With fully developed breasts, long hair and feminine features, Kelly McAllister is not the sort of person you'd expect to find sharing a cell with a male prisoner.
But that's exactly where the 5-foot, 7-inch, 135-pound prisoner was housed after being arrested in connection with an alleged public disturbance, a lawyer representing McAllister says. McAllister is a "preoperative transsexual" — anatomically male, but living as a woman and undergoing feminine hormone treatment.
The Sacramento Sheriff's Department classified McAllister as a male, however.
"They classified her as him and put him in protective custody. Then they put her in cell with a straight male inmate," said McAllister's lawyer, Dean Johansson. "There's no wonder why what happened happened."
Johansson claims that McAllister was violently sexually assaulted by the other inmate, and then received little help after the incident, which allegedly occurred last September.
Sgt. Lou Fatur, of the Sacramento Sheriff's Department, said the claim was without merit, but declined to comment further. He said the department's policy was to put transgender and homosexual prisoners in facilities apart from the general jail population.
"They're separated and protected," he said.
No one knows how many "transgender" inmates are in the nation's prisons and jails. The term itself is a catch-all used to refer to many different groups, says Vanessa Edwards Foster, the head of the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition.
But it is clear to advocates and prison system experts that transgendered inmates are particularly vulnerable to abuse and assault, in part because they are routinely housed with inmates in the general prison population.
"I would say there probably is a serious problem, especially with preoperative transsexuals," says Christopher Hensley, a sociology professor at Morehead State University and director of the Institute of Correctional Research and Training there. Most prisons have some form of "administrative segregation" for some inmates, but the facilities typically involve reduced privileges and are more expensive to run, Hensley says.
Harrowing Stories, But Little Clear Data
A number of harrowing reports have reached the courts and newspapers, though it is often impossible to confirm the allegations.
"There seems to be an institutional problem," says McAllister's lawyer, Johansson.
Prison officials like Russ Heinmerich, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections, say there is no such dilemma.
"If they've had the operation, they go to the appropriate [suitable for their new gender] facility," he says. "In the meantime [male-to-female transgender inmates] are housed with the male population."
As in some other states, inmates already receiving hormone treatment are allowed to continue, he says, and prison officials take extra precautions with vulnerable inmates.
"Any inmate that is likely to become victimized for any reason we'll put in protective housing," he says.
Most states do not have transgender prison facilities, however. New Hampshire prison officials and attorneys for convicted murderer Joseph Shanley are still arguing over where to house him, for example. Shanley had sexual reassignment surgery in 1969 and asked to be housed in a women's prison.
Bringing Lawsuits, With Mixed Results
Nevertheless, transgender inmates and prison officials has repeatedly sparred in court over their treatment.
In August, a Canadian transgender person filed a multimillion-dollar suit against U.S. and Montana officials, claiming abuse. Alexandria Tucker, a self-described preoperative male-to-female transsexual, was allegedly sexually assaulted while housed in Montana's prison for men. Montana prisons officials have said the case is without merit and that the prison made adequate arrangements for Tucker's safety.
Such lawsuits have had mixed results in the past.
Last May, a U.S. district court jury in Ohio ruled against Traci Greene, a transgender inmate who sued the state. Greene's lawyers alleged their client was severely beaten by another inmate at the all-male Warren Correctional Institution in southwest Ohio in 1996.
Officials had originally classified Greene as a woman, but then moved Greene to the male facility when they learned the inmate was anatomically male and undergoing hormone treatments.
Despite a size 36-D bust and other feminine characteristics, Greene was still theoretically capable of impregnating females, officials said during the trial.
In a 1994 case brought by a transgender inmate named Dee Farmer, the Supreme Court ruled that prison officials must protect inmates from sexual attack. The plaintiff, a pre-operative transgender inmate serving time for credit card fraud, alleged repeated sexual assault while housed with a group of male prisoners.
The problem of sexual abuse in prisons goes far beyond the transgender population, of course. More than 200,000 men are raped behind bars each year, according to the group Stop Prisoner Rape. Hensley, the Morehead State University researcher, says research has found that between 14 percent and 22 percent of male inmates are subjected to sexual violence or threats.