At about 8 a.m. on April 3, I was pepper sprayed by prison guards as they broke up a fight between two men inside my cell. No one helped. I poured milk in my eyes and washed my face with cold water for nearly an hour. A guard laughed as I writhed in agony.
That was only one of the many traumatic incidents that I’ve experienced as a trans woman living in a men’s prison in Washington state for 18 years. Currently, there are nearly 5,000 trans women like myself incarcerated in men’s facilities across the country — and for us, being here is especially dangerous and inhumane.
I live under the constant threat of violence. I have survived sexual assault, verbal abuse, hyper-surveillance and coercion. Men, for example, often try to pimp me out, as when I was almost sold by a cellmate for a bag of meth or, more recently, when the offer was some tobacco.
Despite all of this, I don’t hate men. I blame our conditions.
As an abolitionist, I believe that U.S. prisons, as they currently exist, gravely harm those who are incarcerated while failing in their ostensible mission to reform. But, until these facilities are radically transformed, trans, gender-nonconforming and intersex people should be housed according to their specific needs and with their safety in mind.
Abuse against trans individuals in the prison system is not new, but attempts to prevent it from happening have so far been inadequate. In 2003, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimation Act, or PREA, in order to investigate prison rape and provide resources for prevention. PREA also mandated that, when a transgender person enters a prison, they must be assigned housing in a way that is not based on their anatomy or biological sex.
While this seems like a step forward, these regulations — which were not fully put in place until 2012 — are not specific enough to ensure that transgender and intersex people are assigned to facilities that correspond to their identities. They have also not been widely enforced and allow for practices like invasive genital inspections to continue.
The current Transgender Offender Manual, a set of guidelines used by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, outlines a “self-identification” process where the prisoner is given a say in the matter. Prison staff, however, still have the power to make the final call. The decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, but ultimately at the whim of potentially hostile administrators.
In recent years, the Washington State Department of Corrections has been progressively integrating trans women into a women’s facility. The move appears successful so far, despite the false claim from anti-trans organizations that “trans rapists” are now being housed with incarcerated women.
This, of course, is a myth. While anyone can commit sexual assault, transgender people are more than four times as likely to be victims of violent crime, including rape, than cisgender individuals. And, although there has been at least one documented case of an incarcerated trans person allegedly assaulting a woman in prison, there is no evidence of a broader pattern.
Integration does present challenges, but refusing to address the issue ignores the severe risk that trans, gender-nonconforming and intersex prisoners face while housed in facilities unsuitable for their gender idenities. Nationwide, close to 40% of transgender individuals in prison reported experiencing sexual assault or abuse, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice States. A separate study found that, in California, trans people in prison are 13 times more likely to be assaulted than the state’s general prison population.
My experience of abuse, one of many, highlights why integration is the best path forward. For the sake of protecting our most vulnerable populations, we must make sure that where someone ends up in the prison system is not determined by the shape of their genitalia.
Jessica Phoenix Sylvia is an Empowerment Avenue social justice writer who will be released from prison on June 20 and is currently writing a book based on a set of shocking prison memoirs. Follow her on Twitter at @Abolition—Jess. This column was produced for Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.