Kanautica Zayre-Brown was transferred to Anson Correctional Institution in Polkton Thursday, a medium security women’s prison with about 1,000 inmates.
She is the first transgender prisoner in North Carolina to be moved from a prison designated for one gender to one designated for another.
“I am just so happy and feel so much better,” Zayre-Brown said through a statement released by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.. “I don’t feel like I’m in a monstrous cage anymore. I feel safe. I want to thank my community for their support and DPS for coming through with their promise. Now I can look forward to being able to receive the medical care I need.”
It took years of petitioning, activism and ultimately the threat of a lawsuit from the ACLU to secure Zayre-Brown’s transfer.
“Kanautica has fiercely advocated for her safety, health, and dignity throughout this traumatic experience, and we are relieved that she will no longer be subjected to the daily humiliation, fear, and exposure she endured while forced to live in a men’s prison,” said Sneha Shah, the Staff Attorney for the ACLU of North Carolina representing Zayre-Brown. “It never should have taken the state this long to take action in her case, but we are hopeful that Kanautica’s fight can help pave the way for other people who are transgender and incarcerated in North Carolina.”
After she was arrested in 2017 on charges of insurance fraud and obtaining property by false pretenses, Zayre-Brown was held in a series of all-male facilities. She was forced to sleep in groups of men, to use group showers and toilets with men.
Many transgender people elect not to have any surgical procedures related to their transition. Zayre-Brown, 37, was assigned male at birth and began transitioning to female in 2010. She has had her breasts augmented and genitals altered as part of gender confirmation surgery. Living in a series of all male prisons, she feared she would raped and beaten — but pleas for transfer fell on deaf ears until earlier this year.
Though the Department of Public Safety agreed to the transfer back in May, it set a deadline of August 22 so that it could “continue researching and implementing best practices from the states that have transferred transgender women to female facilities.”
The department declined to comment this week on whether it believes its own guidelines for dealing with transgender prisoners were followed in Zayre-Brown’s case or to elaborate on what changes may now be made to those guidelines.
“Prior to this transfer, the Department of Public Safety’s Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice conducted a comprehensive review of relevant policies and procedures and provided focused training to administrators and staff on the management of transgender offenders,” Department of Public Safety spokesman John Bull said in a statement.
“The housing determination for any offender is based upon a variety of factors, including, but not limited to, the individual’s unique circumstances, safety considerations and other operational factors,” Bull said. “The Division [of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice] remains committed to the appropriate housing and management of all incarcerated offenders, consistent with ensuring public safety.”
“The housing determination for any offender is based upon a variety of factors, including, but not limited to, the individual’s unique circumstances, safety considerations and other operational factors,” Bull said.
“The Division [of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice] remains committed to the appropriate housing and management of all incarcerated offenders, consistent with ensuring public safety,” Bull said.
There are 37 other transgender people known to be in North Carolina prisons, according to the Department of Public Safety. Ten others are “under review” by the department through a screening process.
“This victory is thanks to the tireless work of transgender advocates in North Carolina, including Kanautica herself, who spoke up to keep the government accountable,” said Chase Strangio, Staff Attorney for the ACLU LGBT & HIV Project. “While an important and life-saving change to Kanautica’s circumstances, many transgender people in custody remain in dire and dangerous conditions even when housed in a facility that matches their sex. Beyond detention, transgender people, particularly trans women of color, face widespread discrimination in employment, housing, education and health care that not only funnel them into prison but also make them particularly vulnerable to violence and negative health consequences.”