South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, is considering changes to her Department of Corrections policy following criticism from conservatives, particularly National Review writer Nate Hochman.
Earlier this month, Hochman claimed that “the Noem-appointed prisons director recently signed off on allowing inmates to transfer to prisons that match their ‘gender identity’ rather than biological sex—and attain sex changes on the taxpayer dime.”
Ian Fury, Noem’s spokesman, told The Daily Signal that Hochman mischaracterized South Dakota’s prison policy (available here), which a former secretary of corrections adopted in June 2021 following a legal settlement agreement.
“Our policy is substantially similar to other states. Our Department of Corrections is reviewing the policy to see if there is any room for improvement,” Fury said. Referring to the prison housing policy, the governor’s spokesman noted that placements “are decided on a case-by-case basis, but such requests have been denied every time they have been made.”
Elsewhere, female prison inmates have suffered at the hands of male inmates who claim to identify as transgender. Ramel Blount, 33, a male who said he identifies as female, pleaded guilty to attempted rape of a female inmate in the women’s section of New York’s Rikers Island jail in February 2021.
The South Dakota prison policy states that “inmate housing is not based exclusively on external genital anatomy of those housed in the unit or facility,” and that “requests by a transgender, intersex or gender dysphoric inmate to transfer to a facility inconsistent with the inmate’s external genital anatomy (sex), may be considered.”
The prison system’s Gender Dysphoria Committee investigates any such request, and makes a recommendation. According to the document, all such requests shall be considered on a “case-by-case basis.” Fury told The Daily Signal that the secretary of corrections (currently Kellie Wasko) has ultimate discretion on placement of inmates.
The policy follows national regulations for enforcement of the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, which state that “housing and programming decisions for transgender and intersex inmates cannot be based solely on genital status.”
South Dakota’s corrections policy explicitly “recognizes the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) standards of care for transsexual, transgender, and gender-nonconforming individuals.” The document states that these “standards are intended to offer flexible directions for treatment and to offer optimal health care,” adding that medical professionals “may modify the standards in response to a person’s unique situation.”
Fury said the state Department of Corrections is reexamining the policy’s endorsement of the standards adopted by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health. Critics claim that the organization acts as an activist group, encouraging the notion that gender identity overrides biological sex and pushing potentially dangerous medical interventions in the name of health care.
If South Dakota prison inmates received cross-sex hormones in pursuit of a transgender identity before incarceration, they may continue to receive the hormones, pending a lawful prescription from a licensed physician and approval of the clinical care team, according to the corrections policy.
The Gender Dysphoria Committee reviews requests for “new hormone treatment,” and inmates must satisfy more requirements to begin a course of drugs to make their bodies appear to match a body of the opposite sex.
South Dakota’s policy traces back to a February 2021 settlement with Jenna Hansen, a male inmate who identifies as a woman. Hansen sued in 2017, demanding $750,000 in damages and contesting the Department of Corrections’ refusal to grant him cross-sex hormones. According to the Argus Leader, the state agreed to provide Hansen with “all medically necessary medical treatments,” and to “address gaps in prison policies that did not recognize transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals.”
National Review’s Hochman drew attention to South Dakota’s prison policy in a lengthy article criticizing Noem’s record on transgender issues. He noted that Noem previously employed a lobbyist who worked for Sanford Health, the state’s top employer. (Noem sent The Daily Signal a copy of the contract’s termination).
Sanford Health had lobbied against a bill that would prevent biological males from competing in women’s sports—a bill that Noem vetoed. The governor later signed another bill on the transgender sports issue, one that her office claims is stronger.
Sanford is also hosting a Midwest Gender Identity Summit this week with a transgender activist group. Noem has condemned the group and canceled a state Health Department contract with the organization before parting ways with her health director afterward.
Current and former Sanford employees serve in the South Dakota Legislature, Hochman noted, and the top employer’s influence helps explain why South Dakota, a deep-red state, fails to pass key conservative legislation.
Sanford-tied legislators often oppose efforts to curtail transgender ideology, even if they run as Republicans. Sanford lobbyists appeared to oppose conscience rights for medical practitioners who object to performing abortions and transgender surgeries, along with a ban on puberty blockers and transgender surgery for minors under 16. These bills failed.
Conservatives and liberals have spoken out against South Dakota’s prison housing policy for different reasons.
“From the very first page, the policy asserts multiple aspects of a dangerous lie: that a person can change their gender, and that experimental surgeries and chemical castrations are helpful treatments,” Norman Woods, director of the Family Heritage Alliance, told The Daily Signal.
In a Twitter thread, Arielle Zionts, a rural health reporter for Kaiser Health News, responded to Hochman’s claim about South Dakota’s prison policy.
“Federal law requires certain protections for trans inmates,” Zionts noted. “Not every trans inmate requests or is granted gender-related health care or a transfer. I met a trans man in the women’s prison. I know there are trans women in the men’s prisons.”
Zionts noted Hansen’s case, writing that “the state settled but Hansen says the state is not following the settlement, that guards regularly call her ‘it.’”
The ACLU of South Dakota, which represents prison inmates who claim to be transgender and are suing the state Department of Corrections, did not respond to The Daily Signal’s request for comment.
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