Ashlee Inscoe sleeps in a prison unit with 33 men at Avery-Mitchell Correctional Institution in Spruce Pine, North Carolina.

Inscoe, a 40-year-old intersex, transgender woman is waiting to be recognized and treated in alignment with her gender identity and has been housed at Avery-Mitchell since early 2018 when she transferred from another all-men’s facility, Craven Correctional Institution. Her most recent transfer requests have been repeatedly denied. Late last month, Inscoe’s attorney filed a court order against North Carolina’s Commissioner of Prisons, Todd Ishee, asking the court to force Ishee to transfer Inscoe to a women’s facility.   

In North Carolina, transgender, gender-variant, and intersex people are housed by the gender assigned to them at birth or their genital characteristics, which puts them at a higher risks of physical and sexual violence. 

“I just want to be safe and make it home,” Inscoe, who is expected to serve a prison sentence for robbery until 2031, told the INDY of her incarceration. 

In March, Inscoe sent a letter to a group of advocates seeking help with her case and explaining that she has constant pain in her abdomen and needs surgery to remove residual painful gonad material.

“DPS need not wait for a tragedy to respond to the dire needs of intersex and transgender persons in its care,” Inscoe wrote in the letter. “I am facing escalating distress and growing fears for my safety. I have filed grievances within the DPS system and have exhausted those remedies with nothing in return but denials, heartache, and fear of retaliation by officials.” 

This summer, North Carolina Department of Public Safety (N.C. DPS) prison commissioner Ishee and his counsel received an 11-page-letter from Emancipate NC, interACT: Advocates for Intersex Youth, and Transgender, Gender-variant, Intersex (TGI) Justice Project, three organizations that are now advocating for Inscoe. The letter details the state’s violations of  Inscoe’s human rights and demands that DPS transfer her immediately to the North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women in Raleigh. It also demands that her pressing medical needs immediately be addressed. The advocates gave prison officials until August 24 to discuss remediation.

In their request, the advocates cited the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments and argue that N.C. DPS is violating the U.S. Constitution and even its own policies. Under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), prison officials are obligated to protect all incarcerated individuals and assess their risk of sexual abuse and assault and take reasonable steps to keep them safe. They are also obligated to provide adequate medical care.

In North Carolina, requests for transgender accommodations are sent to the Facility Transgender Accommodation Review Committee (FTARC) and the Division Transgender Accommodation Review Committee (DTARC). The committees are expected to review all aspects of the requests and base decisions on whether they protect an incarcerated person’s welfare.

In an August letter, DPS Deputy General Counsel Jodi Harrison said, in response to the advocates’ “myriad allegations,” that FTARC and the DTARC concluded that DPS is providing Inscoe with constitutionally adequate care. 

“We are confident the decisions that these committees have made with regard to this offender have been thoughtful, deliberative, and fully in line with NCDPS policies,” Harrison wrote. 

Attorneys for Inscoe disagree.

“Unfortunately, many prison officials are transparently hostile to the rights of transgender people, and this adversely affects the judgment of the TARC teams,” says Elizabeth Simpson, an attorney and the associate director of Emancipate NC. “This seems to be what is going on with Ashlee, because medical professionals are unanimous that she needs surgery and is a woman who would be safer in a women’s prison.” 

On September 30, Simpson filed a writ of mandamus—a type of court order directed to a government official warning them that they’re breaking the law—in Wake County Superior Court asking the court to direct commissioner Ishee to transfer Inscoe to a women’s facility. 

The FTARC met in October of 2020 to review Inscoe’s original requests for a transfer. 

In a letter written after Inscoe’s case was reviewed, Shawn Hartzog, an FTARC facilitator and psychologist, says the committee “presented information that endocrinologist E. Klett, MD had recognized this inmate’s intersex condition with the documentation of XX karyotype and recommended transfer to all female facility.” 

DPS’s current policy only accomodates transgender people and not anyone with an intersex condition. Therefore, the letter continued, the “team resolves that [Inscoe] will need to accept the rules of the facility, the decision made by administration, and the decisions set by this committee.” 

But Inscoe says cases like hers should be considered on individual bases. 

“Despite PREA’s mandate and DPS’s formal implementation of it, however, my case and situation demonstrates that intersex and transgender prisoners are being subjected to blanket rules with regard to placement,” said Inscoe in a March letter to the coalition.

Inscoe is not alone in her experience. 

Kanautica Zayre-Brown, a transgender woman, was housed in a men’s facility from 2017 until she finally won the battle, with assistance from her supporters, to get transferred to a women’s facility in 2019. Zayre-Brown is believed to be the first transgender person to be transferred from one gender facility to another in North Carolina. 

“It is my hope that the struggle and constant battle I’m facing will not only result in my transfer to a women’s prison,” Inscoe said in her letter to the coalition of advocates, “but also help other trans and intersex women who are in prison in North Carolina to be housed where they not only feel safe from physical and sexual violence, but to be free of the systemic hatred, homophobia/transphobia, and binary mentality that plagues prisons.” 

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