Cooper administration addresses treatment of transgender prisoner
A transgender woman being held in a men’s prison will get assistance from N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper, who will work to improve the safety of her confinement and make sure it “never happens again,” an aide said Friday.
More than a dozen advocates gathered at Cooper’s office at the Capitol on Friday demanding that Kanautica Zayre-Brown be transferred to a women’s prison. They expressed outrage that she had been placed in solitary confinement at Harnett Correctional in Lillington for nearly a week since her story gained more media attention.
Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Pam Walker clarified Friday that Zayre-Brown has been placed in restrictive housing, a single cell rather than the usual dormitory style, but for disciplinary reasons that are unresolved.
Cooper was not present to receive the letter, signed by more than 400 people and groups, but Jeremy Collins, his director of community engagement, said the governor has contacted Department of Public Safety Director Erik Hooks about a remedy for transgender prisoners.
“Kanautica is a North Carolinian,” Collins said. “She’s a family member. She’s a community member. She’s a sister, a family member to all of us. We take that seriously. We want her safety.”
In 2017, Zayre-Brown had the last of several surgeries changing from male to female. That same year, she went to prison as a habitual felon, convicted of insurance fraud and obtaining property by false pretenses.
Now 37, she admits her crimes and has braced herself for a sentence of up to 9 years and 11 months. But she has repeatedly requested, and so far been denied, housing at a women’s prison, sleeping instead on a bunk in a dorm for 38 men.
In an interview last month, Zayre-Brown said she had to fight to receive hormone treatments, and she showers and dresses among male inmates and is issued men’s undergarments. The state recognizes her as male and refers to her by her birth name, Kevin Chestnut, which she had legally changed.
Zayre-Brown has not been assaulted in prison but said she and her husband Dionne Brown fear it constantly.
The ACLU of North Carolina has written Director of Prisons Kenneth Lassiter requesting a transfer and promising legal action if the state does not respond by April 1.
“Kanautica Zayre-Brown is a woman,” ACLU attorney Sneha Shah said at the Capitol on Friday. “She is a woman who has spoken to me personally about the fear she feels everyday. ... Transfer Kanautica now, give her the medical treatment that is necessary or we will see you in court.”
At least six other transgender women are serving their sentences at Harnett Correctional, said Serena Sebring, regional organizing manager for Southerners on New Ground. She asked Collins to tell the governor that Zayre-Brown has been housed in solitary confinement since Saturday.
“It appears to be retaliatory,” Sebring said. “We consider this to be a human rights abuse.”
Collins promised to deliver the message to Cooper.