Trigger Warning for discussions of sexual violence, prison violence, anti-trans violence, rape apologism, and transphobia and misgendering.
Recently, a woman was allegedly raped orally by a prison guard at Riverside Correctional Facility. She reported the assault to authorities, and an investigation was begun. During that investigation, officials learned that she was not cis, as they had apparently been assuming, and promptly transferred her to a male prison (trigger warning on the link).
Jovanie Saldana, who has been named by prison authorities and the media despite being the victim of sexual assault, has now had her basic rights violated many times over. She was violated when a prison guard entered her cell and forced her to perform oral sex on him. She was violated when her brave decision to report this assault resulted in an investigation that placed her under scrutiny and revoked her right to privacy. She was violated when she was sent to a male prison, both denying her true gender and placing her at extreme risk of further physical and sexual violence. And she was violated when her name was released and spread without concern for her privacy or safety.
Clearly, trans prison inmates are not seen to be deserving of the same rights as their cis, non-inmate counterparts. That Saldana is a black woman also could not have helped these already abusive and oppressive figures to see her as more human. (Indeed, trans women of color are at much higher risk of violence than white trans women.) Saldana’s cousin strongly believes that the transfer to a men’s prison is retaliation for her rape allegations; the timing, media attention, and reaction of the prison guard’s union certainly make these charges credible.
If true, it means that the Pennsylvania prison system essentially punished an inmate for reporting rape by subjecting her to likely future rapes. (Fifty-nine percent of trans women are sexually assaulted while incarcerated, and the vast majority of trans women inmates are housed in men’s facilities.) Even if retaliation was not the primary motive behind the decision to move Saldana, the facts remain the same; a victim of prison rape has not been protected, but instead placed in a position where future prison rape is more likely than not.
The Philadelphia Inquirer, however, is far more concerned with Saldana’s gender presentation and genitals than with the allegation that she was raped by a prison guard who had control over every aspect of her daily life. They also are far more concerned about the prison’s apparently lax policy on cavity searches than the fact that a woman is now residing very unsafely in a men’s prison so shortly after reporting that assault. Indeed, they seem more concerned about the threat that Saldana allegedly presented to her fellow prisoners merely by existing:
A source close to the prison system, who asked not to be identified, complained that the slip-up “jeopardized a lot of women over there [at Riverside],” adding that Saldana tallied at least two infractions for fighting with other inmates during Saldana’s stint in the female jail. On average, Riverside houses about 730 inmates daily, Hawes said.
Of course, it’s not noted how many “infractions” most inmates at Riverside have or whether Saldana is the one who instigated the fights. It’s also not explained how, exactly, Saldana is more of a threat than any other inmate at the prison. We’re simply supposed to “understand” that trans women are “really men,” and therefore threatening to all cis women. The specter of sexual violence is also present, as trans women are routinely portrayed by everyone from Christian Conservatives to self-identified feminists as sexually predatory men in disguise.
Through this defamatory portrayal of Saldana, we are supposed to forget that the true sexually violent perpetrator was a cis man. In reality, it’s Saldana who was the victim of sexual violence, and the real threat to the safety of all women in the prison, both trans and cis, was the armed cis guard lording over them. Only in a kyriarchal society could the black trans woman who was raped and then placed in a position where she is very likely to be raped again be effectively transformed into the “real” sexual threat against more socially valued womanhood.
Indeed, the corrections officers’ union plans to exploit Saldana’s trans status to brand her as a liar, unrapeable, or some combination of both (warning for misgendering):
Lorenzo North, president of the union representing corrections officers, declined to discuss the officers’ failure to perform the required cavity searches.
“I don’t know how [Saldana] got through,” North said, adding that all inmates should be searched. “If you don’t strip-search somebody thoroughly, then you’re not 100 percent sure of getting whatever [contraband] that inmate has. He may have something up his butt.”
But North claimed the goof proved that the officer whom Saldana accused of sexual abuse is innocent.
The officer was transferred to another prison after Saldana’s recent complaint.
“I’m trying to get him back to RCF [Riverside] as soon as possible, because he didn’t do anything wrong,” North said.
How, exactly, Saldana being trans — and officers failing to do their jobs, for that matter — proves that she lied about being raped is not exactly clear. We are either to assume that trans women are “liars” by mere fact of living their lives as women (and that people who lie sometimes cannot tell the truth about being raped), or that trans women have no right to bodily autonomy to begin with and therefore cannot be sexually violated.
Either way, the purposeful dehumanization of Saldana and all inmates by proxy is terrifying, as is the stark inability to accept responsibility and hold guards to a standard of professionalism. North’s attitude as a prison guard authority inadvertently makes it incredibly easy to see how the original sexual assault occurred in the first place. Clearly it’s because those tasked with protecting prisoner safety do not give a shit, and excuses for violations will always be made.
This woman’s safety has been severely jeopardized. She needs protection and recovery services for the assault she endured, not an incredibly more dangerous set of surroundings and public outing. The prison system has behaved abysmally, showing a blatant disregard for inmate safety. Rape is not supposed to be a part of the punishment for any crime. And this rule isn’t only supposed to apply if you’re cis.