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Advocates Fight Texas Statute Delaying Transgender Prisoners’ Ability to Change Their Names

Graphic promoting Trans Pride Initiative’s campaign to expanding access to affirming name and gender corrections in Texas

Advocates Fight Texas Statute Delaying Transgender Prisoners’ Ability to Change Their Names

Marius Mason is a transgender man incarcerated at FMC Carswell, a federal women’s prison located in Fort Worth, Texas. Since at least 2014, Mason has wanted to change his legal name to his chosen name, an important step in the transition process for many transgender people.

Section 45.103 of the Texas Family Code, however, prevents anyone in Texas with a felony conviction from changing their legal name until two years after completing all of the terms of their sentence. For Mason, whose expected release date according to the federal Bureau of Prisons is October 2027, that means being forced to answer to his legal name whenever he uses the phone, receives a letter, or is called by correctional officers over the intercom which he says exacerbates the gender dysphoria he struggles with every day.

It’s a statute that advocates have recently set out to change. On March 28, the Texas-based Trans Pride Initiative, along with the Austin Community Law Center and New York City-based civil rights attorney Moira Meltzer-Cohen, announced their intention to challenge the constitutionality of Section 45.103, which they say violates the rights of transgender inmates. The lawsuit will be filed in federal court in Texas on behalf of Mason and two other transgender prisoners housed in federal facilities in Texas.

“For transgender persons, [this statute] extends the term of their sentence by two more years, and places cruel and unnecessary barriers in the way of gaining stability on release,” Nell Gaither, president of the Trans Pride Initiative, said in a statement. “We need to eliminate barriers for trans persons trying to survive, not make issues harder by tacking on additional punishment.”

Advocates argue that denying trans people the right to change their legal name, or the gender marker on their identity documents, poses substantial barriers to their safety and well-being. For currently incarcerated trans people, the continued use of their birth name by guards and other prison officials may contribute to a climate of violence and harassment. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one-third of trans prisoners have experienced sexual violence while incarcerated, the highest rate of any demographic group studied.

Subsection 103 of the Texas Family Code also impedes trans people from re-integrating into society once they’re released. Trans people who do not have identification that matches their chosen name or gender identity may encounter significant difficulties with law enforcement if, for example, they are asked to present a driver’s license during a traffic stop. And trans persons who are unable to change their identity documents may be forcibly outed when engaging in activities crucial to their survival, such as renting an apartment or accessing medical care.

The prohibition on name changes in the Texas Family Code may also violate a prisoner’s right to medical care by impeding access to a healthcare necessity. In a policy statement, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health maintains that the ability of transgender people to change their name or gender marker on their identity documents is medically necessary.

“According to the medical research done with trans people both in and out of institutional settings, the effects of having a legal names that do not reflect trans people’s gender identities are deeply detrimental,” Ronica Mukerjee, a family nurse practitioner and director of the New York-based Transgender Health Services for Community Healthcare Network, told The Appealin an email. “In order to avoid suffering and cruelty, which clearly lead to anxiety, depression as well as suicidal ideation and attempts, trans prisoners should always be allowed to use a name that reflects their true gender identity.” Similarly, a recent Journal of Adolescent Health study found that transgender youth who were able to use their name in most facets of their everyday lives experienced 71 percent fewer symptoms of depression and a 65 percent decrease in suicide attempts.

“The issue is not that being trans is a mental health risk or condition,” civil rights attorney Meltzer-Cohen told In Justice Today in an email, “but that the lack of access to gender affirmation can give rise to mental health problems where none would otherwise exist.”

Courts are increasingly recognizing that transgender people have a constitutional right to gender-affirming care. In April 2015, Jon Tigar, a federal judge in the Northern District of California, ruled that the state violated the Eighth Amendment right to medical care of transgender prisoner Michelle Norsworthy by refusing to provide her with sex reassignment surgery. California has since begun to offer gender-affirming surgeries to incarcerated people.

The organizations and attorneys seeking to overturn Section 45.103 have dubbed their effort Project 103 and are currently fundraising to cover the estimated $5,000 that will be necessary to cover court-filing fees and other related costs. As the initiative gets off the ground, Mason waits for the day when he is no longer referred to by his birth name.

“[M]y old [name] reminds me every day of the person that I am not anymore,” Mason said in a statement released by Project 103, “and it feels false and humiliating to be constantly reminded that society does not see me as the man I want to be. It feels cruel to me to force me to live in this way.”

Police Killed Saheed Vassell in a Gentrifying Neighborhood. Did That Make a Difference?

Eric Vassell, Saheed Vassell’s father, makes an appearance at a rally in protest of the police-involved shooting death of his son Saheed Vassell, in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Drew Angerer / Getty

Police Killed Saheed Vassell in a Gentrifying Neighborhood. Did That Make a Difference?

Last week, the night after Saheed Vassell was shot and killed by the NYPD, a large crowd gathered for a vigil and a speak-out on the Brooklyn street corner where Vassell died. Several of the speakers asked rhetorically who called 911, summoning the police who shot him. As reporting in the New York Times showed, many of Vassell’s neighbors in Crown Heights were familiar with him. They knew he was harmless and that he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. So, was it newcomers to the neighborhood who called the police that day?

The three 911 call transcripts do not provide many clues, and the NYPD does not release identifying information about 911 callers. One caller sounds like a laundromat employee or owner. While it is hard to know in this case if gentrifiers were among the three callers, the aggregate trend is clearer: Calls to the NYPD are higher in gentrifying neighborhoods, and Vassell’s neighborhood was gentrifying.

Requests for service provide one window into this trend. While New York City does not release data on emergency calls, it does release data on non-emergency calls to the NYPD made via 311. These include complaints about noise, drinking, drug activity, urinating in public, and illegal parking.

Last year, the NYPD received 319 non-emergency complaints from the typical neighborhood. The median gentrifying neighborhood, however, generated 386 complaints, and Saheed Vassell’s neighborhood generated 451. As with emergency call data, the identities of 311 callers are not known. But, as these numbers show, as more middle-class, credentialed, and white residents move into New York City’s formerly working-class areas, calls to the police increase.

Saheed Vassell’s Brooklyn neighborhood was, by any metric, gentrifying. A common definition of gentrification includes neighborhoods with below-median incomes in a given year and above-median growth in property values and residents with a bachelor’s degree in subsequent years. Vassell’s neighborhood meets these criteria — and then some. In 2009, the typical household there made less than half the city median income according to Census data. Seven years later, in 2016, real estate prices had gone up 30 percent, median monthly rent increased by $170, and the percent of residents with a B.A. rose over 55 percent. The racial composition also changed, with the white population growing from 9 percent to 14 percent of residents.

The map below shows the number of 311 complaints to the NYPD for New York’s 2,000 census tracts. While it is clear that gentrification is far from the only trend affecting call differences, some neighborhoods commonly understood to be gentrifying experienced high call volume. These included Long Island City, Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and Crown Heights. Wealthier, whiter, more stable neighborhoods experienced few calls, including most of Staten Island, the Upper West Side, the Upper East Side, and low-density Queens. The north shore of Staten Island, where Eric Garner died from an NYPD chokehold in 2017, is another gentrifying neighborhood that experienced high numbers of complaints to the NYPD.

While gentrification often includes changes in a neighborhood’s class composition and housing prices, ethnoracial differences can prove the most salient. A 2016 study by Joscha Legewie and Merlin Schaeffer found 311 complaints increased in the “fuzzy boundary” areas between racially homogeneous neighborhoods. These “transitional areas” are often where gentrification is most acute.

In the context of neighborhood change, conflicts can arise between newer and long-term residents. The groups might disagree about norms for behavior in public space, about appropriate noise levels or parking etiquette. Racial bias by new, white residents might make them fearful of their Black and Latino neighbors. And new residents, no matter their identity, will be less likely to know their neighbors. Any neighborhood experiencing a frequent churn of residents is likely to be a more anonymous neighborhood.

Besides generating more calls to police, does gentrification affect police behavior? A 2017 study by Ayobami Laniyonu found a strong association between gentrification and increased police stops. In an unpublished study, I found police made, on average, more pedestrian stops of Black and Latino people and fewer stops of white people in New York City when a neighborhood’s white population increased. Instances of police killing unarmed Black people are the tip of an iceberg that includes frequent, lower-level police interactions.

The public conversation around gentrification includes discussion of how it can raise housing prices, displace long-time residents, and reshape neighborhood retail options. In addition to rent hikes, evictions, and coffee shops, gentrification might bring more police activity. And as Saheed Vassell’s death shows, the consequences can be severe.

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A Letter to Jay-Z: Don’t Keep This Promise

Jay-Z speaks at a Grammy Awards gala
Mike Coppola/Getty Images

A Letter to Jay-Z: Don’t Keep This Promise

Dear Jay-Z,

We need to talk. I want to understand how funding your new app, “Promise,” is going to dismantle what you’ve called the “exploitative bail industry.” The Black Youth Project, among others, has rightly criticized the profiteering possibility of Promise. I’m down with liberty and justice for all. And I know you are too. So let me unpack for you how, even with the best intentions, your app is going to put more people behind bars.

Promise — a new app that “extend[s] the capabilities of community supervision” through intake/assessment, virtual support, and supervision/oversight — fundamentally misunderstands the problem. Promise collects a fee from government agencies to develop individual “Care Plans” and monitor a person’s compliance with the plan. Via smartphone, a person under supervision can check in to locations, receive calendar reminders for appointments and court dates, as well as be monitored via GPS. All information collected digitally is then provided to the responsible government agency.

The individualized “Care Plan” referrals for “job training, housing, and counseling” sound great, if these programs actually existed in sufficient numbers. The problem is not that people can’t find these programs — it is that these programs hardly exist and those that do exist are often oversubscribed. We would love to see more investment in the people and programs dealing with the leading causes of incarceration, such as substance use, mental illness, homelessness, unresolved trauma, and unemployment. How will your new project support and expand these critical programs?

Image from the Promise website

Second, your developers don’t seem to understand how the criminal justice system works on the ground. I get that you want to reduce recidivism by helping people keep appointments, and track the many confusing fees demanded by pretrial supervision. However, many of the different court data systems are entirely offline, or incompatible with other systems. Here in New Orleans (where we have the highest rate of jail incarceration in the nation), we still process people on paper because the court’s computer system can’t “talk” to the jail’s computer system. The Promise app can’t possibly be as comprehensive as it claims, and could in fact sow more confusion.

The shuttered New Orleans House of Detention (1965–2012)

Third, the app conflates people who are being held pretrial, and have not been convicted, with people who have been convicted and are living in the community on probation or parole, by offering the same tools for both populations. The danger here is that the government may start requiring of pretrial participants what is currently demanded of those who have been convicted — such as monitoring or program participation — because those tools are available through the app for all participants, whether they are convicted or not. Additional conditions expose people on pretrial release to further sanctions if they fail and in some cases, the conditions can be just as punitive as being detained in jail pre-trial. For people on probation or parole, the app doesn’t appear to distinguish between technical violations, such as missing an appointment because the buses stopped running during a flash-flood, and new criminal activity. The app simply records compliance or non-compliance without local knowledge or insight. Your app may perpetuate or even strengthen “the cycle of incarceration and supervision” for individuals at both the pretrial and probation or parole level.

Signs for our march and rally supporting formerly & currently incarcerated women and girls on December 15, 2017

If it isn’t clear already, I don’t think Promise is designed to help us. Tellingly, the Promise website refers to the government as the “client” and the person under supervision as the “participant.” It is designed to help the government control us by providing “real-time location tracking and immediate notification of violations” to government agencies. Why would you help the government find new ways to reliably and cheaply track a person’s day-to-day movements? (See e.g. Facebook and Palantir data collection/mining systems). Promise is part of a technological approach to old practices of mass incarceration that have never worked in favor of Black, Brown, and poor white people.

The government has never needed investors to create systems of control. Electronic monitoring has been used to expand the prison-industrial complex into our own homes. These “monitored releases” are not an alternative to incarceration, they are incarceration by an alternative means. Electronic monitoring is typically used to put literal shackles on people who should be released on parole or bail. Digital technology has brought us the databases used to discriminate against over 100 million Americans with criminal records, regarding housing, employment, education, volunteering, and voting. Digital controls are the incarceration of the future.

The solution to poor people’s inability to pay bail is not more monitoring, but less bail. We could curb excessive bail, and eliminate it entirely for lesser crimes and misdemeanors. Release on your own recognizance, without money security, should be the starting point for bail decisions. Creating a byzantine system of monitoring and special requirements before someone is convicted actually leads to higher incarceration because even unintentional acts are deemed “violations.” We would welcome your investment in our reform campaigns in Louisiana, the most incarcerated state in the nation.

Baton Rouge Lobby Day for Louisianans for Prison Alternatives, March 27, 2018

We need so much more, though, than the end of the cash bail system. We need infrastructure. We need schools, hospitals, and jobs. We need reliable transportation and access to social services. We need police who are educated, trained, and rewarded for treating us with dignity and respect. We need humane jail and prison conditions. We need sheriffs, judges, and prosecutors who learn about rehabilitation and re-entry from the people who have succeeded and are leaders in the community. We don’t need an app that reinforces the current systems of incarceration or props up a system that profits off of people.

I would love to persuade you to put your money and your time elsewhere. You can’t claim the mantle of “anti-incarceration” by offering to help the government enforce arbitrary rules against us. Supervision is just another word for control. If you want to reduce the number of people in prisons or jails, we need to change the rules. I’ve got ideas for you. We can do this work together.


Andrea Armstrong

Professor of Law, Loyola University New Orleans

p.s. Your investment notwithstanding, you will always have my deep appreciation for “99 Problems,” which I use to teach my students the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment.

* Thanks to Bruce Reilly, Deputy Director of Voice of the Experienced, for his thoughtful comments and suggestions.

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