Anatomy is destiny ... except in Philly jails

Posted: August 26, 2011

TWO WEEKS after the discovery that a transgender inmate spent 14 months in the wrong city jail, Louis Giorla remains pestered by an undesirable question.

If one inmate slipped through the cracks, who else - or, really, what else - slipped through, too?

Giorla, the city prisons commissioner, had no answers for that question this week, as prison officials continued investigating how no one noticed - despite multiple strip searches and at least two medical exams - that Jovanie Saldana, 23, a homeless transgender woman charged with armed robbery, has male genitalia.

Authorities in the city's six prisons conduct hundreds of shakedowns a year to uncover contraband. So "improperly supervised" strip searches - such as those that kept Saldana's stones secret - are a big problem that must be fixed, Giorla said.

"There are specific reasons for these searches; inmates could conceal contraband," Giorla said. "We've directed the supervisors in the Riverside facility to re-examine their search orders. We're looking at our practices in general in that facility. Our procedures are such that we should have identified his anatomical identity."

Inmates are supposed to be searched during shakedowns; each time they return from a court appearance; and, for those charged with felonies, like Saldana, during initial intake. Correctional officers who failed to follow strip-search policies will be disciplined, Giorla added.

Inmates are housed by "anatomical gender" regardless of how they identify, meaning that Saldana - who had long hair, arched eyebrows and cleavage when arrested in June 2010, relatives said - should have been jailed in a male facility, according to prison policy. Exceptions are made if an inmate shows "legal and clinical" proof of gender transition, or if officials fear that an inmate's gender identity will be disruptive.

Beyond concerns about contraband, transgender advocates say that Saldana's case highlights a pervasive problem in prisons: persecution of transgender inmates.

"Research shows that transgender women are at extreme risk of abuse if housed with men," said Harper Jean Tobin of the National Center for Transgender Equality. "In many cases, housing transgender women, like Ms. Saldana, in a women's facility is the safest and most appropriate choice, regardless of their anatomy."

A 2009 study of transgender inmates in California reported that nearly 60 percent of male-to-female transgender inmates reported having been sexually assaulted while jailed.

Saldana has been dressing as a female since age 12. Documents in Saldana's court file listed the inmate as female, even though prison intake forms categorize Saldana as male.

The controversy came after Saldana recently complained to prison authorities that a correctional officer forced Saldana into oral sex. Investigators transferred the officer to another facility and listened in on Saldana's telephone conversations, during which they overheard Saldana's mother chide her offspring to reveal Saldana's anatomical gender. Saldana was then transferred to a male facility, where the inmate is being held in a single cell in protective custody.

The investigation into the alleged sexual assault is ongoing, Giorla said.

Saldana is accused of robbing a man on Kensington Avenue near Somerset, a corner notorious for prolific prostitution and drug activity. Saldana allegedly held a knife to a man's throat while an accomplice pointed a BB gun at his head during an attempted carjacking, according to court records. Saldana is due in court Monday on the case; Saldana's court-appointed attorney said that he is negotiating a plea deal with prosecutors.

"Whether she's a she or a he is not really that relevant in terms of whether she's innocent or guilty," attorney Carmen Nasuti said yesterday.

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