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.