A transgender woman charged with murder in Hennepin County is currently being held in solitary confinement in the county jail, local LGBT rights activists say. The activists are attacking the county for using a measure criticized by many national transgender rights organizations as a flawed attempt to keep the accused safe while she awaits trial.
The prisoner, 23-year old Chrishaun McDonald, has been charged in the murder of 47-year old Dean Schmitz, of Richfield, outside the Schooner Tavern on the night of June 5. Despite identifying as a woman, McDonald is currently being held on $150,000 bail in the men’s section of the county jail in downtown Minneapolis.
Solitary confinement is an imperfect solution to a terrible problem, said Michael Silverman, Executive Director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund.
“In jail, as in post-sentencing prison, transgender people are at great risk of harm from other prisoners,” Silverman told the Minnesota Independent. “We see high incidences of violence and sexual violence committed against them because they’re transgender.”
In a high-profile February report from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), researchers found that 37 percent of transgender inmates surveyed reported harassment by correctional officers, while only 35% reported harassment by fellow inmates. Sixteen percent reported physical assaults, and 15 percent reported sexual assaults while in a prison or a jail. Furthermore, black transgender inmates reported harassment rates 20–25 percent higher than their white peers.
“As a guiding principal, the safety and security of all inmates is paramount,” said Lisa Kiava, spokseperson for the Hennepin County Sherif’s Office.
Officials with the Sheriff’s Department could not be reached for comment on the county’s policies for holding transgender detainees, or why McDonald was being housed in the men’s section of the jail. However, several transgender rights organizations say solitary confinement is one way jails and prisons try to protect transgender prisoners from other inmates.
“It’s a terrible proposed solution that’s implemented too widely,” said Lisa Motett, an attorney with the NGLTF and an author of the Task Force’s recent report on anti-transgender discrimination.
While solitary confinement keeps a transgender prisoner and their assailant separated, Motett said, being kept in solitary confinement typically limits or eliminates a prisoner’s ability to use exercise yards, libraries and other prison facilities.
“Solitary confinement is incredibly punitive,” Motett told the Minnesota Independent. “It punishes the victim instead of the perpetrator.”
“Chrishaun McDonald’s case is a tragedy, but unfortunately it’s not a rarity,” said Katie Burgess, Executive Director of the Trans Youth Support Network. “Although none of us knows all the details about what happened on June 5, we do know that the deck is stacked against Ms. McDonald, and we ask concerned community members to support her in her trial.”
Burgess said at a press conference on Tuesday that she and other community members worried McDonald would not receive a fair trial because she is transgender.
McDonald reportedly confessed to stabbing Schmitz in a fight after Schmitz and others at the Schooner Tavern asked her, “Did you think you were going to rape somebody in those girl clothes?” The remark started a brawl, during which Schmitz was stabbed. He later died from his wounds.
Hennepin County attorneys say Schmitz was trying to break up the brawl when McDonald stabbed him, but McDonald’s friends maintain the attack was in self-defense. In a letter sent from jail, McDonald recanted her earlier confession, saying she was covering for unknown members of the group she was with at the Schooner Tavern.
Burgess suggested that transphobia could make a jury discount these and other pieces of McDonald’s story.
Meanwhile, friends of McDonald present at Tuesday’s press conference were adamant that she was not a murderer.
“That’s not CC,” said McDonald’s friend David Tomlinson. “That’s not who she was.”