Follow up-to-date news about out campaign to protect the human rights of trans people incarcerated in DC by following our blog with the tag “jails”!

(interested in getting more involved with our legal working group? see our post here on how to help out!)

Background & Context

Due to prejudice, discrimination and heightened likeliness of encountering violence, transgender, transsexual and gender nonconforming (hereafter: trans) people are more likely to be kicked out of their homes, forced to drop out of school, turned away from shelters and other social services, and have difficulty finding legal employment or being able to pay for health care. This means that trans people are at a heightened risk of being arrested for quality of life crimes like sleeping in public or for survival crimes like engaging in sex work. There are other risk factors too – for example, police profiling. In many places, trans people are forced to carry ID documents that do not accurately reflect their identity, and some have even been arrested for “impersonation.”

Once incarcerated, trans people face severe difficulties and rampant human rights abuses. Unfortunately, it’s hard to give precise numbers because very few institutions maintain records that acknowledge us at all. But based on individual testimony, prison visitations, pen pal projects and community activism, and a number of reports produced by community, academic and legal organizations, we know that the conditions faced by trans people in jails, prisons and other lockups are horrendous. In one study, 59% of trans prisoners reported being sexually assaulted while incarcerated in California, compared to only 4.4% of the random sample.

To give you an idea of the scope of the problem across the country, trans people who are incarcerated often are…

  • HOUSED IN INAPPROPRIATE FACILITIES with the gender they were assigned-at-birth, based solely on their legal sex or genitalia, with no regard to how they identify, live their life, or where they would be safest. For example, trans women who are placed in men’s units are far more likely to experience harassment, sexual assault and violence.
  • PSYCHOLOGICALLY ABUSED: not referred to by chosen name or correct pronoun, denied appropriate clothing and toiletries, appearance strictly regulated, punished for expressing the gender congruent with their identity.
  • DENIED ACCESS to drug rehabilitation, work release, educational and other recreational or job opportunities because of stereotypes about gender variant people.
  • DENIED TRANS-RELATED HEALTH CARE: Transitioning is often deemed “cosmetic” and not medically necessary, thus trans prisoners may be denied access to endocrinologists, psychiatrists and others involved in their care. This can be traumatic for the physical and mental health of trans people, causing deep depression and physical withdrawal symptoms similar to the those experienced by any other abrupt change in a person’s physiology. Cutting off access to hormones can also complicate blood pressure and lead to other serious problems. It can also stunt or forever ruin a transition that is not yet completed, leaving the trans person with semi-developed traits or mixed external gender cues that can be devastating to their sense of identity and make them targets for violence inside and outside of prison.
  • UNABLE TO OBTAIN COMPETENT HEALTH CARE professionals and resources that are familiar and experienced with the very particular needs of trans patients. Hormone therapy can be very dangerous, even life threatening, if not properly monitored and if its interactions with other medications are not properly understood. Even when receiving treatment for other health concerns, such as gynecological or testicular cancer exams, doctors who are unfamiliar or judgmental with gender variant patients may not deliver adequate treatment.
  • SEXUALLY ASSAULTED, consistently subjected to verbal harassment and frequently raped or coerced into sex by fellow inmates, guards and officials.
  • AT INCREASED RISK OF EXPOSURE to epidemic rates of HIV, Hepatitis C and other sexually transmitted infections due to frequent rape and sexual coercion.
  • SUBJECTED TO ABUSIVE STRIP SEARCHES, regularly conducted in a sexually inappropriate, abusive or degrading manner, and often in front of other prisoners.
  • EXCESSIVELY PLACED IN ISOLATION to “prevent violence” against them. Often kept in protective custody for 23-hours per day; cut off from human contact, commissary, phone privileges. Though this may deter a trans prisoner from being assaulted, it is effectively stopping rape by a de facto policy of punishing the survivor, leading to increased threat of self-harm and depression.
  • PRESENTED WITH FEW RE-ENTRY PROGRAMS after release that are prepared to assist trans people in finding steady, well-paying jobs and housing, which may force them back into the underground economy where they must engage in survival crimes such as sex work, thereby increasing the chance that they will be arrested again and perpetuate the cycle of incarceration.

This also has a ripple effect on all of our communities. Even after incarceration, the individual will take all of the emotional trauma and health problems back into their communities. All of this amounts to a major human rights crisis.

(note: These conditions do not apply necessarily to every single jurisdiction, as policies and experiences vary widely by district, county, state, country, and even sometimes by individual facilities. This list is a general idea of common, frequently occurring problems. See the “Jails” tab on our Reports and Research page.)

History of Our Campaign

At a series of community forums in 2007 and 2008, a large group of  trans individuals in DC put together a list of demands for the DC Department of Corrections to address some of these concerns. At the heart of our demands is the belief that we know where we are safest, and thus housing assignments should reflect the individual situation of every trans person who gets locked up. There is no single “blanket solution” to where we should be housed. We also wanted more options for housing (specifically, we wanted the right to be housed with people of the gender with which we identify, regardless of our legal sex or surgery status), guaranteed access to hormones and other medical treatment, and an end to the use of enforced protective custody and abusive strip searches.

After nearly a year-long campaign, a lot of meetings, legal visits, community forums, protests, petitions, letter-writing, city council hearings and battles with the Office of Human Rights and the Attorney General’s Office, the DC Department of Corrections finally issued an improved policy on Gender Classification and Housing in 2009. You can read our summary of the policy here. Not all of our demands were met, but it represents significant progress and raises the standard for how trans people are dealt with by the correctional system.

As of 2011, members of DCTC have joined the DOC’s Transgender Housing Committee, as well as the recently-created Transgender Oversight Committee. We will continue to work to make sure that trans people are treated fairly in DC’s jails. You can help! Be sure to know your rights in the jail. If you have any information for us, please contact us.

We also support the Raising the Bar for Justice and Safety Coalition, a national coalition of groups working “to advocate for the US Attorney General’s full and swift adoption of the recommendation national standards for the prevention, detection, response and monitoring of sexual abuse in U.S. detention facilities , as proposed by the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission.”

Finally, these policies can only deal with people after they are involved with the criminal justice system. Recognizing all the factors involved in trans people’s over-incarceration – such as the criminalization of sex workers, employment discrimination, inaccessible or underfunded social services, police profiling and so on – we also work to build a world in which less of us are going to jail in the first place. While it’s important to protect the rights of people going in jail, many of our other campaigns are intertwined with work to make sure less of us are being locked up at all.

6 thoughts on “Jails

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