Site & Updates, Back in Action!

Mailing address has been updated as Niara has been moved at least once more since the last post here.

Herman Burton #KU1265
SCI Coal Township
1 Kelley Drive
Coal Township, PA 17866

More thorough updates directly from Niara to come!

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11/18: Demand that Niara be transferred to a women’s facility!

UPDATE: Niara has been transferred to another men’s prison. Please call SCI Frackville at (570) 874-4516 and ask to speak to Superintendent Brenda Tritt.

Friends,

We’re writing to gather support for a call-in day to get our friend Niara transferred to a women’s facility. Niara is a Black trans woman imprisoned for the self-defense murder of a john. Her arrest, trial, and conviction were accompanied by blatant racism and transmisogyny from the media.

This hatred and violence has continued behind bars, with Niara facing brutal exploitation by male prisoners and apathy from prison administration. She has done numerous stints in solitary for arbitrarily enforced prison rules around gender presentation. Most recently, she has suffered repeated instances of rape and physical abuse. Her attempts to address this with prison officials have been ignored.

We are pushing to have Niara transferred to a women’s facility, where she will be free of the exploitation of predatory male prisoners. Niara has submitted requests for transfer to a women’s facility, which have all been ignored. We are hoping that outside pressure will force the prison administration to take her requests seriously.

On November 18th, please call (570) 874-4516 and ask to speak to Superintendent Brenda Tritt and demand that inmate HERMAN BURTON #KU1265 be transferred to a women’s facility. [A ‘script’ with key points you can make is below.] Be firm but polite. If you get an answering machine please still leave a message.

Please check back at freeniara.wordpress.com for further updates and future actions.

Thank you,
Niara’s support crew

“Hello, I’m calling to ask that inmate Herman Burton (who goes by Niara), inmate ID number KU1265, be transferred to a women’s facility. Housing a transgender woman in a men’s facility endangers her life and is a violation of the national Prison Rape Elimination Act guidelines. Niara has repeatedly experienced rape and physical assault and has then been placed in segregated housing for her own protection. PREA makes clear in section 115.43 that segregation is not a viable solution when there is an ongoing risk of abuse. Niara must be transferred to a women’s facility immediately in order to protect her from abuse without the additional trauma of isolation. Thank you for your time.”

Pennsylvania prisons overhaul policies for transgender inmates

Over the last few months, unusual missives began arriving in the post office box of the Hearts on a Wire Collective, a grassroots collaboration between transgender people who meet weekly at the William Way LGBT Community Center in Philadelphia and transgender prison inmates around the state.

“We started getting letters from folks on the inside saying, ‘I just had this bizarre conversation I never expected to have,’ ” said Adrian Lowe, one of the organizers. “People were saying, ‘They just asked me if I needed a bra! I’m so excited.’ Or, ‘I ordered lipstick, and I didn’t get sent to the hole!’ ”

For transgender women housed in men’s prisons around Pennsylvania – a small but deeply vulnerable group, including those who say they’ve been sexually harassed, assaulted, and raped while in state custody – the rules have quietly changed.

In a series of policy updates to bring the state into compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), the state in June created new commissary lists to allow transgender inmates to buy things like makeup and barrettes or gender-appropriate underwear, and rescinded its policy prohibiting sex-reassignment surgery for inmates. And this month, it instituted a new assessment process to determine where transgender inmates should be housed.

Any reforms would be an improvement, said John Hargreaves, director of volunteers for the Pennsylvania Prison Society, who has heard from transgender inmates fearful for their safety.

“They’re obvious targets,” he said. “They’re singled out for being a distinct population.” There are 137 transgender people in the Pennsylvania prisons. Of those, 14 transgender men are housed in women’s prisons; the policy updates also apply to them.

Currently, all inmates are housed in facilities that correspond to their genders assigned at birth, said Shirley Moore Smeal, executive deputy secretary of corrections.

The only option to be separated from the general population would appear to be solitary confinement, known as the Restricted Housing Unit, Hargreaves said. “RHU is not the best place to be. And that’s their option now.”

The state’s updated Prison Rape Elimination Act policy states that administrators will consider “whether a placement would ensure the resident’s health and safety, and whether the placement would present management or security problems.” Gender-variant inmates could not be forced into solitary confinement solely because of their gender. And whether the inmates believed they were in danger should be given “serious consideration.”

Also under the new policy, transgender inmates must be allowed to shower separately; currently, some older prisons in the state still have communal showers.

Smeal said the new policy might not result in any transgender inmates’ being relocated.

“I wouldn’t say [anyone is] likely to be moved,” she said. “I would say, based on their risk-assessment tool and the interview that was done, they are where we believe they should be.”

She added that she was not aware of any transgender inmates currently in isolated “administrative custody” for protective reasons (although inmates can also be sent to RHU for disciplinary purposes).

Still, Valerie Burton of Southwest Philadelphia said her daughter, Niara, born Herman Burton, had spent much of her prison term in the RHU. Niara has long taken hormones and has a feminine appearance; she says she has been raped and beaten in the state prison.

She had been a prostitute, and she pleaded guilty in a grisly 2010 murder and arson. But Valerie Burton said that didn’t cancel out the state’s responsibility to protect Niara in custody.

“I’m scared I’m going to get a call my child is dead,” she said. “My understanding is they’re supposed to take care of her.”

Angus Love, executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, said his nonprofit was working on two cases in which transgender inmates in Pennsylvania were allegedly abused by male guards and inmates.

In one, he said, a transgender woman was forced to walk around naked and was later sexually assaulted.

Pennsylvania is behind the curve on this issue, he said, but the policy updates represent an important step.

“Generally, the trends are going toward recognizing this as a legitimate issue,” Love said. “The acknowledgment that PREA covers transgenders is a step in the right direction.”

Prisons and jails across the country have likewise been wrangling with how to manage transgender inmates.

San Francisco announced in September that its county jails would house inmates based on gender.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice weighed in to support a lawsuit by a transgender inmate in Georgia who said the state had acted illegally in denying her hormone treatments.

Lowe, of Hearts on a Wire, said just being able to access gender-appropriate items in a commissary felt like a victory.

But when it comes to housing, he said, “we don’t know how this is going to play out.”

Smeal said the department had consulted with experts and was taking policy reforms seriously.

But, she added, “we’ve always, through the intake process, determined the needs of the offender and tried to meet those needs.”

Update from Niara

“I’ve got transferred again. I’m so sick of the crappy treatment. I wish I could be house in a woman’s facilities. Well let me catch you up! I’ve started mail correspondance for dental classes. I’ve had a few problems here, at first I was being warehoused in a restricted housing unit…now they placed me on a special needs unit with people with chemical imbalances! And the facade that was placed was for my safety…which was totally contrary to logistics! I go to the yard where all the other general population inmates are. And this jail is very discriminatory!”