Photo by Chris Rogers From the cell block door, Winona County Jail Administrator Steve Buswell talked with an inmate last week. Jail staff will take a training about dealing with transgender inmates next month.

Planning for transgender inmates




Jim Parlow is not a typical Winona State University professor. While many of his colleagues spent years building careers in academia, Parlow wore a badge. In a tiny office filled with overflowing bookshelves, the stocky former La Crosse cop talks eagerly about a use of lethal force simulator that made his pre-police and pre-law students think: if forced to make a split-second decision to shoot or not shoot, what would they do? Next month, Parlow will train Winona County Jail staff on how to handle transgender inmates. He is an unlikely champion of the issue.

“I was schooled the old-school way,” Parlow said. “There are boys and girls and that’s it.” Parlow is not transgender himself, but connections with transgender people changed his mind about the issue. Learning more about how genetics may result in people — or animals — that are not strictly male or female and how fetal development may result in babies with female genitalia and masculine minds, opened Parlow’s eyes to the idea that gender is a spectrum. “Science has really brought us out of the Dark Ages of believing that there are only males and females,” he said. 

Transgender people are individuals whose personal identity differs from the gender they were assigned at birth. When many people hear that, “they don’t recognize it’s a real inborn thing that you have to deal with the best way you can when it comes to the surface,” said Winona transgender woman JamieAnn Meyers. “It’s not a choice issue,” Parlow added. Meyers said the only choice she had was whether to embrace her true identity as a woman or suppress it. 

In his new academic career, Parlow has become an expert on how law enforcement and jailers should interact with transgender citizens. He has given trainings to officers across the country, and has offered his expertise to local departments. This winter, Winona County Sheriff Ron Ganrude took him up on the offer. 

Because the current jail is not up to state design standards and the state government is forcing the county to act, Winona County is in the early stages of planning a new jail facility. While county leaders are doing that, they should consider how transgender citizens are treated in a new jail, the Winona Human Rights Commission recommended last fall.

“It needs to be understood,” Winona County Jail Administrator Steve Buswell said of law enforcement and transgender issues. “Whether people agree with it is irrelevant. It needs to be dealt with … There’s no doubt this department wants to handle it in the best way.”

When it comes to law enforcement interactions with transgender citizens, simply respecting transgender identity is a big first step, Parlow said. As an example of what not to do, a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) training video for police officers shows a young officer snickering when he checks a transgender woman’s I.D. and sees that she was born as a man. Parlow talked about an incident where jail staff blared the song “Dude Looks Like a Lady” over and over again at a transgender inmate. Parlow and the DOJ recommended that when officers see that a person’s appearance does not match the sex on their I.D., officers should politely ask them whether they want to be called “sir” or “ma’am.” Parlow gave a training in a nearby Wisconsin county after an officer harassment incident, he said.

Transgender people often use hormone therapy to make their outward appearance match their gender identity. In jail or prison, inmates have sometimes been denied access to hormone treatments and go through involuntary changes. Transgender women may start growing beards. Transgender men may lose their facial hair. “That’s a really horrible thing to inflict on a person,” Meyers said.

Transgender inmates also pose a pretty basic question for jailers. Where should they be housed? In a men’s cell block? In a women’s cell block? It is not just a question of respect and propriety. Transgender inmates are 10 times more likely to be sexually assaulted in local jails than other inmates, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, with around 34 percent of transgender inmates being victimized compared to 3.2 percent of all inmates. How transgender inmates are housed can affect their safety and the safety of other inmates.

Transgender inmates have sometimes been thrown into solitary confinement because jailers do not know where to put them. Research has indicated that prolonged solitary confinement can cause or worsen mental health problems, corrections officials recognize the importance of social interaction to inmates’ health, and U.S. courts have even ruled that prolonged solitary confinement of mentally ill inmates may constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

The 2003 U.S. Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) establishes rules for how jails must handle transgender inmates, and it bars jails from placing transgender inmates into solitary confinement by default. The law does not spell out exactly where transgender inmates should be housed, but requires jail officials to make a case-by-case assessment of what placement would be the safest for the transgender inmate and other inmates. It requires jail officials to take transgender inmates’ preference into consideration, and ultimately, Parlow said, where a transgender inmate should be housed should be decided by a judge. 

Even though PREA does not require it, transgender inmates ought to be housed in a section that corresponds with their gender identity, argued Twin Cities attorney and transgender advocate Ellie Krug in an interview. Under PREA, medical professionals and the transgender inmates themselves are supposed to have a voice in where the inmate is housed, Krug said. Parlow and Buswell said that jail officials have to balance a transgender inmate’s wishes against the concern that they might pose a safety risk to the other inmates with whom they are housed.

Despite all of that encouragement to avoid solitary confinement and carefully consider the safest place to house transgender inmates, at the end of the day, most transgender inmates in small jails will probably be placed in solitary confinement, Parlow said. It is unfortunate, but true, he stated.

Meyers said that the local jail ought to allow transgender inmates to shower, sleep, and use the bathroom alone, but give them chances to interact with other inmates in recreation and programming spaces. The current jail has one small room that acts as a canteen, classroom, library and workout room.

A new jail facility could make a big difference, Buswell said. Jail layout affects how well jailers can supervise inmates. The current jail has a linear design, meaning that cell blocks are located off a long hallway. Jailers walk the hallway every 15 to 30 minutes to check on inmates. There are cameras, too. Some modern jails situate a staff station at the center of a ring of cell blocks — like the hub of a wheel — so that staff can look at all of the cell blocks simply by turning their head. That is called a modular design. Some modern jails and the low-security Winona County Jail annex situate staff in the same room as inmates. That is called direct supervision. Either a modular or direct supervision design could greatly increase the ability of jail staff to monitor and supervise the behavior of inmates and that could go a long way to reducing the risk for abuse and harassment, Buswell said. New jails often allow inmates to go into their cell and close themselves off from the rest of a cell block if they feel unsafe around other inmates, he added.

With the current linear design, Buswell said he would be very reluctant to place a transgender inmate in a cell block with other inmates. “How do you do it in an antiquated facility with limited line of sight? … I’m not saying we’d never do it, but it’d be a poor option,” he stated. In a new facility, with a modular or direct supervision layout, it would still be a case-by-case decision, but if there were not other red flags, a transgender inmate probably could be housed according to their gender identity, said Buswell.

Meyers is not the only transgender person living in Winona, but it is, she and others agreed, a small population. While transgender adults often move to metropolitan areas, university towns will attract a greater diversity of gender identities and there are often transgender youth who grow up in small towns, Krug said. Transgender students at the Winona Senior High School have advocated for themselves through the school's FORTITUDE club. 

As far as Buswell knows, the Winona County Jail has never held a transgender inmate. “We might very well have had [a transgender inmate], but no one came to us and identified as transgender,” he stated. 

The Winona area’s transgender population may be small, but these are still important issues, Parlow and Meyers said. “Yes, it matters,” Meyers said when asked if transgender rights in jails is important in Winona. “Even if it’s one person incarcerated, it matters.” If one person is raped or denied their rights, “it’s wrong,” she said.

“Bottom-line, you’ve got to think this out in advance,” Krug stated. 

Other jails and prisons have been successfully sued for problems in treating transgender inmates and Parlow says learning about the issue can help law enforcement and jails avoid lawsuits. “If you don’t have a policy and procedure on how to do things, people tend to make stuff up and that’s when you get in trouble,” he said.


Transgender ex-inmate speaks at FRFF

CeCe MacDonald, a Minneapolis transgender woman who pled guilty to manslaughter, served time in a men’s prison, became a national advocate for transgender rights, and inspired a character on the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” will give the keynote speech at Winona’s Frozen River Film Festival tomorrow night. MacDonald will speak following a documentary that was made about her at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 16, in the Harriet Johnson Auditorium in Winona State University’s Somsen Hall.

Keep reading the Winona Post for more on Winona County’s jail planning.


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