The truth about being trans in prison

I spoke to my pre-transition friend about her experience

With the new season of Orange is the New Black released, many think they understand what life in prison is like. However, unlike Laverne Cox’s character on the show, many transwomen end up in male prisons because of the genitals they were born with. One recent example is of an Australian transwoman who was raped and abused over 2,000 times in an all-male prison. In another case, a British transwoman killed herself due to being sent to a male prison.

My good friend, Cara*, is a pre-transition transwoman who was recently released from a five-year sentence in a male prison. It was during her incarceration that she realized she was transgender, though she always felt different.

“I was always really Catholic growing up, and I was very aware of the official doctrines,” she says. “So when I started to realize at a young age that I couldn’t relate well to boys my age, and that I identified more with my much closer group of girl friends, a big red (rainbow?) flag went up in my mind, that I had to conform to what I was expected to be.

Abu_Ghraib_cell_block“I remember when I was in first grade all the girls would hang out by one tree at recess, and all the boys at a different one, and I always was the only ‘boy’ at the girls’ tree,” she recalls. “But then I joined the Cub Scouts the next year, and I started developing better friendships with the boys, and just suppressed, or ignored, all those feelings of being different I had been having.”

Cara was arrested in May of 2010 and finished her sentence in March of this year. “Going into prison, I had this really complex idea of myself built up in my head to explain away any ‘sinful’ thoughts I had about gender or sexuality. Some people find religion in jail – I didn’t need to, so instead I became very zealous,” she says.

“Since I was suicidal when I was arrested, I spent three weeks in solitary confinement for ‘treatment’ upon admission, which was was the most traumatic thing I went through, and the only book I was allowed was a Bible, which I read cover to cover over and over.”

Soon, however, she gave up on her religious zealousness. “My self-image was a big house of cards that I kept adding to, and the bottom fell out,” Cara says. “I decided I was gonna start from scratch, make as few assumptions as possible about anything, and try to figure out the mess that was me.”

The big turning point for her was when she saw a 20/20 special with Barbara Walters interviewing trans* kids. “It was like someone dumped a bucket of water on my head,” says Cara. “I had heard of drag queens and cross dressers but I had always thought of them as wicked sinners who chose to be sexual deviants. Without the burden of religious doctrine, it was entirely different, and I could do some rational self-examination.”

After the realization that she was trans, Cara hated that she was stuck surrounded by men all the time. “I kept my revelations to myself, only talking to my mom, who reasonably was skeptical, and that made it worse. Not only was I in prison, but I was in prison hiding who I really was,” she says.

What made things even harder for her was how she heard other inmates talk about LGBTQ+ people. “If someone was gay, they had to be afraid of being beat up or raped by someone who was emphatically straight and needed to prove it, and the trans women I saw were treated even worse.

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“Gay men didn’t get isolated. As long as they weren’t being actively harassed, you could associate with a gay man without repercussions. You might get accused of being gay yourself, but the accusations were usually half-hearted,” Cara explains. “With trans women, it was entirely different. It’s a paradox that someone can completely deny a person’s gender, while at the same time being awful to that person in the same way they would to anyone else of that person’s gender.

“Basically, if someone treated women like shit outside of jail, they were going to treat trans women the same way inside, even as they insisted vociferously on the woman’s maleness.”

Cara recalls one trans woman in particular that no one would even talk to. “I was even afraid to go anywhere near her because of the stigma of just saying hello to a woman with a penis,” says Cara. “She was there for less than a week before they shuffled her off to a different dorm, but I only ever saw one inmate talking to her. And everyone talked behind his back about what they thought were his proclivities and what he must be doing in the shower with her.

“It looked to me that to be an out trans woman in a male prison is to be completely alone,” Cara states.

Cara firmly believes that transitioning men and women should be housed according to their gender identities in prison: “Putting trans* people in the prison according to their identified gender won’t completely solve the problem, not to mention that non-binary people are completely erased, but it’ll do more good than harm,” she says.

“You know those bathroom discrimination bills? There’s one place where the fears that led to those are accurate, and that’s in the prison system,” states Cara. “For non-transitioning and pre-transition trans folk, I worry that there may be no separating them from the [cis] men who just want to go to a women’s prison to be a predator. In public bathrooms? Not a problem. In an institution with no one but law breakers? Yikes.

“The bigger issue though is that, even with people the same gender in a prison, there’s a very stratified pecking order based on who can bully who, so not only are trans women almost universally hated in prison, we tend to be the physically weaker inmates,” Cara says.

Mother Jones reports that “Transgender women housed in men’s prisons are at even greater risk for sexual assault. A California study found that nearly 60 percent of transgender women inmates housed in men’s prisons reported being sexually assaulted, compared to just 4 percent of non-transgender inmates in men’s prison.”

The Nation Center for Transgender Equality states, “Many transgender people are placed in solitary confinement for months or years just because of who they are,” which speaks to the situation Sophia, the character Laverne Cox plays on Orange is the New Black, faces in the recent season of the show. This practice, known as “protective custody,” can actually be quite harmful.

“Contact with your family is pretty much out if you’re in protective custody,” explains Cara. “In addition, that puts you at the mercy of the guards to adulterate your food, deny you necessities like water, toilet paper and flushing, and do all sorts of other shitty things, simply because they want to make you suffer.”

It’s important we focus on the T in LGBT. While marriage equality was legalized last year, providing LGB people with more rights, trans folks are still suffering a great deal – prisons just being one of a myriad of issues.

“The discrimination against the community frequently leads trans people, especially women, resorting to less than legal methods of supporting themselves, and in a culture that disapproves of both prostitution and trans women, combining the two leads to awful treatment by the legal system,” Cara says.

Names have been changed for privacy concerns