Family worries about transfer of transgender woman to male prison

Jovanie Saldana, arrested in June 2010, has been transferred to a male prison after officials discovered she is biologically male.
Jovanie Saldana, arrested in June 2010, has been transferred to a male prison after officials discovered she is biologically male.
Posted: August 22, 2011

GET NAKED, squat and cough.

That's what inmates are supposed to do when they enter the Philadelphia prisons, at least those charged with felonies, or who are drunk or acting suspiciously.

The exercise expels whatever contraband they could be concealing up their keisters. In the rare cases in which authorities aren't sure if they have a John or a Jane, it also would confirm the inmate's gender.

But Jovanie Saldana, of Kensington, somehow suckered the system.

Saldana, 23, a transgender woman, spent the last 14 months incarcerated at Riverside Correctional Facility, the city's only female prison.

Authorities discovered the situation last week, after launching an investigation into Saldana's complaint of being forced into oral sex with a corrections officer, sources said. During that probe, investigators recorded Saldana's phone conversations and overheard the inmate's mother chiding Saldana into telling authorities the truth about Saldana's gender, a source said.

Since then, Saldana, of Water Street near Venango, has been transferred to a male prison, prisons spokeswoman Shawn Hawes said.

"We're not quite sure how this mistake originated," said Hawes, adding that "the entire process" is now under investigation by prison and police officials.

Saldana had long hair, arched eyebrows and cleavage when arrested in June 2010, relatives said, and has been dressing as a female since age 12. Saldana does have male genitalia, Hawes confirmed.

Saldana's cousin, who did not want to be identified, said that Saldana called and asked her to three-way-call Saldana's mother, who lives in New Jersey. Their conversations were in Spanish, she said, adding that after 14 months in the women's prison she believes Saldana was transferred primarily because of the accusation against the guard, not because of gender.

Saldana told relatives about the transfer, they said, adding that no one from the prison or police department contacted them about the mix-up.

Hawes declined to comment further on the investigation or about Saldana's allegations against the corrections officer.

But she said Saldana - who was charged with several felonies June 11, 2010, including armed robbery - should have undergone a cavity search during the initial intake into the prison system and after each subsequent outing for court appearances. Inmates also must submit to cavity searches during shakedowns, which occur routinely and randomly throughout the city's six prisons.

"That [cavity searches on Saldana] appears not to have been done," she said, noting that prison intake forms denote Saldana as male.

A source close to the prison system, who asked not to be identified, complained that the slip-up "jeopardized a lot of women over there [at Riverside]," adding that Saldana tallied at least two infractions for fighting with other inmates during Saldana's stint in the female jail. On average, Riverside houses about 730 inmates daily, Hawes said.

Lorenzo North, president of the union representing corrections officers, declined to discuss the officers' failure to perform the required cavity searches.

"I don't know how [Saldana] got through," North said, adding that all inmates should be searched. "If you don't strip-search somebody thoroughly, then you're not 100 percent sure of getting whatever [contraband] that inmate has. He may have something up his butt."

But North claimed the goof proved that the officer whom Saldana accused of sexual abuse is innocent.

The officer was transferred to another prison after Saldana's recent complaint.

"I'm trying to get him back to RCF [Riverside] as soon as possible, because he didn't do anything wrong," North said.

Saldana's next scheduled court appearance is next Monday for trial in the armed-robbery case, court records show.

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