Professor at UCI - Department of Criminology, Law & Society

Transgender Prisoners In The Us Prison System


Prison, jail and even dealings with law enforcement personnel can be an upsetting experience for most people. And living in a country with one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, US citizens are more likely to have these encounters than most people in other parts of the world. As dangerous and traumatizing as these experiences can be, it can be argued that people who are transgenders are especially more vulnerable to the often violent and threatening facets of the prison system.


Incarceration as a Transgender Prisoner


A lot of times being a transgender in prison often equals months and years of physical, sexual, and verbal abuse. A 2011 survey discovered that 15% of transgender inmates in jails or prisons were sexually assaulted, while 16% faced physical assault; 34% of black transgender inmates also reported being abused sexually.


A National Inmate Survey released by the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2014 revealed that 34.6% of transgender inmates reported being sexually harassed. This is compounded by the fact that most transgender persons, when incarcerated, are placed in prisons of their original sex, even when they identify with the opposite sex. Federal regulations require prisons and jails, however, to treat transgender inmates as special cases, and consider where they would feel the safest being incarcerated. Often though, these guidelines are ignored, with most prisons having blanket policies and practices that allow them to place inmates in cells depending on their genitalia.


The effects of these practices are revealed in harrowing stories of repeated sexual assaults, gross physical violence, and numerous other harassment. A 28-year-old Mexican-born transgender woman simply known as Ms. Sanchez narrates her story of facing daily verbal abuse by other inmates in front of guards, being placed in solitary confinement for a month simply because of her gender identity, and a physical attack that took place at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, GA.


Another transgender woman, D.B, who was incarcerated at a prison in Orlando, describes being raped by her 18-year-old cellmate, after repeated attempts of pleading with guards not to place her with the general population. She subsequently made attempts to sue Orange County, Florida for putting her in deliberate risk, but was told she had no right to appeal by a district court, Judge.


A rare victory, however, came in the case of a Maryland woman, Sandy Brown, who scored a legal victory against a Maryland prison. A judge ruled that her rights were indeed violated by prison staff after they placed her in solitary confinement for 66 days and sexually harassed her solely because of her gender identity.


What is Being Done to Protect The Rights of Transgender Inmates?


Many civil rights organizations and individuals have spoken up about the injustice faced by transgender inmates in the US prison system. Valerie Jenness a professor of criminology, law & society, sociology, and nursing science, as well as an author, researcher and public advisor has been credited with leading the way in the right direction, after conducting the first systemic study of transgender women in men’s prisons.


Alongside her work on the transgender community, Valerie Jenness has also carried out work on the Prostitutes’ Rights Movement, Hate Crimes, and sexual assault in prison. Perhaps, great works like this account for why the US Department of Justice has issued a memorandum preventing correction facilities from placing transgender inmates in male or female prisons based exclusively on their genital anatomy at birth. This comes as a glimmer of hope that eventually the health and welfare of transgender people will be taken seriously by the US prison system. It also reinforces the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which was signed into law in 2003, by former US president George W Bush.


PREA aims at analyzing incidences and effects of prison rape on Federal, state, and local facilities, and providing the information and resources necessary to protect individuals from prison rape. The federal regulation was finally implemented in 2012 and requires that the placing of transgender inmates in housing facilities be done on an individual case basis. This, however, has not been done in most prisons, and according to a joint statement by the Just Detention International and the National Center for Transgender Equality is “a violation of PREA and puts transgender people at risk of sexual abuse”.

According to Harper Jean Tobin, a director of policy at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), compiling a list of violators of this Federal regulation would most likely include every state department of corrections. Several correctional facilities like Massachusetts have policies that state as follows: “An inmate who is committed to the Department shall be placed in a gender-specific institution according to the prisoner’s biological gender presentation and appearance.” this result in transgender women being incarcerated in male prisons and puts them at high risk for sexual assault. Tobin concludes by stating “Whatever else one might say about our incarceration or people sentenced to it, rape is never part of the punishment. And yet it has become far too common – and has been for decades – for transgender women.” As it stands a lot of work still needs to be done to stop these dangerous placements, and ensure that transgender inmates serve their time as safely as possible.