Activists Speak on Trans Prisoners’ Reality

An African-American trans woman named CeCe McDonald was released from prison this past January after serving 19 months for defending herself against a transphobic and racist attack. McDonald is not alone. According to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 16 percent of all trans people and 47 percent of all black trans people have served time in prison. On March 4, trans* prison activists and researchers from around the country came to Seattle University to discuss the diverse challenges that the legal system, police, and prisons present to trans* people. The panelists for the event were Carolyn Henry, Janetta Johnson, Eric Stanley, and Alisha Williams. The panel, titled “Trans* Liberation and the Carceral State: A Panel of National Transgender Activists” was moderated by Dean Spade, Seattle U law professor. Spade is the founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which works to guarantee all people the ability to determine their own gender identity without facing discrimination. Trans* is an umbrella term which refers to any individual whose experience of their own gender does not match their assigned gender at birth. Trans* individuals may identify as one or more of numerous gender possibilities, including both genders, no gender, transgender, genderqueer, intersex, genderfluid, and any other gender identification besides male and female. Trans* people are structurally disadvantaged in our society and in our criminal justice system. Alisha Williams, a staff attorney for the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, noted in an interview with “Democracy Now!” that there is “a disproportionate representation of trans* people in prison because of things that happened beforehand,” such as poverty and homelessness. She said that family rejection and lack of support at school are common causes of homelessness among trans* individuals, who often grow up being bullied by other students and discriminated against by school administrators. “Before they even get in touch with the criminal justice system, they are one of the most likely parts of the American population to end up homeless, to have mental disorders, suicide attempts, suicide completions,” said Antonio Skilton, a Seattle U sociology student and LGBT activist. Trans* people also face rejection in the workforce, in the housing market, and even at homeless shelters, thus leading to “a higher percentage of people who are trans* who are forced to turn to professions made

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deviant by society,” Skilton said. In order to survive, many turn to sex work, stealing, and other illegal methods of making money. However, even trans* people who do not engage in these activities are targets of police discrimination. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project’s website notes that the “overpolicing and profiling of low income people and of trans and gender non-conforming people intersect, producing a far higher risk than average of imprisonment, police harassment, and violence for low income trans people.” Trans* people face additional gender-related discrimination while in the criminal justice system’s custody. They are usually victims of increased sexual violence, threats, abuse, and harassment both by other prisoners and by prison staff. Williams called this discrimination “invisible violence.” “The prison system has taken all of the value out of trans people,” said Johnson, an African-American trans woman who has spent time in prison. She described it as “the most demeaning and demoralizing place.” Trans* people are often denied hormones and other trans-specific health care needs while incarcerated, leading to serious health issues and emotional anguish. Gender-segregated searches, holding cells, and arrest procedures also fail to accommodate trans* people. Furthermore, arresting officers often misidentify trans* people as “male” or “female” based solely on their appearance or genital surgery status. Recent federal legislation such as the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) is a small step toward ending this discrimination. “PREA states that when trans people are incarcerated, their individual assessment of where they would be safest should be taken into consideration,” Williams said. This panel is an important step in encouraging awareness of and conversation about trans* rights at Seattle U. The university’s Committee to Improve Trans Inclusion (CITI) is working to create a more accepting campus for people of all gender identifications. CITI is advocating for more gender-inclusive restrooms throughout campus and is also working to revise our university’s forms and data warehouses to allow for legal and preferred name and gender fields. “There’s been a lot of work to try to make our campus more accessible to trans*

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students, faculty, and staff,” Spade said. “Bringing this panel to the campus really connects to work that is already going on here, both in terms of on our campus and in terms of the student activism in the region.”