Broad Recognition


Identity Behind Bars: Some Experiences of Transgender People in Prisons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Last year, Ophelia De’Lonta, a pre-operative trans woman in a Virginia prison, cut at her penis for three hours with disposable razors in an attempt to castrate herself. After repeatedly demanding that the prison pay for sexual reassignment surgery (SRS) for her, she took matters into her own hands. She is currently suing the prison in federal court for denying her the surgery—but says that she feels suicidal, and may try to kill herself.

In the United States, trans inmates are only housed with people of their own gender if they have undergone full SRS. In other words, prison allocation is decided solely on the basis of genitals. People who have lived full lives as women for years may be placed alone in a men’s prison, or vice versa. Prisons do provide basic medical care for inmates, but this does not include SRS. Many have opposed the idea that states should pay for a surgery that can cost $50,000.

California was recently sued for not funding sex changes, and a receiving attorney responded that, “A prison is not required by law to give a prisoner medical care that is as good as he would receive if he were a free person, let alone an affluent free person.” It may seem illogical to spend so much money on a criminal. The role of prisons, though, is not to punish criminals but to prevent crime.

Vengeance for crimes has no social worth. A prison has done its job when the people it releases will no longer commit crimes. Keeping prisoners unhealthy does not help to prevent crime—it is, as the constitution puts it, cruel and unusual. Denying transgender prisoners SRS will not make them less likely to commit crimes—in fact, it makes it all the more likely that they will.
First, we must consider the reasons that transgender people end up in prisons. In 38 states, gender identity alone is legal basis for firing an employee. The Washington, DC Transgender Needs Assessment Survey found that only 58% of respondents had paid jobs. Homelessness is an additional problem, and only 1 in 4 respondents were satisfied with their housing situations. Unemployment and homelessness encourage drug abuse, sex work, and theft. One transgender ex-prisoner stated, “What can I do to survive? I can’t work. I’m not allowed in the shelter, I’m not allowed in the rescue mission” in an interview with Jezebel.

Police discrimination is also an issue. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that 7% of transgender people had been held in a prison cell for their gender expression alone. Much more shockingly, though, 41% of African American and 21% of Latino respondents reported being held in prison simply for the way they presented their gender. All of these factors make it unsurprising that one in three trans people will go to prison at some point.

The situation doesn’t improve when transgender people reach prison. Rape is a constant and pervasive problem. One ex-prisoner stated, “I was arrested one day regarding something minor. Due to my gender being marked as male, I was put in with the men. Within 15 minutes, I was raped by three different men. My mother even called and warned the officers NOT to put me in with the general population as I would be an easy target. When I got out I tried to seek help from Victims’ Services but was denied. I was also discouraged from trying to press charges on the men.” This personal account of a trans prison inmate from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey is only one of many horror stories of transgender rape. That these rapes occur is unsurprising—placing someone who outwardly presents as female among hundreds of men—many of whom have violent histories—is a simple formula for sexual assault. In 1994, in a case brought forward by Dee Farmer, a trans woman, the Supreme Court ruled that prisons are obligated to protect all inmates from rape. However, this policy is clearly not enforced. 56% of transgender inmates have been raped or sexually assaulted, as compared to 4% of the general prison population.  The University of California Irvine study from which this statistic comes goes on to state that while 70% of the general population that required medical assistance after assault received it, only 37.5% of transgender inmates did.  These statistics reveal worrying complacency about rape in the prison system. It is evident that authorities are taking inadequate action to prevent sexual assault and help to rehabilitate victims.

Another responsibility of the prison system is to prevent suicide.  The Bureau of Prisons states that suicide prevention is a top priority. However, thoughts of suicide are common among transgender inmates. Additionally, suicide is the only issue listed on the entire Bureau of Prisons mental health page—indicating, perhaps, that the institutional priority is not in fact a mentally healthy prison population but rather one without hard-to-explain suicides. Additionally, Gender Identity Disorder is currently classified as a psychological disorder. While—because it pathologies almost all gender identities that deviate from the socially constructed norm—this labeling is flawed, it should still be the responsibility of prisons to treat what medical authorities currently call disorders. If mental health rehabilitation is not a priority of the prisons, then rarely will they succeed in preventing future crimes.

Greater government expenditures, especially for people who have committed crimes, is hard to justify. However, because of social factors that push transgender people to prison, and complacency about the constant threats of sexual assault and mental health issues, the importance of the surgery cannot be understated. Ophelia De’Lonta needed surgery so badly that she took matters into her own hands. In order to prevent such tragic, desperate actions and protect the most basic human rights of all people, regardless of their gender—or their past—prisons must ensure that all transgender inmates who want gender reassignment surgery receive it.

Chamonix Adams Porter is a freshman in Yale College.  She is a contributing writer for Broad Recognition.

Comments (3)

  • The U.S. prison system is rife with human rights abuses which Amnesty International details every year. The levels of torture of which repeated mass rape is one type far exceed the statistics you quoted. The “cruel and unusual punishment” clause in the constitution has lost all meaning under the current conservative and insane Supreme Court, and cruel punishment has become all too usual. Millions of people are locked up, or in the penal system, and they are either innocent, punished too severely for minor nonviolent offenses, or coerced into plea bargains by threats of greater injustice proposed to be done to them.

    The prison system has become privatized and for-profit, and this has led to strange synergisms between corrupt judges, police, prosecutors, parole officers and rural populations whose only economic opportunity consists of becoming a prison guard, and Wall Street investors seeking returns on their investments. It has led to exponential increases in incarceration rates to fill the exponentially growing number of prisons being built, and to the de facto reenlavement of minorities including sexual minorities.

    They say the freedom of a country can be measured by the number of people locked up in prisons. The U.S. imprisons 25% of all prisoners in the world. The incarceration rate is higher than in Stalinist Russia and China during their worst days.

    posted by walter      September 25th, 2011 at 2:28 am

  • If anyone knows anyone interested or can pass this along;

    Title of Research Project:
    Investigating the Experiences of Transgender/Gender Variant Individuals who have been Incarcerated
    Contact(s) for Research:
    Chris Duarte
    Program Coordinator
    Northern Arizona University
    There has been little research about the experiences of transgender/gender variant people who have been arrested, convicted, or served time in a criminal justice institution. In addition, there are limited ways that transgender individuals may self-identify during the criminal justice process. Thus, discovering what transgender/gender variant individuals experience is almost impossible without conducting personal interviews. As a transgender man, and a person who works within the LGBTQA community, I hope to better serve the community by expanding on what little research exists about transgender individuals and the criminal justice system.
    For individuals interested in participating in this study, please understand that all names and identities of participants will remain confidential. As the interviewer, this study requires participants to self-identify as transgender, gender variant, androgynous, genderqueer, or any other form of gender variant identities and participants have to have served some form of jail time, prison incarceration, or mental health institution.
    How to access research:
    Please email me at either of the above emails to set up a time and date for an interview. Also, please forward this research request to anyone you know that might qualify or be interested.
    University Affiliation and IRB Review:
    Northern Arizona University 11.0278

    posted by Chris Duarte      January 18th, 2012 at 6:35 am

  • [...] Identity Behind Bars: Some Experiences of Trans-Gendered People in Prisons by Chamonix Adams Porter for Broad Recognition, a feminist magazine. [...]

    posted by ‘Sometimes you have to pay a heavy price’ | Phil Ebersole's Blog      August 23rd, 2013 at 11:23 am

Leave a Comment