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She tried to take her life after 2 days in jail. Now she’s fighting for other trans inmates

Lyn Rawles sued the San Francisco Sheriff's Office alleging she was housed with a male inmate and strip-searched by male deputies. | Justin Katigbak for The Standard

Lyn Rawles pressed her hands against a jail cell wall as about eight male deputies stripped off her blue blazer and skirt. One of the men, Rawles says, then inspected her anal cavity as the others stood by.

The invasive search was only one of the indignities Rawles says she endured during her brief stint in San Francisco jail in November 2019. Rawles says the deputies disrespected her as a Black transgender woman.

“The thing that really bothered me was they never let me wash up,” she said. “They made me grow my beard out. And I felt like I couldn't look at myself in the mirror.”

Things took a turn for the worse the next day, Rawles says, when deputies moved her into a cell with a man—even though she asked to stay with other transgender women for her own safety.

Feeling there was no other way out, Rawles tried to kill herself.

Those are the allegations Rawles laid out in a recent interview with The Standard and to the court as she prepares to settle a lawsuit accusing the city of violating her rights. The impact of that settlement deal, once finalized, could extend beyond Rawles by preventing other transgender inmates from suffering the same treatment she described.

The agreement includes a $200,000 payout for Rawles, and also calls for San Francisco to reform policies for housing transgender inmates, according to the terms obtained through a public records request.

Those changes include the San Francisco Sheriff’s Office agreeing to let inmates know about their right to gender-affirming care and ensuring speedy review by a multi-agency board for complaints from inmates housed against their gender preferences.

The sheriff also agrees to designate an unmonitored phone line for inmates to report sexual or gender-based violence by deputies or inmates. The line will connect tipsters to San Francisco’s law enforcement watchdog, the Department of Police Accountability.

A surveillance still filed in public court records shows deputies leading Lyn Rawles through a jail hallway.

Alex Binsfeld, legal director for the nonprofit Transgender Gender-Variant and Intersex Justice Project and one of the attorneys representing Rawles, said their client is hardly alone in her experience.

“Unfortunately, that is a practice that we see a lot with the jail is that trans women will be placed with men even when they said that they don't want to be housed with men,” Binsfeld said. “This is something that happens a lot more often to black trans women in our experience as an organization.”

The nonprofit received 177 calls and letters about jail conditions from transgender, gender-diverse and intersex people in San Francisco since the beginning of 2021, Binsfeld said. It’s unclear how many of those reports echoed the allegations brought by Rawles.

In response to the lawsuit, sheriff spokesperson Tara Moriarty said the office is a “pioneering agency” for transgender justice reform. Moriarty pointed to a 2018 policy rolled out by then-Sheriff Vicki Hennessy that outlines how deputies should interact with transgender inmates and that the jails agree to improve as part of the Rawles settlement.

“The San Francisco Sheriff's Office has an ongoing legacy for treating all persons in our custody with dignity and respect,” Moriarty said.

Moriarty said the unmonitored phone line shows the Sheriff’s Office understands “the need for anonymity.” The office also hopes the quicker review of complaints about housing placements will “help ensure a more expeditious resolution,” she added.

“This lawsuit emanated from the prior administration and shores up policies that were previously put in place,” Moriarty said. 

Moriarty also said the sheriff tries to house transgender inmates based on their preferences, but gender identity is only one factor considered when deciding what cell they should stay in. The office also weighs behavior, mental health and other safety and security factors. Moriarty did not say how often the office houses and searches inmates against their gender preferences.

San Francisco County Jail on Seventh Street | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Ken Lomba, head of the union representing sheriff’s deputies, could not comment directly on the allegations but said he supports the policy changes.

“Our deputy sheriff members are professionals and treat incarcerated people with the utmost care,” Lomba said. “If the sheriff’s department is making some changes to make things better, then we fully wholeheartedly agree with those changes”

Rawles says she ended up in jail in November 2019 because she wanted to vote. She was turned away on Election Day after arriving at City Hall too late to vote and again the next day at the Department of Elections inside the building.

Deputies summoned by a duress alarm to the elections office saw her throw a piece of paper at an elections staffer, saying “I’m going to shove this down your throat,” according to an incident report. Rawles then resisted when deputies tried to arrest her for trespassing, the report says.

Once in jail, Rawles was placed in a concrete cell and strip-searched after threatening a female deputy who asked about her gender identity and sex assigned at birth, court records say.

“If you don’t stop asking me these questions, I’m going to feel like hurting you in a minute,” Rawles told the sheriff, according to court records.

Lyn Rawles | Justin Katigbak for The Standard

Attorneys for the sheriff denied wrongdoing over the searches, her housing placement and her lack of gender-affirming care. They point out that Rawles was locked up in jail for less than 48 hours.

But Rawles said what she experienced in that two-day span stuck with her—and that she's especially haunted by memories of her mug shot and realizing that she grew stubble on her face while behind bars.

The gender dysphoria lingered after she got out, Rawles said, and even worsened when the pandemic forced her to spend a long time alone. In the years that followed, she said she struggled to leave home, even to get groceries.

“I felt like, ‘Oh God, I’m too ugly. I’m too masculine,’” Rawles said.

She hopes that no other inmate is treated the same way again and that all transgender women in jail get to shower and shave.

“I demand it,” Rawles said. “I demand to be respected.”

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Or go here for more resources.

Michael Barba can be reached at mbarba@sfstandard.com

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