An explosive report alleging that male-born inmates were lining up to transfer to women’s prisons has been followed by Washington state legislators taking action — by seeking to squelch access to information about transgender prisoners.
The Washington legislature passed last week a bill to protect prisoner privacy by banning the disclosure of records on gender status, sending the bill to Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee over the objections of Republicans and women’s groups worried about the security of female prisoners.
“It appears that Washington’s political leaders are continuing to prioritize the desires of men over the safety of women,” said Mahri Irvine, executive director of the Women’s Liberation Front. “Everyone in Washington deserves to know what’s happening inside women’s prisons, but this amended bill will suppress vitally important information related to women’s safety.”
Democrats argued that the legislation, House Bill 1956, is essential to protecting gender-nonconforming inmates by preventing the disclosure of information that could subject them to attacks and harassment.
“This bill protects the safety and dignity of people incarcerated at the Department of Corrections [DOC] by making certain information in records exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Act,” said Democratic state Rep. David Hackney, the bill’s sponsor, at a Feb. 18 committee hearing.
Mr. Inslee has not said whether he will sign the bill, but “the governor is supportive,” said Inslee press secretary Mike Faulk.
The measure bars the release of certain “health information,” including “transgender, intersex, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming status; sexual orientation; genital anatomy; or gender-affirming care or accommodations other than an incarcerated individuals’ preferred name, pronouns, and gender marker.”
The Washington bill coincides with blue states moving to house inmates based on their self-identified gender with no requirement for reassignment surgery or hormone therapy, spurring debate over whether the safety of one vulnerable group is coming at the expense of another.
At least three states – California, Connecticut and Maine — have passed legislation, while others, including Washington, appear to be enacting such policies administratively.
The Washington state bill also prevents the disclosure of reports of sexual abuse or harassment and investigations under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, although “the identity of an accused individual is not exempt if the allegation is determined to have been substantiated.”
That line was added as part of a sweeping amendment passed Feb. 9 by the state House, following what Mr. Hackney described as discussions with prison officials, media outlets and stakeholders.
“This bill does not cover up crimes,” he said at a hearing before a Senate committee last month. “Infractions or disciplinary records are not protected under this bill. This bill does not prevent the release of aggregate data, like the number of transgender individuals in a prison, only individual data.”
Given that the bill bars the release of information about “accommodations,” however, advocates for female inmates fear they will continue to be stymied in their efforts to learn who exactly is being housed in women’s facilities.
The issue erupted in March 2021 with a bombshell report by KIRO-FM host Dori Monson: Citing an anonymous corrections employee, he said a half-dozen male-born prisoners had been transferred to the Washington Correctional Center for Women, and that another 150 were in line to follow.
In addition, he said one of the male-born prisoners with a history of sex offenses had been accused of raping a female inmate.
The DOC had no comment. “We are not able to share any specific information about allegations, reviews, and cases,” the department told KIRO-FM.
The station, the Tacoma News Tribune, and a resident represented by the Women’s Liberation Front filed public-records requests seeking more details. But in May, a judge blocked the release after the American Civil Liberties Union and Disability Rights Washington sued on behalf of five inmates.
The DOC later said that transgender prisoners are thoroughly screened as part of the placement process, after an anonymous female former inmate told National Review that a male-born inmate was attacking women.
“The DOC does not place individuals into the female or male facilities, simply because they have stated they are one gender or the other,” said the DOC in a December statement. “If an individual identifies as transgender or non-conforming, there is a lengthy mental health, health services and facility evaluation that must occur.”
Disability Rights Washington attorney Ethan Frenchman spoke in favor of the bill at the Feb. 18 hearing, warning that the state could find itself in legal trouble with inmates if it fails to guard their privacy.
“This bill protects information that I think many assume is already protected, as you’ve heard, like body scanner images, health information, and the names of sexual-assault victims. This should be uncontroversial,” he said. “Some incorrectly believe this bill could somehow cover up crimes or how transgender people are housed in the Department of Corrections. None of this is true. This bill ensures the DOC won’t be forced to out the names of transgender people or sexual-assault victims without consent.”
Elizabeth Hummel, a Democrat who worked for the state legislature for 12 years, said that housing male-born inmates with females was “terrifying and cruel and is happening here in Washington state.”
“We must be able to access data, such as how many biological males are housed in the women’s prison,” she said at the hearing. “This bill was specifically designed to hide this information.”
During his Feb. 15 show, Mr. Monson quizzed Democratic state Rep. Roger Goodman about the HB 1956, saying the DOC “has had a muzzle put on them on this issue.”
“I think everybody should have access to the information so we can have a conversation,” Mr. Monson said. “I’m telling you right now, the female inmates and female prison guards are scared to death about having biological men in the women’s prison here.”
Mr. Goodman, one of the bill’s cosponsors, said he had no information about any assault perpetrated by a transgender prisoner.
“All I know is that the transgender individuals are scared to death of being attacked. This is a tough one,” he said. “I have been in discussions with the Department of Corrections about this, and have no reports whatsoever of attacks by transgender individuals. My information and your information are different.”
• Valerie Richardson can be reached at email@example.com.
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