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Gay, bisexual, transgender inmates settle discrimination lawsuit against San Bernardino County Jail

Gay Transgender Inmates

Gay, bisexual, and transgender inmates have settled a federal, class action lawsuit against the San Bernardino County sheriff, who discriminated against the inmates by locking them in their cells at the West Valley Detention Center, above, for up to 23 hours a day and prohibiting them from participating in jail programs. Photo: San Bernardino County Sheriff.

Gay, bisexual, and transgender inmates have settled a federal, class action lawsuit against the San Bernardino County sheriff, who discriminated against the inmates by locking  them in their cells for up to 23 hours a day and prohibiting them from participating in jail programs.

The agreement was announced today and needs must be approved by Judge Jesus G. Bernal at the U.S. District Court in Riverside.

SETTLEMENT REACHED

If approved, the settlement would require significant changes in jail housing, work and educational program availability, staff training, and the establishment of a no-tolerance policy for harassment of gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (GBTI) people in San Bernardino County jails.

“The settlement agreement was entered into with the vision of treating GBTI inmates as equals in jail, and to recognize their humanity and right to humane treatment,” attorney David S. McLane, who worked on the case with the ACLU of Southern California, told Q Voice News. “Their identity and orientation should not subject them to second class citizenship, and we believe that this agreement places our clients on equal footing with straight inmates. They deserve no less.

“We are pleased that San Bernardino entered into these negotiations in good faith, and will now be a national example how jails can provide equality without compromising safety,” he said.

The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department wouldn’t comment on the settlement until it’s approved by the court.

JAILS TO CHANGE

The settlement requires several changes at San Bernardino County’s jails:

  • Expanded housing options for incarcerated gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people
  • Allow participation in work, educational, religious, and community re-entry programs
  • Establish a committee — to include jail facility, medical, and social work personnel — to meet regularly with incarcerated gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people to discuss housing options that work for them as individuals, plus discrimination and other issues
  • Comprehensive staff training on the needs of GBTI individuals
  • No-tolerance policy for harassment, including a prohibition on intentional misgendering of transgender and intersex people
  • Individualized approach to housing placements for transgender people
  • Improvements to medical treatment access, safety precautions, and privacy protections for transgender inmates
  • Renaming the housing area at West Valley Detention Center to the GBTI unit.

DISCRIMINATION

The 2014 class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of 15 plaintiffs, including Lynn Price, a transgender woman, who were housed in the so-called Alternative Lifestyle Tank of the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga. McLane and ACLU officials estimate that 600 people were housed in the unit between 2012 and 2018.

The inmates were treated differently than the jail’s general population simply because they were gay, bisexual, or transgender, according to the lawsuit.

“I was stuck in my cell for all but one or two hours a day.” Price said in a statement announcing the settlement. “It felt so lonely and humiliating back then, seeing everyone else out and allowed to eat together, talk with each other.

“I’m relieved that San Bernardino has promised to create more humane conditions for people housed in the unit,” she said.

The lead plaintiff in the case was Dan McKibben, a former Indian sheriff’s deputy, who spent two months at the West Valley Detention Center in 2014 for a probation violation. After self-identifying as gay during the booking process, McKibben was confined to his cell in the Alternative Lifestyle Tank for 22 ½ hours a day.

He repeatedly requested to participate in a work program, but was denied. McKibben witnessed sheriff’s deputies beat other residents of the housing unit and call them derogatory names.

McKibben died in 2016, but the case has continued in his name.

SETTLEMENT TIMELINE

McLane hopes the preliminary approved takes place in 30 days. At that point, former inmates at the West Valley Detention Center’s Alternative Lifestyle Tank will be contacted and asked if they want to join the $850,000 settlement.

The financial relief for each person who joins the suit will be based on how much time they spent in isolation at the unit.

The judge is expected to make final approval by May 2019, which is when the jails are required to begin implementing the mandatory changes.

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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