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State will transfer transgender prisoner to women’s prison

Kanautica Zayre-Brown

The North Carolina Department of Public Safety will transfer Kanautica Zayre-Brown, a transgender woman it is holding in a men’s prison, to a women’s facility.

The department, which has for months been under public and legal pressure to make the transfer, announced its decision in a Friday afternoon letter to the ACLU of North Carolina, which is representing Zayre-Brown.

The transfer will happen by August 22, according to the letter. That will give the department time to “continue researching and implementing best practices from the states that have transferred transgender women to female facilities,” according to the letter. The department did not specify to which facility it will transfer Zayre-Brown, but said it will be revising policies and giving staff training on those best practices.

Zayre-Brown is a 37-year-old transgender woman serving a sentence for insurance fraud and obtaining property by false pretenses. She says she has accepted her sentence but should not have to serve it among male prisoners where she fears for her safety and her gender identity is not acknowledged.

Gender transition is not the same for everyone. Zayre-Brown identified as female from childhood and began actively transitioning in 2010, undergoing hormone therapy to treat gender dysphoria. Though many transgender people elect not to have any surgical procedures related to their transition, she has had her breasts augmented and genitals altered as part of gender confirmation surgery. She also legally changed her name.

Despite this, since her arrest in 2017, she has been held in a series of all-male facilities where she has had to sleep and shower with men. Prison staff would not refer to her by her legally changed female name or acknowledge her as female, said the ACLU.

In March, as the deadline to avoid a lawsuit from the ACLU  approached, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety transferred Zayre-Brown from the Harnett County Correctional Institution. Not to a women’s prison, as she and the ACLU had requested, but to the smaller Warren Correctional Institution for men in Warren County, near the Virginia border.

The ACLU and other supporters of Zayre-Brown said that wasn’t good enough, keeping the pressure on for transfer to a women’s facility.

“We are relieved that there is a date by which Ms. Zayre-Brown will be transferred to a prison for women, but this isn’t over,” said Chase Strangio, Staff Attorney for the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project. “Each day that Kanautica is held in a men’s facility is a day that her constitutional rights are violated and her health compromised.”

“We will stay vigilant until she is transferred and then for the rest of her sentence until she is released,” Strangio said. “So many trans women across the country — particularly Black trans women — are funneled into the criminal legal system where they face severe risk of harm once incarcerated. Our community is under attack and we are working to minimize that violence.”

Sneha Shah, the ACLU staff attorney representing Zayre-Brown, said the group will keep fighting to be sure she is transferred as quickly as possible.

“We’re glad that DPS finally agrees that, as a woman, Kanautica belongs in a women’s facility,” said Shah. “It should never have taken this long for officials to recognize that Kanautica’s health, safety, and dignity are all jeopardized by keeping her in a men’s facility.”

The ACLU provided comment from Zayre-Brown Friday afternoon.

“I feel good that there is a plan in place, but I will feel much better when my transfer is finalized,” Zayre-Brown said. “My mental health is still depleting, and I would have broken a long time ago if it weren’t for the community behind me. They give me the strength to keep going.”

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