Politics & Government

Transgender inmate is moved, but not to a women’s prison

Kanautica Zayre-Brown supporters demand transfer to women’s prison

Supporters of Kanautica Zayre-Brown, a transgender woman being held in a men's prison, stood outside Gov. Roy Cooper's Capitol office on Monday, April 1, 2019, to demand for a second time that she be transferred to a women's prison.
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Supporters of Kanautica Zayre-Brown, a transgender woman being held in a men's prison, stood outside Gov. Roy Cooper's Capitol office on Monday, April 1, 2019, to demand for a second time that she be transferred to a women's prison.

Moving a transgender inmate to a women’s prison is “an eventual goal,” the state Department of Public Safety announced Monday, but for now she’s been moved to a different men’s prison, where she is confined to a single cell.

The department’s statement came as advocates for transgender rights called on Gov. Roy Cooper to immediately transfer Kanautica Zayre-Brown, warning that a lawsuit could soon follow if she remains incarcerated with men.

Standing outside the Democratic governor’s office at the state Capitol, roughly 20 supporters demanded that Zayre-Brown be moved out of Warren Correctional, an all-male prison on the Virginia border.

They criticized Cooper’s administration and the Department of Public Safety for placing a female inmate in a hostile environment where sexual violence is a constant threat, and for failing to act on an earlier request for transfer. They noted that in the month since Zayre-Brown’s pleas went public, she had first been moved into a single cell for disciplinary reasons and then transferred from Harnett Correctional to Warren — a smaller prison for men.

“Gov. Cooper, you made Kanautica Zayre-Brown spend 17 more days in solitary confinement,” said Tommi D. Hayes, a student and activist from Durham. “It is time for you to stand on the right side of history.”

At roughly 1 p.m. Monday, DPS spokesman John Bull released this statement:

“At Warren, Zayre-Brown is housed in a single cell as opposed to an open dormitory, which has been deemed the most appropriate placement at this time. Prisons has been and will continue diligently conducting research on legal precedent and best practices across the country with an eventual goal of moving Zayre-Brown to a female facility.”

Last month, the ACLU of North Carolina wrote Director of Prisons Kenneth Lassiter requesting a transfer and promising legal action by an April 1 deadline. On Monday, ACLU spokeswoman Molly Rivera said that 5 p.m. deadline stands for communication from the state.

“If it comes to it,” she said, “we will be taking legal action.”

In 2017, Zayre-Brown went to prison as a habitual felon, convicted of insurance fraud and obtaining property by false pretenses.

Kanautica Zayre-Brown asks N.C. Department of Public Safety to transfer her to a women’s prison for the remainder of her sentence because she is a post-operative transgender female who faces harassment and health issues in an all-male prison.

Now 37, she admits her crimes and has braced herself for a sentence of up to 9 years and 11 months. But she has repeatedly requested, and so far been denied, housing at a women’s prison, sleeping until recently on a bunk in a dorm for 38 men.

Advocates said six other transgender inmates are housed at Harnett Correctional alone.

“They have a woman in a men’s facility,” said Serena Sebring, regional organizer for Southerners on New Ground. “Women do not belong in a men’s prison facility.”

In a February interview with The News & Observer, Zayre-Brown said she had one remaining male-to-female surgery to be performed.

In the interview, Zayre-Brown said she had to fight to receive hormone treatments, and she showers and dresses among male inmates and is issued men’s undergarments. The state recognizes her as male and refers to her by her birth name, Kevin Chestnut, which she had legally changed.

Zayre-Brown has not been assaulted in prison but said she and her husband Dionne Brown fear it constantly.

Last month, Jeremy Collins, the governor’s director of community engagement, said Cooper had contacted DPS Director Erik Hooks about a remedy for transgender prisoners.

“Kanautica is a North Carolinian,” Collins said at the time. “She’s a family member. She’s a community member. She’s a sister, a family member to all of us. We take that seriously. We want her safety.”

Other states have wrestled with housing issues for transgender prisoners, particularly California, where a bill expanding rights died in committee last year. The bill, according to The Bay Area Reporter, would have allowed inmates to specify their chosen names, genders and pronouns during the intake process, and would have ensured that all services were available to them.

Transgender women inmates are frequently kept out of the general population at male prisons, the Reporter said, a move aimed at protecting them that unintentionally cuts them off from services available to other inmates. Cost concerns sunk the bill.

Josh Shaffer covers Wake County and federal courts. He has been a reporter for The News & Observer since 2004 and previously wrote a column about unusual people and places.
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