By Jacob Correa
Today, the United States prison system incarcerates more people for longer periods of time than any other country’s prison system. Furthermore, it is extremely clear that the prison system as it currently stands is racist, sexist, and homophobic. In particular, it is important to acknowledge how this system disproportionately impacts the Transgender community, creating a system of disrespect and mistreatment from civilians and law enforcement officials alike.
Trans individuals experience gender discrimination at rates that can seem near-constant, significantly impacting their ability to find work, shelter, and essentially, survive. Discrimination based on repressive gender norms has a long history in the United States. There is a history of criminalizing the trans community because they are“potentially dangerous to society”. Throughout most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, gender nonconformity and cross-dressing were criminalized through laws and policing practices. The definition of cisgender as normal inherently othered transgender people, and these laws were a way of policing sexual and gender identities perceived as ‘normal.’
In the film Screaming Queens by Victor Silverman, police officers, who are supposed to be the “good guys,” are depicted as abusers targeting the trans community. Despite being set in 1966, the film raises a point that is still unfortunately true today — police are among the top committers of violence against trans people, particularly when it comes to trans people of color. Unfortunately, trans youth are particularly likely to interact with police and the criminal justice system, as explained in the below quote from the Vera Institute of Justice.
Research notes that transgender youth are more likely to leave school due to harassment, physical assault, and sexual violence; experience homelessness; and suffer verbal and physical abuse in a range of public spaces, including crisis centers and shelters. These transphobic experiences often lead to transgender people being excluded from formal economies. As a result, they are more likely to commit crimes of survival like prostitution, involvement in the drug trade, or violent acts of self-defense. These crimes, in turn, lead to increased police stops and arrests for transgender people.
Susan Stryker, author of Transgender History, argues that “trans communities and identities are often formed and coalesced in response to experiences of persistent police scrutiny, harassment, and violence”. It is evident that transgender individuals face discrimination and violence in their daily lives, but do things stop there? Not quite.
In prison, trans individuals are more likely to encounter sexual violence and other forms of harassment in comparison to their cisgender counterparts. Nearly one in six transgender people (including 21% of transgender women) have been incarcerated at some point in their lives, and among Black transgender people, nearly half (47%) have been incarcerated at some point. This high incarceration rate is a huge issue because trans individuals are often not placed in prisons that corollate with their gender identity, as prison officials focus on appearance and sex rather than identity. Correctional facilities essentially have a set of guidelines to place people in either the male gender binary or female gender binary. If a person is trans, anatomical evidence, not gender identity, is the deciding factor that determines which prison the individual should be placed in.
Additionally, in prison, it is extremely difficult for trans people to gain access to necessary healthcare. In the Netflix series Orange Is The New Black by Jenji Kohan, a trans inmate in a female prison, Laverne Cox, struggles with getting the necessary hormone treatment to maintain her gender identity as a female. This depicts one of the many problems trans individuals face in prison.
When trans individuals are placed in the prison that isn’t consistent with their gender, they are prone to higher levels of sexual violence and verbal abuse by prisoners and prison guards. In 2015, a Maryland woman came forward to say that she was constantly harassed by prison guards calling her “it” and “some kind of animal”. It was reported that their solution was to place her in solitary confinement (which can be a form of abuse in itself), but when she was given permission to shower, the prison guards would watch her and mock her, saying that she would “never be a woman” and that she should “commit suicide”. More recently, a Florida woman named Karla Bello shared that when she was incarcerated, she was denied access to gender-confirming medication, as well as items (makeup, hair extensions) that are normally granted to female inmates.
In Maryland, administrative law judge Denise Oakes Shaffer ruled that the treatment of the female inmate by the prison guards violated the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, saying the prison “failed to train all employees in how to effectively and professionally communicate with transgender inmates.” As a result, prison systems in Maryland now have to implement new policies so that correctional officers know how to appropriately treat transgender inmates.
Yet transgender inmates continue to die in prison and at the hands of criminal justice officials. One year ago this month, Layleen Polanco died of a seizure while in custody at Rikers. Guards waited over 90 minutes before they called for help. In the past two months, Tony McDade and Jayne Thompson were killed by police before formally entering the justice system.
Legislation such as that passed in Maryland is a step in the right direction to create prison reform that protects inmates of all identities in states across the U.S. However, it is important to continue to educate everyone about how the trans community and other minorities are over-policed while constantly facing violence and imprisonment. Policing, racism, and other oppressive systems work in conjunction, and we know that we cannot end domestic violence and abuse without ending these forms of violence.
Day One provides free, confidential counseling and legal services for survivors of domestic violence of all gender identities aged 24 and under. You can contact us on our website, call us during business hours at 1-800-214-4150, or text us at 646-535-3291.
Works Cited/ Further Reading
Bassichis, Morgan, Alexander Lee, and Dean Spade. “Building an Abolitionist Trans and Queer
Movement with Everything We’ve Got.” Captive Genders. 2011
Stryker, Susan. “Transgender History”. 2008.
Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria (2005) Film by Victor Silverman and Susan Stryker.
Lamble, Sarah. “Retelling Racialized Violence, Remaking White Innocence: The Politics of
Interlocking Oppressions in Transgender Day of Remembrance” Sexuality Research and Social Policy. 2008.
Davis, Heath F. “Sex Classification Policies as Transgender Discrimination: An Intersectional
Critique” American Political Science Association. 2014.