No matter the crime, the authentic gender identities of transgender inmates deserve to be recognized, say trans prison rights advocates.
While this battle rages strong on the healthcare front -- with major support from the Department of Justice last month -- countless trans prisoners are also quietly struggling to simply have their names respected.
Delaware took a lead on this issue earlier this week according to the state's News Journal, with Democratic representative James "J.J." Johnson sponsoring new legislation that would allow transgender detainees in state prisons to legally change their names. Johnson reportedly filed the bill at the request of Delaware Gov. Jack Markell's administration, in response to efforts by trans inmate Kai Short, a 34-year-old black trans man who has been petitioning courts for several years in order to have his first name legally recognized as "Kai."
"The governor supports the [Department of Correction's] ongoing efforts to make reasonable accomodations for inmates in their care and this bill is in line with those efforts," a spokeswoman for Markell told the Journal.
Short is currently serving a 55-year sentence in Baylor Women's Correctional Institution for "habitual offending," which includes convictions for assault, burglary, and aggravated menacing. He has twice petitioned lower courts for a legal name change and been rejected on the grounds that no "fundamental" right to a name change exists for prisoners.
In October, the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware took on Short's case in advance of his second petition, arguing that under the Equal Protections Clause of the U.S. Constitution, trans prisoners should be allowed to change their names, since name changes are already allowed in Delaware prisons in relation to "sincerely held religious beliefs."
With Johnson's legislation pending, the ACLU has now paused its court petitions on Short's behalf, only to resume should the bill fail. "This makes sense to us," said ACLU of Delaware executive director Kathleen McRae to the Journal. "A change by statute looks like what's needed. It's a more direct route and it's much clearer for future reference."
Should Short's fight end in success, he will join trans Georgia inmate Ashley Diamond and California inmate Michelle-Lael Norsworthy in their recent steps forward for trans prisoners at the state level. In April, Diamond was backed by the Department of Justice in her claim that the state prison's denial of her medically necessary transition-related health care was unconstitutional. Several days later, a federal judge ordered the California Department of Corrections to grant Norsworthy access to gender-affirming surgery deemed medically necessary by her doctors.