Today, AlterNet has a story written by transwoman and transgender activist Kalani Key, describing the time that she spent incarcerated in all male prisons.

It’s definitely worth a read. Key, a former heroin addict, describes the first time that she was sent to jail, when there were special prisons set up for “Category B” prisoners — transwomen and “effeminate” and gay men. But in the early 90s they abolished this system and started sending most transwomen who had not undergone genital surgery and men of all sexual orientations to male prisons, but of course without changing a damn thing about their policies to accommodate sexual and gender minorities and make sure that they were safe.

And yet, from the descriptions by TGI Justice Project, a gender-variant prison reform group that Key works with, her experiences, though bad, were mild by comparison. For example, in one prison, Key managed to make friends with other prisoners and therefore gain protection from sexual objectification and assault. Many, if not most, are not so lucky. She also describes sexual harassment by the guards, and once being locked in a psychiatric ward because no doctor would examine her after seeing her surgically and hormonally altered genitals.

None of this, of course, should ever have to be considered “mild” or “lucky” by any stretch of the imagination. But according to TGI (and common sense), it’s extremely common for transwomen to be sexually assaulted by fellow-prisoners and guards– significantly more common than for other prisoners, which is saying a lot. They are routinely denied their right to hormone therapy, even with a legal prescription. And transwomen are also commonly put into solitary confinement or other types of “protection” to keep them safe from other prisoners, but of course this doesn’t guarantee safety from the guards. In addition, such isolation can cause severe mental distress and often denies these women their right to the recreation, education and rehabilitative programs that are available to other prisoners.

Why should we care? Well, other than the fact that women are being systematically sexually assaulted in U.S. prisons and denied basic human rights, Key gives us another reason:

We don’t have records of how many trans people are in prison because there is no Category “B” anymore. But we do know that one in three of us has been incarcerated at some point because there is a lot of policing and profiling in our communities. Police always come by and harass us. I’ve been arrested for being a public nuisance just for standing on the sidewalk. Because many trans people can’t get jobs, they end up doing criminal activity in some form to survive. This means we end up in prison at a higher rate, and many of the girls now go through hell when they’re there.

Those are insane numbers, and anyone who has ever spent any time reading about trans issues or talking to trans people would know that they’re no exaggeration.

So what’s the answer? Well, the obvious one that springs to mind is to go back to segregation. It would be the easiest one, and could potentially be a short-term fix to keep people safe, but I don’t think that I’ll ever be able to bring myself to get behind segregating transgender people from everyone else. The other obvious solution would be to place prisoners among people of the same gender that they identify with. But that also raises a lot of sexual assault issues — transmen would be particularly at risk for sexual assault in male prisons, and transwomen who have not undergone genital reconstruction would likely be perceived as a sexual threat (fairly or not) in female prisons.

Stop Prison rape has several recommendations (pdf), including commonsense strategies like awareness training for staff, thoughtful pairing of cellmates and a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault. The Transgender Law Center’s recommendations (pdf) include consideration for community-based alternatives to prisons for gender variant people, and also believe that prisons will not be safe for trans people without major overhauls of the prison system (which is certainly a good idea for everyone). Anyone with additional resources should leave them in the comments, but it seems that this is a problem with no ideal solutions. Unfortunately, it’s also a problem that most people don’t even acknowledge, and even fewer discuss.


1 Rachel December 7, 2007 at 2:11 pm

My father was a state trooper for 25 years. I learned a lot from him, as every child does from their parents, but I think I really learned the most about him as a person after he retired in 2000: he is racist, homophobic, and sexist. And he was a “good cop,” too.

But what I also learned after he retired (he never spoke of his job much while in it) is how little he cares for “criminals.” And once someone was labeled that way in his eyes, that’s how they stayed – subhuman, breathing piles of shit with no values or morals, basically. And certainly no value to society. I don’t think he really believes in the concept of rehabilitation.

So when I think of prison guards, I think of my father – who was not one, but received sort of similar training – and I am not at all surprised when I find out about what they do. I think as part of their role in the prisons, they really find it necessary to dehumanize the prisoners. Otherwise, if they looked at them as “people” instead of “numbers,” they’d have to understand that they’re not better on the inside than the people they’re locking in every night.

Asking for prison systems to ensure the well-being and safety of prisoners shouldn’t be a laughable task – but considering that prisons refuse to distribute condoms in the male populations because it will “encourage” sexual assault, despite the fact that HIV rates in prisons are on the rise, can we really expect that they will take any extra steps toward offering protection to a “special interest” group like transpeople? And go ahead – say the word “transgender” to a cop. Watch his face. It’s so totally disheartening.

Of course, that’s all based on my own experience with a very small group of state troopers – my father and his friends. But I think to a certain extent one can extrapolate those characteristics a bit.

The most obvious step, in my mind, toward protection for transpeople and gay prisoners would be to institute a training course for law enforcement officials of any capacity that doesn’t condition them to think that “trans,” “gay” and “queer” are wrong.

But of course, that’s like asking a bear to lay eggs.

2 Cara December 7, 2007 at 3:20 pm

Thanks for sharing, Rachel. Sadly, your description is one that I hear often. And unfortunately, all of the cops that I have met in my life (a dozen?) were assholes. I’m sure that there has to be some good ones out there, but I sure don’t know where to find them.

But I don’t really think that it’s an either/or question. The system encourages this kind of behavior. The system trains law enforcement to accept and condone this kind of behavior. And positions of authority often do attract bad, control-freak types. It seems to me that there are bad people/cops, and then there is also a bad system turning decent people into bad people/cops (obviously, I do not know which category your father would fall into).

3 Rachel December 7, 2007 at 4:22 pm

Sadly, Cara, I don’t know either.

4 damia December 7, 2007 at 8:13 pm

Sylvia Rivera Law Project also released a report on the experiences of trans and intersex people in men’s prisons earlier this year:

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