor’s office and prison officials when she heard about Zayre-Brown’s case. She learned there were no transgender people on the Transgender Accommodation Review Committee. There is a definite lack of understanding around transgender issues among some of those involved in making decisions, she said.

“It is disappointing to have somebody in prison and in prison in the wrong prison,” Dahle said.

“We have to allow some grace, but not a lot, for people who don’t think through every eventuality,” Dahle said. “But we don’t have to allow them a lot of grace. I’m not going to allow them too much grace.”

Kendra Johnson, executive director of LGBTQ advocacy group Equality NC, said she has to “respectfully disagree.”

“Transgender people have been incarcerated in this country for as long as we have had prison facilities,” Johnson said. “We can do better than this. It’s something that can be fixed. There were guidelines that were set forth previously. This is something that’s completely unnecessary and it shouldn’t at all be a political fight.”

“The DPS has the power to do the right thing,” Johnson said. “And to put Kanautica and six or seven other women into the correct facilities, if nothing else for their own protection, I would hope that folks would do the right thing, but we haven’t had a great track record on that happening.”