What we know is there are trans people and there are prisons and sometimes the two overlap. It happens all over, but I’m from California, so let’s talk about the US. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world, beating Russia, Rwanda, and China by far. We have about five percent of the world’s population and twenty-five percent of world inmates, spending about $24,000 (€18,000) per inmate per year. The statistics are fuzzier regarding who is transgender, but recent estimates place about 0.3% of adults. A small subset, and yet we are disproportionately arrested. Sixteen percent of US trans people report incarceration at some point, though the spread isn’t even. You can make that twenty-one percent for transgender women, and forty-seven percent for people who are transgender and black.
Because the United States has no set protocol for the housing and treatment of transgender inmates, these decisions are left to the cities and states—whose own rules vary, when in existence at all. San Francisco prison guidelines state that inmates will be addressed by preferred names and with preferred pronouns, and only strip searched by officers of their preferred gender, and placed with inmates of the same. This is unusual and a best-case scenario. Many more house trans people based on genitals, meaning a woman who has lived, worked, and presented as her preferred gender, but not undergone $20,000 – $50,000 genital surgery, will likely be placed in a men’s facility. Because not all Americans have health insurance, and because insurance companies are not required to cover gender-related surgeries and prescriptions, many US citizens are forced to pay for their entire transition out of pocket.
Trans people are four times more likely to be living under the poverty line, and are thus often unable to cover such expensive procedures. Some states provide hormone therapy. Some don’t. Some facilities only continue prescriptions if the inmate had started hormones before their arrest. Even our most liberal politicians express worry over state-paid surgery—likening vaginoplasty to a face lift, or other cosmetic procedures. Most lawsuits for surgery are denied and there are a few horror stories of people trying DIY surgeries with cell-made tools.
More numbers? In 2011, the National Center for Transgender Equality teamed up with the National Gay and Lesbian task force to do the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, titled Injustice at Every Turn. 78% of respondents had suffered physical or sexual violence in school. 65% experienced violence at work. Between 57 and 61% reported harassment by law enforcement officers and seven percent had been arrested at some point for gender expression alone.
I toured the Salinas Valley State Prison around when they released that report. We stood at the gated edge of an isolated yard—gang drop-outs, pedophiles, narcs, queers, and other at-risk inmates segregated from the general population. It was a men’s yard and I saw a woman.
“That isn’t a woman,” the Corrections Officer cum tour guide said. “Sure, he might tell you he is and pitch his voice high, but that over there is somebody’s son.” He continued, in falsetto, to imitate the person in question. He confided that they check the genitals of all incoming prisoners, and that anyone with a dick stayed in the men’s facility with them.
I asked what would happen to a trans woman who no longer had her penis, but he didn’t know. “I guess we’d send them to the women’s center instead.”
During Occupy Wall Street, many people were arrested for civil disobedience and demonstrations. Among them was Justin Adkins, a trans man who joined more than 2,500 other activists to march from Zuccotti Park to the Brooklyn Bridge, where police blocked them off and arrested everyone in the road. Over 700 protestors were taken to the nearest precincts where men and women were separated, searched, and placed into cells.
Justin was taken to a different block and cuffed to the metal rail adjoining a toilet by another cell holding people for general offenders. The other protestors did not have access to working toilets in their cells, and were brought to use the one next to Justin. For eight hours he sat by people relieving themselves, without food or water—things his fellow activists were allowed. The officers in charge watched Justin, laughed at him, and (falsely) insinuated he was a ringleader who had committed dangerous crimes. He, himself, did not pee.
It’s harder to be a woman. Trans women are fifteen times more likely to be victims of sexual assault than their male counterparts. Some prisons respond by automatically keeping them in protective housing, which can mean with other at-risk inmates, as with the prison I toured, placed in the psych unit, or being kept in solitary confinement—normally a punishment tactic with well-documented adverse psychological affects.
In 2012, five friends, all black, walked past a Minneapolis bar when a group of white people began threatening them with a variety of gender, sexual, and racial slurs. One of them, a woman named CeCe McDonald, had a bottle smashed on her face. The groups fought. CeCe attempted to leave, and was followed. She removed scissors from her purse and faced her pursuer, Dean Schmitz. He was stabbed. CeCe pleaded self-defense, then accepted a plea for second-degree manslaughter, with a 41-month sentence in a men’s facility. Many were outraged, feeling she had been punished for surviving a hate crime, the case went viral, and the “Free CeCe” campaign was launched. Eighteen months later, she was released on probation, and began speaking publicly on trans and prison issues, about how “black trans bodies are under attack.”
Me, I transitioned up. I’m small, I’m Jewish, I’m white. When I was a lesbian, people yelled things out of cars. I lost jobs. I was harassed. As a man, I’m inoffensive to the point of invisibility. I’ve got the easiest possible trans combo—and yet, it only goes as far as I’m passing, as far as I’m not under arrest. The strip-searches and shared toilets scare me, because I don’t know what’s best. Women’s facility? Men’s? Like many trans folk, I’ve got a mixed body. ‘Female’ bottom, stubble, ‘male’ chest. Placement would depend on how much money I’ve got to hire a lawyer, how many people advocate for me on the outside, and luck.
Want to do something? Black and Pink has an LGBT prison pen-pal program.