Social Justice Matters: Protections for Transgender Prisoners

One of the things I bring up over and over again in my discussions about prison reform is that if we are going to claim that we are imprisoning people to protect society, we owe them protection in turn. People in prison are human beings and they deserve human rights. They deserve to not be physically assaulted, raped, exploited, abused. Yet, these protections are often not provided. Prisoners as a whole are much more likely to experience all of those things than the population of the world in general.

Some groups of prisoners are particularly vulnerable. I’ve touched on the problems encountered by disabled prisoners such as prisoners with mental illness in the past and today I’ve like to turn to transgender prisoners, which the prison system just cannot seem to make a decision on how to handle. Some prisons segregate their transgender prisoners, treating them as basically a completely different class of people. Not a solution. Some prisoners put them in the general population with people of the wrong gender. Also not a solution. Others stick them in solitary confinement ‘for safety.’ Not a solution.

A lot of the handling of trans prisoners is heavily predicated by medicalised views of gender. If you are, for example, a transsexual woman who has had genital reconstruction surgery, you are far more likely to be incarcerated with other women. If you are a transgender woman who cannot access surgery or doesn’t want it, you will be housed with men. Because you are ‘biologically male’ in the eyes of the prison system.

Another transgender inmate in the same prison, Punja Scott, who calls herself Jazzie, said sometimes just being put in a cell with a man for the first night in prison can be a risk and commonly ends in rape. After the first night, an inmate can request a different cell, but sometimes the damage has been done. (source)

‘The damage.’ That’s a nice way to refer to prison rape. It’s ‘damaging.’ Guess what happens when you’re a prisoner and you attempt to report a rape?

The same article cites a prison official saying:

When transgender inmates report a crime committed against them, they are treated as any other inmate and the crime is investigated just as it would be outside.

Uh-huh. Setting aside the assumptions about the quality of law enforcement response when it comes to reporting rapes on the outside, why do I have a hard time believing that, I wonder. Oh, right, here’s why:

No matter how bad things have gotten, Rosa has never gone to prison administrators for help. Behind bars, the victims of rape are often treated as badly as the assailants are, locked in solitary confinement and denied even the very modest freedoms Rosa has come to cherish. (source)

Transgender prisoners are also not rare:

Transgender women are more likely to end up in prison than virtually anyone else. The oft-quoted statistic about African American men — that one in four has a history of incarceration — is dwarfed by the available stats on people who are male-to-female, or MTF. A San Francisco Department of Public Health survey conducted in 1997 found that almost two thirds of MTF respondents had been incarcerated. More than 30 percent had spent some time behind bars during the preceding 12 months.

Most people agree that the high incarceration rate is due mainly to the difficulty trans people have finding and keeping work (see “Transjobless,” page 13). To survive, they often turn to sex work, drug dealing, or other illegal forms of moneymaking — and, in the process, greatly increase their risk of arrest.

“As long as trans people have been excluded from the legal economy, they’ve been in prison,” says Alexander Lee, an attorney who founded the Oakland-based Transgender, Gender Variant, and Intersex Justice Project.

There’s no official count of how many California inmates are trans, but Lee, who has had contact with about 80 prisoners in the past couple years, estimates there are probably 200 transgender inmates throughout the state penal system — and at least another thousand who are gender variant, meaning they bend traditional gender roles in some way. (This includes particularly masculine women or effeminate men.) Prisoners are far more likely to be MTF than FTM.

There are also significant intersections with race and class here. Transgender people of colour and people living in poverty are less likely to access community support. They are less likely to be able to access medical transition. They are more likely to be fingered for crimes and less likely to be able to afford to defend themselves.

I’ve noted the issue with access to medical care in prisons; guess who often doesn’t get medical treatment? Transgender prisoners. They may be denied access to counseling, they are certainly not provided with hormones if they are pursuing medical transition, and as for access to surgery…

If you are transgender, you are more likely to be incarcerated, as discussed above. Once you enter incarceration, you are more likely to be inappropriately housed, because most systems use a highly medicalised, cissexist, and binarist system for making housing assignments. If you are assaulted while in prison, which you most probably will be, you are less likely to be provided with appropriate medical care, let alone justice. And it’s highly probable that even if you aren’t assaulted, the medical care you need to stay alive will be denied.

The media occasionally picks up stories on transgender prisoners, I think because they view it as ‘odd news.’ It’s ‘interesting,’ you see, because we are like strange space aliens. Throughout these articles, prisoners are misgendered, dehumanising language is used, and the overall thrust is not very heartening. These articles are not published to make the community aware of the human rights crisis in the prison system, of the tremendous dangers posed to transgender and transsexual people in prison.

They are published because the media seems to think people might be interested, in an abstract, kinda academic way. ‘Oh look, honey,’ someone will say over morning coffee, reading about the absurdly high rates of rape and physical abuse experienced by transgender prisoners.

‘How interesting.’