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Cruel And Unusual
a documentary about transgender women in men's prison in the USA
[ Filmscreening 18 April 2007 in Berlin
Transgender und Knast!
Wir sind eine linke politische Gruppe die zu den Themen Gefängnis und Repression arbeitet.
Uunser aktueller Arbeitsschwerpunkt ist "Transgender und Knast".
Im Rahmen einer alljährlich stattfindenden Demonstration gegen Gefängnisse und Zwangsanstalten legten wir in der Vergangenheit immer wieder verschiedene thematische Schwerpunkte fest, die wir im Rahmen der Demonstration bearbeiteten.
Dabei liegt uns das Thema "Transgender im Knast" schon länger am Herzen, finden aber erst jetzt Zeit dazu kontinuierlich zu arbeiten.[...]
[ Transgender und Knast! Aufruf
Transgender and Prison
We are a leftist political group working on the subjects prison and repression.
Our project at the moment, or our main focus is on "transgender and prison".
On the occasion of a demonstration against prisons and repressiv institutions organized every year we have in the past always focused on different topics that we have worked on preparing the demonstration.
The topic "transgender in prison" is important to us for some time already, but it is only now that we find the time to work on it continually.[...]
[ Transgender and Prison
16 April 2006
radiosendung zu inhaftierung von transgender menschen.
Incarceration, Transgender, and Gender Variants
Imagine being one of several dozen women incarcerated with thousands of men.
Harassment, humiliation, and in many cases, rape, are all a part of the daily routine. So is being called "sir." Outside of prison, transgender folks often face a hurtful lack of understanding; inside prison, that lack of understanding can be life-threatening...
[ Listen to the show
Arrested justice: When LGBT people land in jail
[ Part one: A frightening odyssey
[ Part two: Rape and HIV are all too common
[ Part three: You are your birth certificate
[ Part four: The myth of "protective custody"
[ Part five: What if you get arrested?
[ GENDER outlaws
Transgender prisoners face discrimination, harassment, and abuse above and
beyond that of the traditional male and female prison population
Arrested justice: When LGBT people land in jail
Part one: A frightening odyssey
When Steve Slater was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving in West Hollywood in 2004, he began what was to become the most frightening odyssey of his life -- spending six days in the notorious Los Angeles County Jail.
"It was so horrible, so terrible, I try to forget it ever happened," Slater (a pseudonym) says.
But forgetting does not come easy. Two years after his release, Slater, a 37-year-old gay marketing executive, is still bitterly angry and, at times, deeply ashamed of the abuse he says he endured at the hands of sadistic guards and cruel and uncaring inmates. He recounts the details he'd rather not remember with startling clarity and little emotion.
Marked as gay by jail officials, who require gay and transgender inmates to wear different-color clothing from nongays, Slater was screamed at by guards and inmates alike for being a "cocksucker," a "pussy" and a "faggot." Within days, he was sexually assaulted by an HIV-positive inmate. He spent two days locked in a psych ward, naked, where the walls were smeared with feces and where other inmates -- blurry figures Slater could hardly see because guards had taken away his glasses -- wailed day and night.
"Those guards took something from me, an appreciation of who I am, and made me feel lower than I ever thought I could feel," he says. "I was happier not knowing a place like that existed."
But places like that -- jails and prisons rife with sexual abuse, violence, disease, and the explicit targeting of gay and transgender inmates -- exist in countless cities in every state. Shocking as it may be, Slater's experience is, in fact, the rule rather than the exception for LGBT inmates in America's prisons.
Gay men and transgender women, in particular, are frequent targets of sexual abuse; many are raped within days or even hours of their incarceration. Gang rapes are not uncommon, and gay and transgender inmates may find themselves "owned" by a gang and forced to endure repeated sexual violence from gang members in exchange for protection from other prisoners.
One former inmate, Roderick Johnson, sued the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in 2005 for failing to protect him from harrowing sexual abuse. Johnson testified that during his 18-month sentence he was raped up to 100 times and sold as a sex slave by prison gangs for $3-$7 per act.
Rape in prison can also mean exposure to HIV and other STDs, since condoms are rare and rates of HIV/AIDS are four to five times higher behind bars than in the general population, according to research by the U.S. Department of Justice.
"HIV infection should never be part of anyone's prison sentence," says Andrea Cavanaugh Kern, a spokeswoman for Stop Prisoner Rape, an organization working to end sexual assault in jail. "There's a perception by prison officials that gay men like to be raped, and it gets treated like a joke," she says. "But this is a life-or-death issue for the LGBT community."
Transgender prisoners are especially vulnerable to attack because, regardless of their appearance or gender identity, they are almost always housed according to their birth gender. A transgender woman with breast implants who may have been on hormones for years will be locked up with men in an environment ruled by hypermasculinity and violence. Transgender men housed in women's prisons also face abuse, though more from guards than other inmates.
Two transgender prisoners filed suit in January challenging a Wisconsin law that bars inmates from receiving hormones or sex reassignment surgery, a case that highlights the rampant discrimination transgender inmates face, activists say.
"What happens in prisons is a magnification of the discrimination and homophobia people face on the outside," says Kern. "It's important for all of us to fight it."
Yet the mainstream LGBT community has virtually ignored issues of police brutality and the plight of prisoners, focusing its political muscle instead on marriage, the military and hate-crime laws.
"Society as a whole really ignores prison issues," says Sean Cahill, director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, "and our community is not so different."
All that, however, may be changing.
The Policy Institute is now conducting three LGBT prisoner-rights research projects, and this year Lambda Legal took on its first transgender prisoner-rights case.
"There's a lot of concern about this issue bubbling up right now," says Dean Spade, an attorney with New York's Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which advocates for LGBT prisoner rights. The recent closure of the gay and transgender facility at New York's Rikers Island has galvanized activists as well, Spade says.
"This is a human rights issue, and it can be overwhelming for people to think about," Spade says. "But I'm pathologically optimistic. I have great faith in the power of people to make change."
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Arrested justice: When LGBT people land in jail
Part two: Rape and HIV are all too common
Roderick Johnson's shocking experience behind bars lasted 18 months. From September 2000 to July 2001, while serving time in a Texas prison, Johnson, 33, was beaten, abused, forced to wear women's clothing and "rented" to other prisoners as a sex slave almost every day. He was raped more than 100 times.
When Johnson reported the abuse, pleading for his safety, a prison official told him, "That's what you get for being gay."
For TJ Parsell, the violence started on his first day in prison. Three older inmates gave the 17-year-old Parsell a drink spiked with a powerful sedative, then gang-raped him.
"My screams didn't matter to them," said Parsell, who vomited during the attack. "They bragged about it later." Afterward, the men flipped a coin to see who would "own" him. Despite suffering a bleeding rectum, Parsell never reported the assault.
"What I went through was horrible," he said, "but if I snitched, they'd kill me. And I wanted to get out of there alive."
Johnson and Parsell are but two of the estimated 120,000 men raped every year in U.S. jails and prisons, according to human rights activists. Indeed, prison rape is so common it has become an intrinsic part of how we conceptualize the prison experience: It is almost expected that men serving time behind bars will at some point be sexually preyed upon.
A far experience from late-night TV jokes about dropping soap in the shower or the glossy, fetishized prison scenes that saturate gay male pornography, rape in prison is often terrifying and brutal. Victims are physically injured, traumatized and, not infrequently, exposed to HIV. Among the inmates most targeted for rape -- first offenders, the young, the physically small or effeminate -- gay men and transgender women are often immediately singled out for attack.
"Gay prisoners are four times more likely to be raped in prison" than nongay prisoners, says Andrea Cavanaugh Kern of Stop Prisoner Rape, an organization dedicated to eradicating sexual violence behind bars.
Such widespread abuse is often overlooked or encouraged by corrections officials who may believe that gay men like to be raped, Kern says. "Prisoners are made fun of and told that because they're gay, they must have enjoyed it."
But enjoyment is not what inmates report. Researchers at Human Rights Watch have documented serious injuries among men raped in U.S. prisons, including broken bones, lost teeth and lacerations requiring scores of stitches. Psychological trauma is common, ranging from shame and depression to violence and higher suicide rates.
"Gay men in prison are viewed as lacking in fundamental manhood and as open game," says Parsell, now 47 and a board member of Stop Prisoner Rape. "Sexual exploitation is seen by other prisoners as the ultimate way to conquer" gays and other vulnerable inmates, he says.
Prison rape is also a brutally efficient means of transmitting HIV, hepatitis and other sexually transmitted diseases, experts say. Rates of AIDS are nearly five times higher among incarcerated men than in the general population, according to a 2002 study by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care. Though AIDS is now the No. 2 cause of death in prison, only two states, Mississippi and Vermont, allow inmates in state prisons access to condoms.
Elsewhere, inmates resort to using plastic garbage bags, sandwich bags and latex gloves as makeshift condoms, says Judy Greenspan, former AIDS information coordinator of the ACLU National Prison Project.
Despite advances in HIV prevention and care outside prison, Greenspan believes the problem behind bars is getting worse.
"Drug laws are filling the prisons with drug addicts," many of whom are HIV-positive, Greenspan says. But because prisons often lack adequate health care and drug recovery programs, inmates remain ill and addicted, she says.
Rape, of course, only contributes to the crisis.
With the release each year of hundreds of thousands of inmates, prison rape becomes not just a corrections issue, experts say, but a public health crisis. As a response to this crisis, and after significant pressure from both right- and left-leaning political groups, President Bush in 2003 signed the Prison Rape Reduction Act, a sweeping law mandating the collection of data on prison rape and the development of guidelines on how to prevent it.
Last July, Parsell traveled to San Francisco to testify at a hearing about being raped in prison. That same weekend, he said, he encountered a flier for a "Bears Behind Bars" theme party, including faux strip searches that eroticized prison rape.
"One is a fantasy. Then there's the brutal reality," Parsell says. "If our gay brethren out here really knew what went on in prison, they would be outraged."
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Arrested justice: When LGBT people land in jail
Part three: You are your birth certificate
Kari Sundstrom, a 41-year-old transgender woman, had been on female hormones for 15 years when, in January, the Wisconsin Legislature passed a law banning hormone treatments or sex reassigment surgery for prison inmates. This meant Sundstrom, incarcerated since 2003, would have to discontinue her hormone therapy.
On Jan. 12, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections cut Sundstrom's hormone dosage in half. Officials notified her it would be halved again in 30 days, and, 30 days later, terminated.
Suddenly stopping hormone therapy can be calamitous for transgender people, causing, among other possible problems, diabetes, hypertension, muscle wasting, osteoporosis and heart failure. It can also lead to self-mutilation and suicide attempts.
The effects on Sundstrom were almost immediate. She suffered severe headaches, hot flashes, crying jags and was afraid she'd become suicidal.
Another transgender woman in the same prison, Andrea Fields, experienced depression, nausea, muscle weakness and developed bumps on her skin when her hormones, too, were suddenly reduced.
The women's concerns became part of a lawsuit challenging the new Wisconsin law, which led to their hormone therapy being restored two weeks later. A federal judge ruled that while the courts sorted out whether or not the law was constitutional, Sundstrom, Fields and a third woman named in the suit, Lindsay Blackwell, would be allowed to continue their hormone therapies.
"This treatment has been determined by doctors to be medically necessary and appropriate for our clients," said Cole Thaler, Lambda Legal's attorney representing the women. Prohibiting such treatment shows a "deliberate indifference to their serious medical condition," Thaler says.
That "deliberate indifference" to the well-being of transgender inmates, however, extends far beyond health care. Transgender inmates are among the most reviled and abused individuals in America's jails and prisons, activists say, facing an unimaginable array of harassment and violence at each level of the criminal justice system that often begins with abuse from police officers on the street.
According to a 2005 Amnesty International report on police violence, transgender people, especially those who are poor or of color, are subject to the "most egregious cases of police brutality," from sexual harassment and invasive body searches to physical and sexual violence and false arrests, often for merely going about their daily lives. Transgender women in particular face arbitrary abuse and arrest, Amnesty reported, because they are frequently profiled by the police as sex workers.
"Their gender is seen as part of their criminality," says Dean Spade, an attorney with New York's Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which advocates on behalf of LGBT inmates. As a result, Spade says, transgender people disproportionately end up behind bars, where violence against them often continues unabated.
In all state prisons and the vast majority of county jails, transgender inmates are housed according to their birth gender, regardless of how they currently identify. Sundstrom, Fields and Blackwell, for instance, are all housed in men's prisons, despite living as female for up to 15 years, taking hormones and having had feminizing surgeries, including, in Fields' case, breast augmentation.
"Once you're in custody, you're no longer the person you say you are," says Alex Lee, an attorney with the Transgender, Gender Variant & Intersex Justice Project in Oakland, Calif., which advocates for transgender inmates. "Instead, you are your birth certificate."
In men's facilities, transgender women are often immediately targeted by sexual predators, including some guards. Countless transgender inmates have reported sexual harassment, rape and forced prostitution in American jails. Transgender men housed in women's prisons report enduring repeated and unwarranted strip searches, often in front of other inmates or guards.
"It's torture and sexual slavery," says Spade. "These are the proper terms for it."
In a few county jails, including San Francisco and Multnomah County, Ore., transgender inmates are housed in separate facilities to spare them such atrocities. But that, too, comes with a price. Segregation from the general population often means exclusion from the few programs offered to help inmates avoid incarceration in the future, including drug treatment, high-school equivalency training and anger-management courses.
"It's punitive segregation," Lee says, "and a form of discrimination, even if unintended."
In state prisons, often the only safeguard transgender prisoners have from violent inmates is protective custody, sometimes called "lockdown," in which inmates are locked in an isolated cell 23 hours a day or housed with other inmates considered vulnerable. But even there they are subject to abuse from guards and, on occasion, other inmates.
No matter where they are housed, incarcerated transgender people report chronic difficulties in getting appropriate medical care, especially hormone therapy. Most jails and prisons don't have written policies on hormone use, so arbitrary decisions can be made by individual corrections officers rather than by doctors.
In addition, Thaler says, "there's a misperception that if hormones are made accessible to inmates, then trans people will commit crimes to get into prison to get them."
"But if you think about the ways transgender people are treated in prison," he says, "that's ludicrous."
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Arrested justice: When LGBT people land in jail
Part four: The myth of "protective custody"
The most frightening week of the nine months Mark Olmsted served in California prisons came in July 2004, when he was forced to share a cell with a menacing "soldier" in a white supremacist gang.
"It was a psychological inferno," Olmsted says. "Every second you think the cell door will open and someone will come in and knife you. I knew I had to get out of there."
And get out he did. Olmsted, 47, was serving time at the California Institute for Men, a minimum-security state prison in Chino, Calif., for selling crystal meth and forging drivers' licenses, and came out to one of the guards.
"I told her I was gay and HIV-positive, and I needed to get out," he says, "and she had me out of there in 15 minutes."
Olmsted was lucky. He was moved to "protective custody," a segregated section of the prison designed to protect the most vulnerable inmates from the dangers of the general population. There he served his time relatively unscathed with other gay, transgender and HIV-positive inmates, as well as older prisoners and informers who sought protective custody in order to survive.
"We could get by without fearing violence for being gay," Olmsted said. "That was a huge relief."
But many other inmates aren't so fortunate. Protective custody in many state prisons is extremely difficult for inmates to get into, leaving countless gay and transgender prisoners to fend for themselves in a prison population that is often violent and extremely anti-gay.
Roderick Johnson, for instance, a gay man who endured horrific physical and sexual violence at the hands of inmate gangs in a Texas prison, petitioned for protective custody on seven separate occasions. And seven times he was denied. One prison official, Johnson says, told him, "We don't protect punks [gays] on this farm."
Johnson sued the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for violating the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and usual punishment, claiming that prison officials took "sadistic pleasure" in denying him protective custody. Prison officials flatly denied Johnson's reports of abuse, citing a lack of evidence, and last October, he lost his suit. (Johnson later served a brief detention term for violating parole.)
Proving they are being threatened can be very tricky for inmates. "Snitching" on another prisoner is the ultimate taboo and can provoke a violent retaliation. And, as in the Johnson case, prison officials are often reluctant to believe claims of abuse without proof.
"Unless they show obvious physical injury, their complaints tend to be ignored and their requests for protection denied," says a Human Rights Watch report on male rape in U.S. prisons. One inmate who sought protective custody in an Indiana prison told Human Rights Watch that a corrections official said he "won't do anything till I come out here with my ass torn up." Such graphic remarks by guards and prison officials are not unusual, inmates say, and demonstrate a cold-hearted indifference to their plight.
While state prisons remain exceedingly dangerous for many LGBT prisoners, a handful of county jails have attempted to address the danger by creating separate, segregated housing. In San Francisco, transgender inmates are automatically segregated from other prisoners, says Eileen Hirst, the sheriff's chief of staff.
Being gay, however, is not enough to gain an inmate entry to segregated housing. "We look for vulnerability," Hirst says. "You can be gay, but be 6'5", obviously have spent years in a gym, be extremely criminally sophisticated and in on a murder charge." Young inmates, men with slight builds, and people incarcerated for the first time are considered at risk and may be segregated as well.
But segregated inmates in San Francisco jails cannot participate in programs designed to help prisoners get back on their feet. "If you are trying to protect a population, it's very tough to put them in a classroom with other inmates," Hirst says. So drug treatment, writing classes, anger management and high-school equivalency prep classes are all off-limits to segregated inmates.
The Los Angeles County Jail separates gay and transgender prisoners into three units, known as K-11. But inmates there can participate in the Social Mentoring Academic and Rehabilitative Training (SMART) program, a series of courses designed to reduce recidivism by helping gay and transgender inmates succeed outside prison.
"That part was great," says Olmsted, who spent six weeks on K-11 before being sent to state prison. He took a SMART computer programming class, he said, and enjoyed the security of being in a mostly gay-friendly environment. "Some of the guards were openly hostile to gays," Olmstead says, "but it wasn't real bad."
New York City had segregated housing for gay and transgender inmates until December 2005, when corrections officials closed "gay housing," as it was called, on Rikers Island, the city's largest jail. Gay activists objected that the city was compromising the safety of its most vulnerable inmates.
"There is no easy solution to the housing problems" for gay and transgender inmates, says Chris Daley of the Transgender Law Center. "There are global answers about getting over our addiction to incarc
eration, but on an everyday level, it comes down to how are going to keep people safe. And it's complicated."
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Arrested justice: When LGBT people land in jail
Part five: What if you get arrested?
More than 35 years after LGBT people fought back against police brutality at the Stonewall Inn in New York and ignited modern gay activism, tremendous tension still exists between law enforcement and the LGBT community.
The headlines of the past month reveal a disturbing and persistent pattern of abuse: "Deputies Harassed Gay Inmates at Jail," reports the Los Angeles Times. "Police Chief Denied Gay Man CPR," says the Washington Post. "Gay New Jersey Officer Files Harassment Against Fellow Police," says Knight Ridder.
As a result, many LGBT people do not turn to the police for help even when they need it, activists say. Others, when they encounter the police on the street or are being arrested, are unsure how to behave or protect themselves. Is it best to come out? Stay silent? Fight back? Run?
"Most people feel some level of intimidation from the police, whether it's from personal experience, the uniform or just talking to someone who's got a nightstick and a gun," says Jennifer Rakowski, a board member of the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects, which tracks violence within and against the LGBT community.
When approached by a police officer, certain guidelines are universal, Rakowski says. The most important thing? "Keep your wits about you."
In addition, she suggests the following:
Be aware of your movements and body language. Don't move suddenly.
Don't do anything, such as reach a hand into your jacket pocket, that could be misinterpreted or could aggravate the situation.
If you are asked for identification, it is best to comply, even if your ID does not match your gender identity or is an immigration "green card."
Don't touch the officer.
If you're being arrested, it's best to say as little as possible until you have an attorney present.
Don't resist arrest, even if you believe the arrest is unjustified.
Don't get into an argument. Don't engage in a debate about free speech or tell the officer you plan to file a complaint.
Remember that what you say can be used against you.
Contact a lawyer or legal authority as soon after arrest as possible.
The ACLU has posted similar guidelines on its Web site.
Coming out during an arrest should only be done as necessary, says Rakowski. For instance, when reporting a domestic-violence incident, it's best to identify yourself as gay and the person who hurt you as your domestic partner. When reporting an incident of being victimized by anti-transgender bias, one would need to come out.
But if sexual orientation or gender identity are not relevant to the situation, as in a traffic violation, it is best to keep quiet about it.
"These guidelines are shaded by who you are, where in the country you are, and where your encounter with the police takes place," Rakowski says. Meeting the police at your place of work, for instance, is likely to be very different from an encounter at a popular cruising spot. But the guidelines remain the same.
Because abuse can happen from the first moment of contact with a police officer, it is essential to know as much about that officer as possible. Try to get names, badge numbers, and, if approached by a vehicle, patrol car numbers.
"Make sure you have some way to identify this person if something goes wrong," says Chris Daley, director of the Transgender Law Center in San Francisco.
Daley would know: His clients frequently deal with police harassment. According to a 2005 report by Amnesty International on police violence, transgender women in particular are often profiled as criminals while simply going about their daily lives and are regularly abused and assaulted by the police.
For many transgender people, Daley says, the challenge is striking a balance between asserting their rights and protecting themselves from harm.
"If a police officer calls you the wrong name or uses the wrong pronoun, respond just like you would with anyone else: Correct them in a polite and firm manner," he says.
But if the officer persists, there is little the transgender person can do about it at that time. "When you go beyond that, or take the bait by getting upset or getting physical, you start having problems," Daley says.
Despite the high-profile cases of abuse in the media, both Daley and Rakowski believe that police responses to LGBT people are gradually improving. In San Francisco, for example, police violence against transgender people has decreased in the past two years, thanks in part to sensitivity trainings and the presence of a transgender woman, Theresa Sparks, on the city's police commission.
"It's important for people to remember that an encounter with the police is not always going to be a worst-case scenario," Daley says. "There are good people working in these systems who want to make sure people's rights are respected and that people aren't exposed to abuse."
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Transgender prisoners face discrimination, harassment, and abuse above and beyond that of the traditional male and female prison population.
Written and photographed by Emily Alpert / Oakland, California
Published Monday, November 21, 2005
In Idaho, inmate Linda Patricia Thompson wanted a transfer to a women’s prison. A male-to-female transgender woman, or MTF, she had been living as a woman for several years, had changed her name legally, and was taking black-market estrogen when she could. Thompson had never been able to afford sex reassignment surgery, nor could she obtain hormones legally: the signatures of two physicians and a psychiatrist were required, and she couldn’t afford the visits. Still, Thompson was assertively feminine, even in handcuffs. At the time of her arrest, she wore a dress and high heels.
But prison officials refused to transfer Thompson or to provide her with estrogen. Inmates are housed on the basis of genitalia, they told her, and in their eyes she was incontestably male. So Thompson took matters into her own hands — literally. In two separate incidents, she amputated her own male genitalia, nearly bleeding to death in the process.
“I thought she had to be nuts,” recalls attorney Bruce Bistline, who handled Thompson’s case. “But apparently that sort of self-mutilation is not extraordinary in the transgender prison population. The level of desperation is just that high.”
When genitalia — not gender identity — decides placement
“I’ve been raped, physically beaten, extorted, pimped out/sold, intimidated, manipulated, threatened, humiliated, [and] harassed by both officers and inmates” writes transgender prisoner Meagan Calvillo of her experiences in various California prisons since 1999. Calvillo’s description is not unusual. Outside of prison, transgender people are among the most marginalized in the United States; inside it, they confound a system that’s ill-prepared to serve them, or even to decide where to put them.
“There’s no real legal standard” for determining the placement of transgender prisoners, says Chris Daly, director of the Transgender Law Center in San Francisco. At present, most California prisoners are assigned to male or female prisons on the basis of their genitalia, the same method applied by most states. “There’s a state-level mandate that prisons be segregated by sex, which they’ve interpreted to mean genitalia. Every prison we know of has interpreted it the same way,” says Daly. As a result, transgender people who choose not to undergo sex reassignment surgery — or lack the means to do so — are housed with people of their birth gender.
“For instance,” says Daly, “someone who’s male-to-female, if she hasn’t had surgery or hasn’t been able to access it yet, will be housed with men — regardless of how long she’s lived as a woman, or what her gender presentation is like.”
One such person is Dee Farmer, an MTF whose landmark 1994 Supreme Court case, Farmer v. Brennan, found that prison authorities are liable for “deliberate indifference” to inmates’ safety, including situations of likely sexual assault. Farmer brought the suit in 1990 after she was brutally raped and beaten by another inmate in an Indiana prison. The assault occurred two weeks after she was placed in the general male population, despite her breast implants and longtime use of estrogen.
When housed with male prisoners, MTFs rapidly become the targets of sexual assault, as Farmer’s case illustrates. Some, like Farmer, have developed breasts from surgery or years of estrogen treatment. Others, though male in appearance, are immediately relegated to the bottom of prison’s social hierarchies by virtue of their feminine self-presentation.
As for female-to-male transgender people [FTMs], “while they don’t face the same type of violence [from fellow prisoners], they face a lot of oppression on the part of guards,” explains Judy Greenspan, co-founder of the Trans/Gender Variant in Prison Committee (TIP). “When they’re strip-searched, many FTMs who have had their breasts removed or take hormones are put on display. It’s psychological brutality … They’re demonized.”
Everyday humiliations for both MTFs and FTMs include verbal harassment, frivolous strip searches and gender-stereotypic “grooming standards,” which set requirements for men and women’s hair length, facial hair, and use of cosmetics. “Prison guards refuse to call them by their chosen names or use their correct pronouns,” says Greenspan, exasperated. “They look at trans- and gender-variant prisoners as deviant.”
Isolation is no safe haven
Protective custody for so-called vulnerable inmates, including those who are HIV-positive, offers a modicum of safety to transgender prisoners — at least from assaults by other inmates. Another, more common option is to confine transgender prisoners individually, in what is known as administrative segregation.
“It’s pretty much standard throughout California — except for San Francisco — that housing tends to be separate [for transgender prisoners],” explains James Austin, a physician affiliated with the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department. “So most of the facilities are single cells. We don’t have any ability to accommodate them otherwise.”
However, when assaults come from prison guards, as they frequently do, administrative housing isn’t safe, either, and may even be worse. Many individual confinement pens are intended for short-term punitive stays, or for highly aggressive, violent prisoners.
“Administrative segregation is basically punishment,” explains attorney Alex Lee, director of the Transgender, Gender-Variant and Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP). “In prison, people call it the jail. It’s much more restrictive, and a lot of trans folks in prison get put there … simply because the prisons don’t know how to take care of them, and they’d rather err on the side of being more restrictive than not.”
In February 2004, a Wyoming judge ruled that prison officials violated the constitutional rights of Miki Ann Dimarco, a person with an intersex condition, by placing her in an isolated high-security lockup for over a year. At the time of her conviction for check fraud, Dimarco was placed at the Wyoming Women’s Center: an unintentionally appropriate choice. Born with genitalia that might either be classified as a microphallus or an enlarged clitoris, Dimarco identifies and lives publicly as a woman.
However, when medical staff saw Dimarco’s genitalia, flustered officials decided to hold her in complete isolation in the prison’s maximum-security wing. Though a prison evaluation placed Dimarco at the lowest possible risk level, and doctors concluded she posed no sexual threat (she was “not sexually functional as a male,” according to staff), she was subjected to the same living conditions and restrictions as the Center’s most dangerous prisoners.
Administrative segregation “may ostensibly be a safer place,” Lee remarks, but “where are they going to put you to be away from the guards?” Many of Lee’s own clients won’t report abuse from other prisoners for fear of being placed in isolation. Or, as in the case of Tanya Smith, they’ll endure abuse to avoid it
Former prisoners: Sex was “a way of survival”
In 1995, when Tanya Smith was first incarcerated, she was immediately isolated as “a threat to the safety of the jail population, as a transgender,” she recalls. Smith is a tall African American transwoman with warm, dark eyes and a dainty silver nose ring. Recalling isolation, she purses her lips. “I couldn’t access any visitors. The mental health ward would not come see me at all.” Smith suffers from borderline personality disorder and requires a steady hormonal regimen. After six months, she was finally released to the general men’s population, a situation she found far preferable to isolation, which she refers to as “the hole.”
Three years later, when Smith returned to prison, a prison guard came on to her, saying “‘Ooh, you’re a real woman. Do you fuck?’” Smith says she sometimes stripped for officers to get medical attention, but this guard wanted more. “He threatened that I’d go back to the hole if I didn’t have sex with him — or oral copulation.” In exchange for sex, claims Smith, the guard kept her out of administrative segregation, protected her from other prisoners, and provided her with food, medicine and clothing, even alcohol and drugs. When asked how she felt about the officer, Smith merely shrugs. “It was a way of survival,” she says simply. “Why complain when I’d get thrown into the hole?”
In California, the most notorious isolation facilities are known as Security Housing Units, or SHUs. Antoine Mahan is a board member of California Prison Focus, which opposes the use of SHUs. He is also a former prisoner who spent two years in a SHU at Corcoran State Prison. Antoine’s rounded face is both feminine and masculine at once: he wears his hair long, and favors women’s blouses and headbands. “People think I’ve taken hormones,” he divulges, “but I never have. That’s just my androgynous features.” He identifies as an African American gay male cross-dresser, but says that, “in prison, I was seen as transgender.”
Homeless, drug-addicted and HIV-positive, Mahan ricocheted between prison and the street from 1991 to 1997. Like Smith, he was approached by officers and prisoners for sex, regardless of his HIV status. Some assailants may have been HIV positive already; others may have wanted oral sex, which has a relatively low transmission rate. At a reception center for HIV-positive inmates, an officer began courting Mahan with food and gifts, hinting that he wanted sexual favors. Later, at the California Men’s Colony [CMC], Mahan says, “I had a lot of guys getting at me, and a lot of officers harassing me sexually. I was what they call in prison terms ‘fresh booty.’”
But the SHU, says Mahan, was far worse. In 1997, following a scuffle with another CMC prisoner, Mahan was transferred to Corcoran State Prison, one of the few California prisons equipped with a SHU. There, he says, “I went through more hell than I’ve ever been through in my life.” Mahan describes the SHU as “a nine by five cell — nine by five by six, that’s the length, the width and the height. It was a box. No ventilation whatsoever.” According to California Prison Focus, SHU prisoners spend at least 23 hours a day in their cells, have no phone access, compromised medical care, and no work training or educational programs.
It is unclear whether transgender prisoners are routinely assigned to California’s few SHUs, but California Prison Focus alleges that inmates accused of gang affiliation are regularly assigned there, regardless of their behavior, in a “draconian” effort to wipe out gangs. If transgender prisoners are perceived as making trouble — or provoking it — a similar rationale might apply.
Sky-high incarceration rates among trans people
“There were a lot of queens in jail,” Mahan mentions offhandedly. Transgender and gender-variant people, as a population, are incarcerated at even higher rates than the general population of African American men, although the majority of those incarcerated are also people of color. In San Francisco, a 1997 study conducted by the city’s Department of Public Health found that 67 percent of MTF respondents and 30 percent of FTM respondents had a history of incarceration. Almost a third of MTF respondents had been jailed in the past year. The numbers are staggering: among U.S. adults, only 3 percent are or have been incarcerated. Overall, “unless they’re rich, [most transgender people have] spent a little time in jail,” says Judy Greenspan.
TIP volunteer Nedjula Baguio, an MTF, offers one explanation: employment discrimination. Trans people are at a disadvantage in today’s service economy, she says, regardless of whether they can “pass.” Trans people who pass are more easily recognized as their presented gender: they may have taken hormones for many years or opted for breast implants or removal. Those who don’t pass are less easily categorized. Some are mid-transition, some lack the funds for hormones or surgery, and others feel at home between — or across, or beyond — the categories of male and female.
“I don’t think I ever pass,” says Baguio, despite her lean figure and softly curving mouth; she recalls a tense stop at a rural diner while en route to Vacaville, and winces. Her light skin is patterned with evocative tattoos: a heart being sewn up, a marionette cut from its strings.
Trans people who don’t pass “freak people out,” Baguio says simply, and in a service economy, that’s fatal. “Most people don’t want to have anything to do with you as a potential employee, for all the obvious reasons. Your gender presentation is going to be perceived as ‘freakish,’ and nobody will want to deal with you, period. You’re seen as interfering with money-making.”
Smith agrees. Drug-free and out of prison, her job search hasn’t been easy, as a former inmate or as a transwoman. “There’s not a lot of people willing to hire us,” she complains.
But finding work is no picnic for trans people who pass, reports Baguio: when supplying references or a work history for employers, they face another dilemma. If a prospective boss calls a former employer, and asks about Susan — only to hear all about Sean — their reaction may not be charitable.
Consequently, a disproportionate number of trans people engage in sex work. Many turn to drugs to cope with the degradation they experience as transgender people and as sex workers, and are eventually incarcerated for prostitution or drug-related offenses — what Lee calls “survival crimes.” Others develop mental illness, another risk factor for landing in jail. Because employment discrimination, arrests, and sentencing patterns fall hardest on low-income people — predominantly people of color — transwomen of color are the majority of the trans prison population.
“It affects queer and transgender people across the board,” explains Baguio, “but for those communities [low-income people and people of color], you’re dealing with a double whammy.” Baguio offers her own experience as a multiracial transwoman for contrast. “I’m perceived as lighter-skinned. I’m not targeted a lot. I live in a neighborhood with a lot of hip artists; I’m not living in Lincoln, Nebraska. I have a job where they’ve been accepting of my transition, and it’s not an issue. I make a decent wage and have been able to spend a fair amount of money on my transition, including electrolysis, health care and access to hormones.”
Baguio also transitioned after college, insulating her from the hazards of the service economy. She hasn’t needed to engage in sex work, and hasn’t been exposed to its attendant health risks.
HIV prevalent, hormone provision a battle
Dr. Lori Kohler is the founder of California’s only health clinic for trans prisoners, located at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville. The dominant health issue among trans prisoners, she reports, is HIV/AIDS. “Anywhere from 60 to 80 percent [of transfeminine prisoners] at any given time are HIV-infected,” she says. “And many are also Hep-C infected. The next greatest problem is addiction.”
Most of the prisoners Kohler sees are transwomen of color, incarcerated for nonviolent offenses related to drugs or sex work. Like Baguio, she cites the cycle of unemployment, sex work, and drug addiction. “These are not women that are working to pay for their drugs — these are women who are working for their lives, and end up using drugs to tolerate the life they’re forced into,” she contends.
Kohler has been working with transgender patients since 1994, when she took a job at the recently founded Transgender Clinic of the Tom Waddell Health Center in San Francisco. In 1999, the chief medical officer of the Vacaville facility approached Dr. Kohler and asked her to establish a clinic for the prison’s trans inmates. At the time of the clinic’s founding, the chief medical officer estimated that Kohler would be serving a total population of 10 to 15 patients. Six years later, Kohler says she’s seen roughly 3,000 unduplicated patients, and that there are about 60 trans prisoners at CMF at any given time.
Kohler says that her exposure to trans health issues is unusual among health professionals. “Care of trans people is not something that most medical people understand,” she says, and sighs. This ignorance is manifested most clearly, she says, in the issue of cross-gender hormone provision.
“As far as I know of, CMF and now CMC [California Men’s Colony] are the only two prisons in the country that actually have a physician who’s dedicated to providing good care, including cross-hormone therapies,” says Kohler. “In all other California prisons, access to cross-gender hormones is not guaranteed. It’s sporadic and inconsistent, and only given to very few people.”
In 2003, a U.S. District Court in Boston ruled that transgender prisoner Michelle Kosilek was entitled to hormone therapy; in the same year, New Hampshire ruled in favor of similar claims by state prisoner Lisa Barrett. Courts have generally recognized the responsibility of prisons to continue hormone treatment and psychological therapy, in compliance with the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, which courts have interpreted to include the deliberate withholding of medical treatment.
However, prisons have often been reluctant to provide hormone therapy if inmates do not have an existing prescription. Because low-income transwomen of color usually acquire hormones through the black market, few can furnish legal prescriptions.
As a result, explains Kohler, “most transwomen who are incarcerated end up being taken off of their hormones unless they can get a court order — they have to use the legal system to have access to their appropriate medical care.” And in other states, she adds, “it’s virtually impossible for them even to get a court order to access care.” Side effects of hormone deprivation can include depression, heart problems, and irregular blood pressure.
Undeterred, Kohler prescribes cross-gender hormones to any trans-identified prisoner: a renegade position among prison medical staff, who routinely ignore her prescriptions. “I’d say about half the medical staff will refill my medical orders if I’m not around, and the other half will not recognize my recommendations,” she says. “But I don’t think that’s any different than the medical community outside the prisons.”
No option but jail: Linda Thompson today
After her life-threatening self-mutilation and the lawsuit that followed, Linda Thompson was eventually transferred to Dr. Kohler’s Vacaville facility in California. She was also granted a cash settlement contingent upon a confidentiality agreement about the suit. However, Bruce Bistline’s co-counsel, Lea Cooper, says that Thompson chose to violate the terms of the settlement agreement, foregoing most of the settlement money.
“Linda decided that she wanted to get the word out,” says Cooper. “That meant more than money to her.”
In California prisons, Thompson was finally able to access estrogen. Because her genitalia are not readily identifiable as female or as male (something of a conundrum for prison assignment), she was housed in a small facility with other transwomen and gay men. After her release, Thompson sought jobs in Oregon, Wyoming, Los Angeles, and Washington, but couldn’t find paid work — not even sex work.
“She said she was too masculine to turn tricks,” Cooper explains. Eventually, at a loss for what to do next, Thompson was arrested for stealing copper wire from a construction site. “She told the judge she did it [got arrested] on purpose, because she didn’t have any more options,” Cooper says. Thompson is currently incarcerated at the Monroe Correctional Center in Monroe, Washington; on the basis of her birth genitalia, she has been housed in the men’s facility. As Cooper describes it, “Linda jokes, ‘What do I have to do, start menstruating to be considered a woman?’”
“Prison mirrors what’s going on in the outside, so-called free world”
Though both do work that benefits trans prisoners, neither prisoners’ rights groups nor transgender advocates have specifically taken up their cause. “Transgender issues are not on the radar screen of most prisoners’ rights groups,” says Judy Greenspan, “and the transgender movement may not be prioritizing prisoners’ issues because they’re involved in trans survival and support services on the street.”
The Trans/Gender Variant in Prison Committee, cofounded by Greenspan, and the Transgender, Gender Variant, and Intersex Justice Project, founded by Alex Lee, are two notable exceptions. Greenspan identifies as a gender-variant white woman: biologically female, she doesn’t conform to societal expectations of female behavior or appearance. She wears men’s clothing, cuts her hair short and is occasionally taken for a man. For 20 years, Greenspan has worked with transgender prisoners, including Dee Farmer of Farmer v. Brennan. Lee is an FTM Asian American attorney who became interested in prison issues during law school and sought to connect them to transgender advocacy.
Lee believes the void in advocacy results from mainstream queer organizations’ “assimilationist politics … They want to pretend that we are all law-abiding citizens, that we’re perfect angels who want to be just like ‘normal’ straight people.” In doing so, he says, such groups jettison trans prisoners, who are predominantly low-income people of color.
Both TIP and TGIJP advocate for trans prisoners who are currently incarcerated, but when asked, Lee says that “the [long-term] change needs to happen before people go to prisons.” As Greenspan explains, “prison mirrors what’s going on in the outside, so-called free world. There are really no rights in the community, unless you’re living in San Francisco.”
But even in San Francisco County Jail, reports Tanya Smith, trans people are reviled. “You’d think the officers out here would think outside the box, in this liberal city, but they don’t. It’s horrible.”
In light of this reality, Linda Thompson’s choice to be rearrested makes sense, despite the harassment she continues to face as a prisoner. For many trans people, all the world’s a prison — on both sides of the bars.
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