The recent arrival at the York County Jail of Connor MacCalister, a transgender man charged with murder in the stabbing of a Saco grandmother, has been an on-the-job lesson for officials there.

Though the county hasn’t yet finalized its own policy on transgender inmates, it has made decisions on how to house MacCalister that show a commendable willingness to learn from other jails’ best practices and should be a lesson statewide.

“Making appropriate housing placements for transgender (prisoners) is one of the most important decisions affecting their safety,” Harper Jean Tobin of the advocacy group National Center for Transgender Equality recently told the Portland Press Herald.

People who identify as the opposite of their birth gender are nine times more likely than other jail inmates to be sexually assaulted, according to a federal study released last year. Protections for transgender inmates are part of new national standards intended to eliminate prison rape, but many facilities around the country haven’t complied with the regulations.

That said, there’s more good news. The Cumberland County Jail was one of the first in the country to address the issue, putting in place a policy that balances inmate safety with legal and security challenges.

Where a transgender inmate is housed is determined by a committee made up of medical, security and mental health staff, who consult the inmate and take into consideration factors like health issues; the charges faced; any history of victimizing or being a victim of others behind bars; and length of incarceration.

That’s the approach taken in York County, where MacCalister is being housed with the female inmates (in an isolated cell, as is jail policy for those charged with murder). All this is evidence of a meaningful, good-faith effort. Some confusion is inevitable: Sheriff Bill King calls MacCalister “she,” though he uses MacCalister’s chosen name. But as long as progress continues, the terminology will fall into line.

Transgender people amount to 0.22 percent of those in state and federal prisons nationwide and 0.23 percent of inmates in the nation’s jails, federal researchers have found. But the number of inmates who don’t identify with their birth gender is probably far higher than these percentages reflect. Many corrections facilities don’t keep track of people who are transgender, and the danger of identifying as transgender in jail or prison can keep prisoners from “coming out” while incarcerated.

Regardless of what they’re charged with, people in jail or prison are there as punishment, not for punishment. Corrections facilities throughout Maine should recognize this and put in place policies that allow every inmate, regardless of gender identity, to serve their sentence safely.

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