In 2017, Kanautica Zayre-Brown had the last of several surgeries changing from male to female, a final and irreversible step on her long-desired path to becoming a woman.
That same year, she went to prison as a habitual felon, convicted of insurance fraud and obtaining property by false pretenses. Now inmate No. 0618705 at Harnett Correctional, a men’s prison in Lillington, she is believed to be the state’s only post-operative transgender prisoner.
At 37, she both admits and regrets 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 instead on a bunk in a dorm for 38 men.
The state of North Carolina recognizes her by her birth name, Kevin Chestnut, which she legally changed, and as a male. She changes clothes and showers in view of male inmates despite having had her breasts augmented and male genitalia removed, and she said she is regularly issued men’s undergarments.
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She said she has not been assaulted by fellow inmates, but she fears it constantly.
“I understand I’m in prison,” Zayre-Brown said in a visitation room Tuesday. “I just want fairness.”
N.C. Department of Public Safety spokesman Jerry Higgins said the case is under review but declined to elaborate on the inmate’s prison or medical records.
If Zayre-Brown is receiving men’s undergarments, that would appear to violate North Carolina’s trangender policy, adopted in 2018. It allows transgender inmates to request behavior health or medical services if their gender identity causes dysphoria, or distress. It permits them to receive hormone therapy if it was prescribed before prison time, gender-appropriate undergarments and housing “to enhance staff supervision.”
Zayre-Brown, who is from Wilson, said she has received hormones after months of delay but nothing else.
“Underwear, bras, hygiene, shoes,” she said. “Anything the policy allows me to have, they don’t do it.”
Shortly before Zayre-Brown went to prison, the state repealed the law known as HB2, which required people in government buildings to use restrooms that matched the gender on their birth certificates.
But neither the debate nor the push for gender equality has publicly reached into the state’s prison system.
In January, Daniel Thomas filed a complaint in U.S. District Court alleging “emotional distress” as a transgender inmate at Johnston Correctional in Smithfield not receiving hormone treatments, hair-removal supplies and other hygiene products.
Nationwide, Reuters reported, President Donald Trump’s administration last year rolled back protections for transgender inmates that the Barack Obama administration had put in place, making assignments based on biological sex rather than gender with which people identified.
However, also in 2018, a transgender woman in Illinois won a yearlong legal fight and was transferred to a women’s prison after numerous assaults left her feeling like a “sex slave,” the Chicago Tribune reported.
In 2015, a survey of 28,000 people conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality showed 2 percent of the transgender population had been held in prison, jail or juvenile detention within the last year. Of that group, 30 percent reported being physically or sexually assaulted by inmates or staff.
At Harnett Correctional, Zayre-Brown said she gets harassed by other inmates on a daily basis but rarely reports it because she does not want to be placed in a segregated status for her protection.
Dionne Brown, her husband who lives in Greene County southeast of Raleigh, visits every Sunday and calls every day. But his wife’s status makes him fearful.
“I don’t feel comfortable with her being with a bunch of men like that under that type of pressure,” Brown said. “I married her and she’s considered herself a female the entire time. ... I don’t feel safe for her. She doesn’t feel safe.”
North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women in Raleigh is the largest prison for female inmates, its capacity now listed at 1,776. Zayre-Brown said that if she had such housing, she could work and begin paying restitution, serving her sentence constructively rather than in fear.
“I would feel the way I’m supposed to feel when I wake up every day: a beautiful girl,” she said. “Being here will make you an angry transgender woman.”