Trans Community Faces Injustice in Prisons

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In light of world famous 1970’s Olympian athlete, Caitlyn Jenner, coming out as female, there has been more talk surrounding trans individuals than ever before. There is still a stigma attached to this topic and moreover, the stigma was heightened when North Carolina’s governor signed a bill preventing cities from allowing males and females to use public restrooms of the sex they identify with, in addition to restricting cities from implementing broad nondiscrimination laws.

It is this stigma and lack of understanding that causes the criminal justice system to handle the prison placement of trans people improperly. Most criminal justice systems will place transgender individuals in prisons based on their legal sex, rather than their declared one. They are then sentenced to prisons based on their biological sex and face a number of obstacles that violate basic human rights. They encounter daily humiliation, physical and sexual abuse, and denial of access to hormonal medication. While trans people are routinely subjected to harassment, they are especially powerless in unregulated prisons. This flawed process of allocation poses great risk to the overall safety and wellbeing of trans prison populations.

As previously stated, sentencing trans individuals to prison based on their legal gender puts them, and especially trans women, at a higher risk for sexual abuse. In “Resistance Behind Bars,” the author Victoria Law asserts, “One study found that 59 percent of transgender women in California’s male prison had been sexually assaulted while incarcerated, compared to 4 percent of the male identified population.”

Law’s research finds that in some prison systems, males will pay correction officers to trap a transgender woman in their cell to have sex with. In some extreme cases, in the practice of “v-coding” transgender women are intentionally placed in cells with men that are known to be sexually aggressive. In 1989, Dee Farmer, a trans woman, was placed in a male prison where she was repeatedly beaten and rape. With her breast implants, makeup, and estrogen pills, Farmer stood out from her male inmates. According to a report with The Village Voice, after the first time Farmer was raped, she was transferred to a medium security prison where she was assured that she would not be attacked again.

However, “The rape kept repeating itself over and over again in my mind, and I knew that I had to try and do something,” Farmer remembers.

In 1991, Farmer filed suit against the officials who had transferred her to a different prison, citing in the report that they had failed to protect her wellbeing physically and mentally, and that her eighth amendment rights had been violated.

When the case was dismissed a year later, Farmer filed an appeal that was denied. She then petitioned the Supreme Court. It was during that time that lawyers from The American Civil Liberties’ Union National Prison Project stepped in to assist.

In 1994, the case Farmer v. Brennan ruled that a prison official’s “deliberate indifference” was a substantial risk of serious harm to an inmate and violates the eighth amendment.

Farmer’s lawyer, Elizabeth Alexander, says the ruling marks only the second time the nation’s highest court has addressed the issue of prison rape.

To this day, the Farmer v. Brennan decision serves as a point of reference for prison lawyers to refute constitutional violations that occur behind bars. It was also cited as a guide during Congress’s Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003.

While Farmer v. Brennan contributed to strides of improvement within the criminal justice system, unfortunately this practice still continues presently. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 2012, that nearly 10 percent of former inmates in prisons had been sexually abused. These conditions raise the question of why prisons have not implemented some type of self-protection for transgender inmates.

In an attempt to resolve the sexual assault and harassment, some transgender inmates are placed in solitary confinement.

Although solitary confinement is perceived to be a form of protection, it is often detrimental to one’s overall wellbeing. Isolation often takes an enormous psychological toll on inmates. In the conditions of solitary confinement, trans men and women often feel more alone than ever. Their chance to connect with others is deprived because they are unable to attend group therapy and they do not have access to educational programs that could improve their employment prospects upon release. Furthermore, trans prisoners that are sent to solitary confinement are often at higher risk for sexual assault by guards. While removing them from the main hub of prison is an attempt to protect them, it only further isolates and denies them their basic human rights.

This restriction of basic rights is further demonstrated in the trans prisoners’ fight for hormonal medication. Correctional facilities frequently deny transgender inmates access to hormone therapy, which has dire consequences. Since, prisons do not normally cover hormonal medication, individuals rely on risky forms of intake in an attempt to continue their transitioning treatment. Even those who do have written prescriptions from doctors are often unable to access their necessary treatment.

According to Law’s research, the denial of hormonal medication can cause a range of problems including physical, emotional, or psychological harm. In regards to transgender women who are accustomed to estrogen intake, their withdrawal can lead to heart problems, irregular blood pressure, hot flashes, anxiety, panic attacks, hair loss, and difficulty with memory.

Transgender men who stop their hormonal treatment can experience side effects of depression, lethargy, mood swings, sleep disturbance, and anemia. These side effects can eventually lead to transgender men reverting back to their original gender, which is painful and harmful to them physically.

In many cases, they are stripped of their dignity before they even step foot in prison. They are subject to discrimination, harassment, and violence–leaving many in poverty without access to adequate healthcare.

Trans prisoners often turn to illegal activity to make ends meet, which often lands them in prisons where they face even worse conditions than the conditions on the streets. These inhumane circumstances can be attributed to the troubling lack of awareness in correctional facilities about the nuances of gender identity and their wellbeing. If we want to work towards putting an end to them, we must examine them in the broader context of universal human dignity and compassion