As eight protesters were loaded into a van that would take them to the Davis County jail, a jailer told them: Ladies sit in the front. Men in the back.
At this point, Lesley Ann Shaw had undergone a breast sweep, despite having no breasts. They’d been repeatedly misgendered: Jail officials had referred to Shaw — who identifies as transgender and agender and uses the pronouns they and them — as female what “felt like every five seconds.”
When another protester spoke up, telling the jailer not everyone in the van identifies as female, Shaw remembers the officer saying, “That doesn’t matter. You’re going to be booked according to biology.”
The interactions had uncovered years’ worth of trauma, Shaw said. And it was all another indicator that law enforcement didn’t care about them — or anyone.
On the morning of Shaw’s July 12 arrest, they already believed jails don’t benefit society and only exist to reinforce damaging society power dynamics that favor the male, heterosexual and white population.
After being arrested, Shaw says, they knew it.
“I wasn’t even in there for a whole day,” Shaw said, “and it just made me really overwhelmed thinking about all the other people that are unjustly locked up in there, that have to go through this on a daily basis.”
The protesters were arrested after chaining themselves together inside the offices of the Management and Training Corporation (MTC), a private prison contractor and management company headquartered in Centerville.
Davis County Chief Deputy Ty Berger said that correctional officers at the jail did conduct a breast sweep, photographed Shaw’s chest and back tattoos and forced them to accept a bra, despite not having breasts.
All of that, he said, is jail policy.
Davis County officials declined to give The Salt Lake Tribune a copy of those policies and requested the newspaper fill out an open-records request. The request had not been filled as of Sept. 1.
Berger said his jail doesn’t receive many inmates who fall outside the gender binary of male and female, but when they do, jailers treat them with “dignity and respect.”
In recent years, jails have been learning how to adapt to shifting societal norms related to gender diversity and inclusivity, said Doyle Peck, president of the state’s Jail Commanders Association.
The issues with gender at correctional facilities extend beyond how jailers speak to inmates. As inherently gendered places, where men are housed with men and women are housed with women, these institutions must find ways to accommodate individuals who don’t fit neatly into that binary.
If they don’t, jail-reform advocates say, the consequences can go beyond misunderstandings and hurt feelings. There is also the possibility of assault and mental trauma, perhaps death, for inmates housed with those who’d do them harm. And inmates housed separately may do harm to themselves.
Shaw and the others arrested that day are part of a loosely structured group — self-described as an organism rather than an organization — that is critical of prisons, particularly private prisons. They were protesting MTC’s role in the separation of undocumented immigrants from their children.
MTC has said it does operate Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility, but doesn’t hold children — just adults.
Live videos of the protests posted to Johnson’s Facebook page show that officers negotiated with the group to leave the building for a few hours before they began arresting members.
When the arrests began, Psarah Johnson, who uses a wheelchair, was cited, rolled outside and left sitting alone on the sidewalk in front of the MTC office.
Centerville police Lt. Zan Robinson said the Davis County Sheriff’s Office, which transported the protesters to jail, didn’t have vehicles to accommodate her wheelchair.
Berger, with Davis County, said they have vehicles to carry wheelchairs and that Centerville police, the arresting agency, told them not to transport her.
Either way, Johnson said, it’s discrimination.
She says she knows it sounds strange to complain about not being arrested, but it underscores a reality she’s faced her whole life: that people see her disability as a weakness, and see her as not worth the effort to accommodate.
“This is what happens a lot to disabled people,” Johnson said. “We are forgotten. We are overlooked. We are treated as less than.”
Once arrests started, Shaw was one of first ones separated from the group and frisked, including a breast sweep, where officers run their hands around a person’s chest looking for weapons.
The West Bountiful officer told Shaw what they were about to do, and according to body camera video of the encounter, Shaw told the woman, “I don’t have any.”
“I just have to let you know,” the officer said.
Shaw remembers the officer laughed at them, and also told another officer: “I have something really funny to tell you, but I can’t tell you right now.”
Video given to the Tribune through an open-records request doesn’t pick up any laughter, or that comment. West Bountiful Police Chief Todd Hixson said the latter did occur, but was genuinely about something else.
But he said he can understand how Shaw’s perception of the incident could be different, given the vulnerable situation they were in.
Moments like that, says attorney L. Monte Sleight, a board member for the Pioneer Justice Center, demonstrate that jailers need more training for how to deal with marginalized segments of the population.
Peck says Cache County, where he’s chief deputy, started requiring sensitivity and diversity training for personnel about two years ago.
“I’m not going to say that there are zero correctional officers in the state who would [intentionally misgender someone] just to get a rise,” Peck said. But it’s not condoned, he said, and law enforcement is working to get better.
Peck said he tells his staffers that if they’re having trouble using someone’s preferred pronouns, they should defer to something gender neutral, like the person’s name or, simply, “inmate.”
The Utah Department of Corrections generally sorts inmates by the gender they were assigned at birth, though spokeswoman Kaitlin Felsted said they “address the housing and medical concerns of our LGBTQI population on a case-by-case basis.”
Salt Lake County jail, which houses inmates in Utah’s largest metropolitan area, began allowing detainees to self-identify their gender during the booking process about two years ago, Sgt. Kevin Hunt said.
It is difficult to ascertain what is, or ought to be, going on in other Utah jails.
Many keep their policies secret, citing a Utah law that prevents a record’s disclosure if it would “jeopardize the security or safety of a correctional facility, or records relating to incarceration, treatment, probation, or parole, that would interfere with the control and supervision of an offender's incarceration, treatment, probation, or parole.”
The Juab County jail cited that statute when it refused to release its policies for housing LGBTQ and disabled inmates to The Tribune.
Shane Stevenson, with the Utah Prison Advocacy Network, said he often comes across this issue as he tries to help inmates who’ve been mistreated while in jail or prison. This includes addicts who go into withdrawal and don’t have medical help, inmates injured during arrest or incarceration, and LGBTQ people facing violence and verbal and sexual abuse.
After a series of recent inmate deaths, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Disability Law Center are suing the state to challenge that interpretation and make jail standards public.
In the meantime, Shaw and Johnson say they plan to continue applying pressure and advocating for prison reform. As long as prisons exist, they say, so too will injustice for those inmates, especially those who come from marginalized communities.
In some ways, Johnson said it takes people like her and Shaw, those who understand what it means to be persecuted, to fight for this type of evolution.
For instance, some protesters complied with officers' orders to leave the building, Johnson said — and those who continued to protest were not cisgender, heterosexual white men.
Shaw has pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor charges of criminal trespassing and disorderly conduct. Johnson was not charged, according to court records.
Johnson said she hopes that changes, and that more privileged people begin advocating for those being persecuted.
Until then, “marginalized communities are fed up,” she said.
“And we’re willing to do whatever it takes to help each other out.”