North Carolina

Civil rights group threatens lawsuit if transgender inmate isn’t moved to a women’s prison

The ACLU of North Carolina has asked the state to transfer a transgender female inmate to a women’s prison, threatening a lawsuit if her safety and “systematic humiliation” are not addressed.

In a March 5 letter to the Department of Public Safety, the civil rights group cites ongoing risks to Kanautica Zayre-Brown’s health while she is confined to Harnett Correctional Institution in Lillington, where she sleeps, bathes and dresses around men despite having had male-to-female surgery.

The ACLU notes that Zayre-Brown’s requests to be placed in all-female confinement have been denied, and the group promises legal action if discussions on a remedy do not start by April 1.

“Every day she is housed among men, forced to shower in group showers for men, and subjected to the constant indignities and threats to her health and safety that come with being stripped of her core identity,” said the letter, signed by Sneha Shah, staff attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. “These gross violations of Mrs. Zayre-Brown’s constitutional rights are putting her at great risk of serious harm.”

DPS spokesman Jerry Higgins said the department received the letter Tuesday and is reviewing it.

In an interview at the prison last month, Zayre-Brown told The News & Observer the state recognizes her as a male and by her birth name, Kevin Chestnut, which she legally changed. She lives among male prisoners despite having had her breasts augmented and male genitalia removed. She said she has been issued men’s undergarments and was initially denied hormone treatment.

At 37, she said she regrets her crimes and has braced herself for a sentence of up to 9 years and 11 months for her conviction on charges of insurance fraud and obtaining property by false pretenses.

“I understand I’m in prison,” Zayre-Brown said in February. “I just want fairness.”

She and her husband Dionne Brown fear she will be assaulted, a risk the ACLU argues is heightened because Zayre-Brown is not permitted to wear pants to bed.

In its letter, the ACLU said the state has rejected Zayre-Brown’s requests as recently as January, partially because it believed she had not completed gender assignment surgery and partly because it considered her male “despite what she was thinking in her head.” Zayre-Brown said her only remaining surgery is cosmetic.

The ACLU also said in its letter that Zayre-Brown is subjected to searches by male correctional officers and that a nurse has threatened to “thwart her transfer and medical treatment, citing her religious beliefs as authority.”

In 2015, a survey of 28,000 people conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality showed 2 percent of the transgender population had been held in prison, jail or juvenile detention within the last year. Of that group, 30 percent reported being physically or sexually assaulted by inmates or staff.

Last year, a transgender woman in Illinois won a yearlong legal fight and was transferred to a women’s prison after numerous assaults left her feeling like a “sex slave,” the Chicago Tribune reported.

Keeping Zayre-Brown confined along with men violates the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, which protects transgender prisoners as highly vulnerable, the ACLU argued.

“DPS need not await tragedy to respond to the dire needs of transgender prisoners in its care,” the letter said. “Ms. Zayre-Brown is facing escalating distress and fears for her safety.”

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Josh Shaffer covers Wake County and federal courts. He has been a reporter for The News & Observer since 2004 and previously wrote a column about unusual people and places.