Groups press governor to transfer transgender woman from men’s prison

Activists, human rights groups and LGBTQ community members gathered outside Gov. Roy Cooper’s office Friday morning to demand the transfer of a transgender woman from a men’s prison in Harnett County.

Kanautica Zayre-Brown has been in solitary confinement since Saturday, in the aftermath of her case getting wider public attention.

This week the ACLU of North Carolina sent a letter to the Department of Public Safety threatening to sue if a resolution to Zayre-Brown’s

case is not reached by the end of this month.

Sneha Shah, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, was on hand as a group met outside the governor’s office Monday morning.

She said those responsible for Zayre-Brown’s confinement must transfer her to a women’s facility and give her the medical treatment she needs. If not, she said, “we will see them in court.”

The governor did not meet with the group, which was not allowed to enter the building. Jeremy Collins, Cooper’s director of community engagement, met with them and received their letter, which was signed by more than 400 people and organizations.

Jeremy Collins, director of engagement for Gov. Roy Cooper, met with activists outside the governor’s office Friday.

Collins told the group Cooper is working with Erik Hooks, Secretary of the Department of Public Safety, to resolve Zayre-Brown’s case and make sure similar cases don’t arise in the future.

“Kanautica is a North Carolinian,” Collins told the group. “She’s a family member, a community member. She’s a sister – a family member to all of us. We take that seriously. We want her safety.”

Collins said he wanted the group to know their voices are being heard by the governor on his issue.

“Your protest, your signs, your strident persistence is necessary,” Collins said. “I’m glad you’re here.”

Zayre-Brown is a 37-year-old transgender woman serving a sentence for insurance fraud and obtaining property by false pretenses. She and her husband Dionne Brown have been trying to get her moved out of confinement with male prisoners due to concerns she will be assaulted.

Though many transgender people elect not to have any surgical procedures related to their transition, Zayre-Brown has had her breasts augmented and genitals altered as part of gender confirmation surgery. She has for years been receiving hormone treatment – something she was initially denied when she was incarcerated, according to the ACLU. She is still not receiving some medical treatment that she needs, Shah said.

Mariah Monsanto and Tommi Hayes were among the activists who delivered a letter to Governor Roy Cooper Friday.

The state has not thus-far recognized Zayre-Brown’s gender change and continues to use her male name, which she has had legally changed.

“They are refusing to acknowledge her womanhood,” said Mariah Monsanto, chair of the Black Youth Project 100 chapter in Durham. “They won’t acknowledge her legally changed name but insist on using her ‘dead name,’ a name she no longer goes by.”

Tommi Hayes, a non-binary person who read from the group’s letter outside Cooper’s office Friday, said the government has a fundamental misunderstanding of the lives of transgender people.

“They continue to move to divide us by sex and gender, along these strict biological terms that fly in the face of what we as queer people know about our lives and our bodies,” Hayes.

“I love Kanautica very much,” Hayes said. “I want her to know that we are fighting for her because she has fought so hard for herself.”

Studies show transgender women of color, like Zayre-Brown, experience a disproportionate level of violence, discrimination and negative health outcomes.

In 2017,  the New York City Anti-Violence Project counted 27 “hate-violence related” homicides of transgender and gender-nonconforming people. That number, which only accounts for those cases which are known, was an increase from 19 reports in 2016. Of those 27 homicides, 22 were of trans women of color.

Below, in full, the letter to Cooper on Zayre-Brown’s case:

We are human rights organizations, LGBTQ activists, and people of conscience.

We demand that Kanautica Zayre-Brown (No. 0618705) be transferred to a women’s facility.

We write on behalf of our community member, Kanautica Zayre-Brown, regarding the conditions of her confinement. Ms. Zayre-Brown is a woman who is transgender. She is presently incarcerated in a men’s facility where her safety and well-being are compromised. 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. These gross violations of Ms. Zayre-Brown’s constitutional rights are putting her at great risk of serious harm.

We demand that the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (“DPS”) ensure that Ms. Zayre-Brown is placed in gender appropriate housing and provided with medically necessary treatment. To remedy the ongoing violations of Ms. Zayre-Brown’s constitutional rights, she should be immediately moved to a facility for women, not placed in restrictive housing, provided access to a private shower, and given all medically necessary treatment, including appropriate grooming items and undergarments. She should be allowed to participate in the full range of programming that may be available to her.

We also want to emphasize that Kanautica’s situation is not unique. The obstacles Kanautica has faced in receiving essential medical treatment — and now gender appropriate housing — is emblematic of the systemic abuse and neglect that trans and gender nonconforming people face in prison.

A 2015 survey of transgender individuals revealed that of the ones who had been incarcerated in a jail, prison, or juvenile detention facility for any length of time, 30% reported being physically or sexually assaulted by staff or other inmates, many of them multiple times —  a rate 5-6 times higher than in the general incarcerated population. Courts have stated that the heightened risk faced by transgender prisoners requires prisons to take additional steps to protect these inmates, such as housing them in gender appropriate housing. If prison officials do not uphold this duty to protect, they violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Putting Kanautica in protective custody or isolation in any facility is not the solution.

Please expedite the review of Kanautica’s case and immediately transfer her to a women’s facility – in accordance with her wishes, constitutional protections, and inherent rights to dignity and respect.

Kanautica needs safety and protection, not harassment and abuse. We the undersigned organizations and individuals eagerly await your response to this letter and your assurance that Ms. Zayre-Brown will receive an immediate transfer to gender-appropriate housing and that her medical needs will be attended to without delay.


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