HOUSTON – The sheriff of Houston's Harris County has adopted a sweeping policy designed to protect and guarantee equal treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender inmates, including allowing transgender individuals to be housed based on the gender they identify with instead of their biological sex.
The new policy, which Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia's office believes to be one of the most comprehensive in the country, states "discrimination or harassment of any kind based on sexual orientation or gender identity is strictly prohibited," and outlines how such inmates will be searched, booked and housed, according to a copy of the policy obtained by The Associated Press ahead of an official announcement Thursday.
The policy also covers intersex inmates, defined as people born with sex chromosomes or reproductive systems that are not considered standard.
Houston has the third-largest county jail in the U.S., after Los Angeles and Chicago's Cook County, and processes some 125,000 inmates annually. Other major jails, including L.A., Washington, D.C., and Denver, have taken similar steps to meet new federal standards for protecting inmates from sexual abuse and assault.
But Harris County is the first in Texas to adopt this extensive of a policy, according to Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, a state agency that inspects, regulates and provides technical assistance to county jails.
The 11-page policy, along with a separate three-page document protecting this population from workplace discrimination, went into effect Wednesday.
"It represents a significant step forward," said Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy for the Washington-based National Center for Transgender Equality, who worked closely with Garcia and his staff.
The new policy may be notable because it's occurring in a staunch red state proud of its conservative values, Tobin said. But she emphasized it's not about politics.
"This is not a red or blue issue," Tobin said. "It is an issue of preventing violence, of meeting the state's legal and moral responsibilities to keep people safe and safeguarding public funds that when sexual abuse happens in prison need to be spent on medical care and mental health care and recovery."
According to the Harris County Sheriff's Office, the jail currently has about 8,900 inmates and at least 250 of them, or 2.8 percent, identify themselves as lesbian, gay bisexual or transgender.
A "safe zone project" will promote a "positive relationship of solidarity" between the sheriff's department and the gay community, according to the document. Members of this staff will wear an obvious identifier so they can be easily spotted.
The sheriff's department will also have "zero tolerance" for staff sexual misconduct or sexual harassment toward members of the gay community. Violations could "result in termination" or referral for criminal charges or other action.
Another key section of the policy states that members of the transgender community will be addressed by their chosen name, even if it has not legally been changed, both when spoken to and on their identification bracelets.