Harris County Sheriff Reinstates Policies Protecting Transgender Inmates

Democrat Ed Gonzalez follows through on campaign promise.

By Lou Weaver

Sometime in 2013, I received a call from then-Major Deb Schmidt of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. Schmidt, who is an out lesbian, was seeking assistance with reviewing the county’s policies related to LGBTQ inmates.

Prior to Schmidt’s initiative, transgender inmates had not been treated with compassion at the nation’s third-largest jail, including the high-profile case of trans widow Nikki Araguz, who was booked into the facility using her birth name and placed in a solitary cell for 20 days.

Then-Sheriff Adrian Garcia, a Democrat, wanted to ensure that LGBTQ inmates were treated fairly going forward, so we worked with the National Center for Transgender Equality and the Human Rights Campaign to update inmate policies. Schmidt helped assemble a team to review the existing policy, the logistics of the jail, and the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).

PREA was especially helpful, in that it is designed to keep the most vulnerable inmates safe. In jails and prisons, gay men and trans women are among those most likely to become victims of sexual assault.

But Garcia also wanted to add protections for LGBTQ employees, so his updated policies included nondiscrimination language covering sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. That policy protecting LGBTQ employees, which remains in place, was among the first of its kind in the state, and the rules for LGBTQ inmates were hailed as perhaps the most progressive in the nation at the time.

After Garcia stepped down to run for mayor of Houston in 2014, Republican Ron Hickman was appointed to replace him. Unfortunately, Sheriff Hickman called the LGBTQ polices into question and began to roll back the advances we had made.

First, Hickman removed all evidence of LGBTQ inclusion—including a rainbow-colored flag icon—from the sheriff’s office website. He also demoted Schmidt to a civil-servant position, which meant she was no longer a member of the command staff and couldn’t provide feedback directly to the sheriff.

When former Houston City Council member Ed Gonzalez, a Democrat, contacted me about his campaign for Harris County sheriff in 2016, I immediately asked about LGBTQ policies. I wanted to know if he would pledge to protect all of the county inmates in his custody.

Gonzalez, a former police officer who had appeared in a TV ad supporting the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance in 2015, assured me that the LGBTQ policies would be among his priorities. And, true to his word, after defeating Hickman last November, Gonzalez formed a transition team that includes a branch focused on LGBTQ issues. I have the pleasure of sitting on that committee alongside Tammi Wallace, co-founder of the Greater Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce.

Since then, Gonzalez has enacted policies that take into consideration every step of LGBTQ inmates’ time at the jail—from intake and processing, to housing and commissary, to healthcare and exiting.

Under the policies, trans and intersex inmates will speak directly to a gender-classification specialist who will help them navigate certain issues. Those issues include being addressed with correct names and pronouns, regardless of the inmate’s legal name;  and whether they will be searched by male or female officers. Both of these issues are incredibly important for trans folks. Another important policy is that everyone has access to anything in the commissary store, including face razors and undergarments, because the store’s inventory is no longer gendered.

I’m not saying the policies are perfect, but Gonzalez has brought together a group of people who are committed to making the Harris County jail safer.

Gonzalez also promoted Schmidt to assistant chief, a higher rank than she held under Garcia. Now fourth in command at the sheriff’s office, Schmidt is the first female to achieve the rank of assistant chief in Harris County.

Schmidt is once again the head of the LGBTQ liaison group at the sheriff’s office, and steps are being taken to add community representatives to the liaison group. Those new group members will be a diverse array of folks representing Houston. The goal is to create a better, more open dialogue between residents of Harris County and the sheriff’s office.

This article appears in the July 2017 issue of OutSmart Magazine. 


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Lou Weaver

Lou Weaver, who serves as transgender programs coordinator for Equality Texas, is a frequent contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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