Trigger Warning for descriptions of sexual violence, specifically sexual violence committed in a prison setting against a trans woman.
The New York Times reports today that a New York City correction officer has been arrested and charged with committing a “criminal sexual act” against a trans woman who was an inmate in the jail where he was working. The alleged victim has also filed a lawsuit against the city over this assault, a previous assault by a nurse in the prison ward of a hospital, and the city’s failure to take action to keep her safe.
The victim, a 23-year-old transgender woman, was an inmate in a male housing unit at the Manhattan Detention Complex near City Hall, where she was being held on a parole violation, when the attack took place in September 2009.
According to a suit filed against the city last month, the woman said the correction officer, Roberto Morales, 40, groped and sexually harassed her several times over the course of about a month.
Her lawyer, Ilann M. Maazel, said in an interview that the woman had undergone hormone therapy but had not had gender reassignment surgery. In one instance, the lawyer said, Officer Morales was escorting the woman from a clinic when he pushed her into a stairwell and forced himself on her. A rape kit found DNA implicating the officer in the attack, he said.
According to a complaint filed in court, the victim had filed a grievance with the Correction Department about a month before the stairwell attack took place, complaining that Officer Morales had repeatedly harassed her.
In her suit against the city, the woman alleged that she was also assaulted earlier in the summer of 2009 when — as an inmate at Rikers Island — she was taken to the prison ward of a hospital for treatment. In that incident, a nurse forced her to perform oral sex on him in her hospital room, the suit contends. The nurse, Carl Wiley, later pleaded guilty to committing a criminal sexual act.
It should go without saying — though Maazel, too, makes the point of saying it anyway — that this is hardly an isolated incident. As a general rule, for every rape case that makes the news there’s probably going to be about 10 similar cases that won’t. But once we start talking about a marginalized group of people that is even less likely to report assault, and assault in an environment like jail where reporting is both implicitly and explicitly discouraged, I’ve completely lost my ability to even estimate.
In short, rape is an enormous problem for all inmates in U.S. jails and prisons throughout the country, but specific manifestations of oppression ensure that trans women are among the most vulnerable of inmate populations. And while travesty enough that new guidelines designed to prevent and better respond to prison rape have not yet been implemented, I wouldn’t even hold my breath for the unique problems regarding the safety of trans* prisoners to be specifically or adequately addressed once action is finally taken.
Housing trans* inmates in facilities appropriate to their genders is a vital and necessary step, but hardly the solution alone. It’s true that placing trans* inmates in inappropriate facilities is knowingly and deliberately misgendering and therefore dehumanizing, and thus leads to attitudes that sexual assaulting a trans woman is more acceptable than sexually assaulting a cis woman, or any other human being. But as long as gender segregation exists in jails and prisons at all — and there are very good reasons for the segregation currently in place — non-binary trans* folks are still left without an appropriate and safe option for placement. Further, cis women are still capable of extraordinary transphobia and violence against trans women, as are cis men against trans men. In other words, while it is flat out wrong that women are being placed in men’s prisons and vice versa, correcting this real issue doesn’t necessarily stop the violence so much as it changes the perpetrators.
And other inmates aren’t even necessarily the problem to begin with. In this story, it is guards and others in positions of authority. The fact that the victim in this case happened to be assaulted by a cis male guard in a men’s jail doesn’t mean that a different cis male guard wouldn’t have behaved similarly if she’d been housed in a women’s jail. Cis women, after all, are assaulted while in custody all the time. The larger problems involve the pervasiveness of transphobia and transmisogyny on a structural level, the degree of authority that guards have over inmates, the fact that some guards are rapists, and the failure to respond to complaints regarding those rapists. (Which isn’t even to begin to address why and how we incarcerate so many people to begin with!)
Here, before the assault itself took place, the woman complained about being victimized via harassment by the same guard, only to be ignored. The decision to sweep the harassment under the rug — to decide that harassment against an inmate, against a trans women, does not matter and is not worth addressing — directly and purposely compromised this woman’s safety, and led to the guard’s ability to assault her.
And this is hardly a unique or unusual occurrence.
The only possible silver lining is that if even Gawker is outraged about the treatment of trans* prisoners in U.S. jails and prisons (comments never recommended), the issue might finally be gaining some momentum. But how many more women must be raped or otherwise violated before enough cis people get angry enough to demand a change?