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Statewide View: It's dangerous to be trans in prison

From the column: "She is not being treated as a woman. She is housed with men. She is regularly exposed to abuse. She faces a much greater likelihood of violence and mistreatment than cisgender people."

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Christina Lusk
Contributed / Gender Justice
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Minnesota passed the Minnesota Human Rights Act in 1973, and it is a remarkable achievement, providing more comprehensive anti-discrimination protection than the federal government. In 1993, the Minnesota Legislature amended the act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation.” Its definition of “sexual orientation” made it the nation's first state civil rights law to protect transgender people from discrimination.

The situation of Christina Lusk violates this protection (“Transgender inmate at Minnesota men's prison sues for discrimination,” June 10).

Ms. Lusk is a 56-year-old transgender woman, a gender identity she has publicly acknowledged for the past 14 years, including through taking hormones and changing her name and identifiers on official documents.

In 2019, she was convicted of a first-degree drug possession charge and received a five-year prison term, with release set for 2024. She was sentenced for incarceration at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Moose Lake, which houses 1,000 men.

A thousand men — and Ms. Christina Lusk.

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She filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights in 2020, alleging that prison staff housed her in a room with seven men, required her to change her clothes and use the bathroom with men, and called her by her former name, what is known as “dead-naming.”

The Department of Corrections has refused to transfer her to the women’s prison in Shakopee, Minnesota.

She has now filed a lawsuit against the Minnesota Department of Corrections, charging discrimination based on gender identity. She is not being treated as a woman. She is housed with men. She is regularly exposed to abuse. She faces a much greater likelihood of violence and mistreatment than cisgender people.

The Department of Corrections told Minnesota Public Radio that it's "committed to ensuring the safety and well-being" of transgender people. It has a Transgender Committee that makes recommendations on where inmates are placed. Lusk’s lawsuit alleges that the committee repeatedly declined her requests without explanation.

The Prison Policy Initiative, a national nonpartisan organization, reports that about 5,000 transgender persons are incarcerated in state prisons throughout the U.S. An investigation by NBC News in 2020 found that, “Transgender prisoners are almost never housed according to their identity. That’s putting many in danger.”

NBC studied 78 transgender women housed with more than 3,000 men at a facility in California. The women who were interviewed reported the same dangerous experiences as in similar cases in New York.

As NBC found, federal law requires state prisons to ask transgender prisoners where they would feel safest and then to evaluate, on a case-by-case basis, whether to house transgender prisoners with men or women. The NBC News investigation, “based on dozens of documents received through public records requests and interviews with 18 current and former transgender prisoners, as well as researchers and advocates, found that nearly all transgender prisoners across the U.S. are housed according to their sex at birth, not their gender identity.”

The result is danger to those incarcerated transgender prisoners.

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The Prison Rape Elimination Act, signed into law in 2003, contains several protections for transgender inmates: that prison administration understands key definitions of “transgender,” that inmates are provided with the appropriate classification and housing, and that they are kept safe from victimization by other inmates and staff.

Christina Lusk is protected by both Minnesota’s laws and by the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003. Those legal protections appear to be violated by the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

Tara Kalar is an adjunct professor and Ellen J. Kennedy is executive director of World Without Genocide (worldwithoutgenocide.org) at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul.

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