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Texas county makes major policy shift to protect LGBT inmates

HOUSTON — The sheriff of Houston’s Harris County has adopted a sweeping policy designed to protect and guarantee equal treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender inmates, including allowing transgender individuals to be housed based on the gender they identify with rather than their biological sex.

Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia’s office believes the new policy is one of the most comprehensive in the country. It states that ‘‘discrimination or harassment of any kind based on sexual orientation or gender identity is strictly prohibited,’’ and outlines how such inmates will be searched, booked, and housed, according to a copy of the policy obtained by the Associated Press.

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The policy also covers intersex inmates, defined as people born with sex chromosomes or reproductive systems that are not considered standard.

Houston has the third-largest county jail in the nation, after Los Angeles and Chicago’s Cook County, and processes about 125,000 inmates annually. Other major jails, including those in Los Angeles, Denver, and Washington have taken similar steps to meet new federal standards to protect inmates from sexual abuse and assault.

But Harris County is the first in Texas to adopt such an extensive policy, according to Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, which inspects, regulates, and provides technical assistance to county jails.

The 11-page policy, along with a separate three-page document protecting this population from workplace discrimination, went into effect Wednesday and was the culmination of a thorough review that began in July 2012.

Garcia’s office reviewed policies in 20 other law enforcement agencies across the country, including in Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami-Dade County in Florida, and Las Vegas, as well as an International Association of Chiefs of Police database, said sheriff’s spokesman Alan Bernstein. Harris County borrowed from each to come up with a policy deemed more comprehensive, he said.

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‘‘It represents a significant step forward,’’ said Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy for the Washington-based National Center for Transgender Equality, which worked closely with Garcia’s staff.

The new policy may be notable because it is occurring in a staunchly red state proud of its conservative values, Tobin said. But she emphasized it’s not about politics.

‘‘This is not a red or blue issue,’’ Tobin said. ‘‘It is an issue of preventing violence, of meeting the state’s legal and moral responsibilities to keep people safe, and safeguarding public funds that when sexual abuse happens in prison need to be spent on medical care and mental health care and recovery.’’

In officially announcing the policy Thursday, Garcia said Harris County — like other municipalities that deal with federal law enforcement agencies — is required to comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act signed by President George W. Bush.

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