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Texas county adopts policy to protect LGBT inmates

Published on NewsOK Modified: November 14, 2013 at 12:11 pm •  Published: November 14, 2013
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But the sheriff noted that Harris County implemented the changes ahead of schedule.

"We stay ahead of the curve, we respect the public's rights, we embrace innovation and best practices, looking for chances to lead to be a model 21st century law enforcement agency," he said.

According to the sheriff's office, the jail currently has about 8,900 inmates, and at least 250 of them, or 2.8 percent, identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. About 225 are housed in an area designated for gay inmates, though not everyone asks to be put there.

The new policy includes a "safe zone project" that will promote a "positive relationship of solidarity" between the sheriff's department and the gay community, according to the document. Members of Garcia's 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. Under the policy, 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.

Such an issue arose recently at the jail and was one of several things that prompted the department to begin its review, Bernstein said.

That incident involved Nikki Araguz, the transgender widow of a fallen firefighter who was sentenced to 50 days in jail for stealing a Rolex watch off the wrist of a woman she met in a bar. Araguz had previously been in jail, but had been booked as Justin Purdue. Because the name Justin was attached to her fingerprints in the computer system, the officers booking her initially refused to put the name Nikki Araguz on her wristband, Bernstein said. Higher level officers in the department made "ad hoc adjustments" so Araguz's wristband could accurately reflect her name.

Because Araguz had undergone surgery, she was housed with the women when she returned to jail. But under the new policy, even if she hadn't had the operation she could still have been housed with the women, Bernstein said.

To fully implement the new rules, the sheriff's office will train and certify about 80 staff members to be "gender classification specialists" authorized to hold discussions with inmates about gender issues, Bernstein said. It is unclear how long it will take to be fully staffed for the task, he added, but he called it a "top priority."

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Plushnick-Masti can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RamitMastiAP .