Content warning: This article discusses abuse and suicide.
Trans reality TV star and beauty influencer Nikita Nguyen, known as Nikita Dragun, may not have the best reputation but that doesn’t give anyone a pass not to recognize her gender identity. And this is exactly what the Miami-Dade County Corrections Department did when they housed her in a jail with men.
NBC News reports that Nguyen was taken into custody on the night of Nov. 7 in Miami time at The Goodtime Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida and charged with felony assault of a police officer as well as misdemeanor battery and misdemeanor disorderly conduct charges. According to the affidavit, the arrest was made after she caused a disturbance, walked around the pool area naked, and threw an open water bottle at a responding police officer.
Nguyen was then transported and booked at the men’s unit of the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center with a bond set at $2,000. The Miami-Dade County Corrections Department also wrote in the affidavit that Nguyen “appears as a female but would like to be recognized as a male” and used he/him pronouns in addressing her. The department is said to have yet to respond to requests for comment.
Luckily, Nguyen was released on recognizance, meaning she did not have to post bail, and is scheduled for an arraignment hearing on Dec. 7. While we don’t condone her actions, it is also important to recognize that her personal safety and rights were violated by that arrangement.
“The situation with Nikita, who is legally female, being placed in a men’s unit of a Florida jail is extremely disturbing and dangerous,” Nguyen’s publicist Jack Ketsoyan said in a statement. “This decision made by the Miami-Dade County Corrections Department directly violates their protocol, which mandates that transgender inmates are classified and housed based on safety needs and gender identity. Nikita has been released and is now safe. Thank you for respecting her privacy during this time.”
NBC News reported in 2020 that out of 4,890 transgender state prisoners tracked in 45 states and Washington, D.C., it was able to confirm only 15 cases in which a prisoner was housed according to their gender.
The publication also cited a 2015 report by the U.S. Department of Justice that stated 35 percent of transgender people who had spent time in prison in the previous year reported being sexually assaulted by staff or fellow prisoners. Even more troubling is how these sexual assaults and other abuses are underreported. Many current and former trans persons deprived of liberty (PDL) have opened up about guards dismissing their reports or retaliating through cruel methods like solitary confinement.
In a story by CNN detailing lawsuits filed by incarcerated trans women against U.S. correctional facilities, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation alone has recorded 272 out of 1,277 incarcerated individuals that identify as transgender, non-binary or intersex that have requested gender-based housing transfer requests. Not even accounting cases unreported, this is a chillingly high number considering how lives are at stake. Apart from accounts of repeated abuse, victim suicide attempts have also been recorded.
The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) exists in the U.S. which dictates that housing assignments must not be simply on the basis of a person’s “genital status” and should consider an incarcerated person’s “own views regarding his or her own safety.” How this translates in real-life leaves much to be desired.
Locally, the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) passed its Policy on the Treatment of LGBTQI PDL in the BJMP in 2018. Its section on housing states in part: “After admission, the LGBTQI PDL shall be placed with fellow LGBTQls in a cell separate from other ordinary male or female cells provided that the jail has an available cell dedicated for this purpose. However, a trans woman (those who have undergone hormone therapy to attain breast enlargement or those with breast implants) and transsexual male PDL who have undergone sex change shall be housed separately from the rest of the population as they are in danger of being subjected to physical and sexual abuse due to their identity, physical appearance, and attributes.”
While the policy laudably emphasizes gender sensitivity and SOGIE education, the bureau’s definition of transness isn’t completely free of discrimination as it’s still hinged on undergoing gender-affirming therapy or operation. Security is listed as the priority in the policy but some of the wording makes it seem optional. It also suspiciously feels like all LGBTQIA+ being lumped under a vague third gender. It’s difficult to get the number of reported human rights violations of LGBTQIA+ PDL in the country, but the accounts of abuse are not dissimilar to ones reported in the U.S.
Nikita Dragun’s case sheds a light on how prison systems, for years, have been disregarding the rights of trans inmates as it fails to educate staff about SOGIE and anti-discrimination standards and fails to put abusers within its system to justice. Hopefully, this changes soon.