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.

Copyright 2022 Tribune Content Agency.

(22) comments

WhiskeyTangoFoxtrot

A plumbing and hormone review would solve these issues. If you can prove you are a female, you go to a woman's prison where Big Bertha will marry you. If you can't, you'll go to a men's prison where Ben Dover will marry you

Either way, you are going to prison.

C.D.Reid

My, my. It appears a few of our regular, ever tolerant, progressive libs are having another hissy fit. Groggy in particular. [lol][lol][lol]

pdl603

If to can’t do the time and all that comes with it, then don’t do the crime.

Greg F

Piddle, the person this is about never once complained about doing the time. It’s just doing the time with a bunch of lunatics like you in there. Nobody wants to associate with your sort…stupidity doesn’t gather crowds except at a right wing event or media outlet.

WhiskeyTangoFoxtrot

If "nobody wants to associate with your sort" Greg, why do you follow pdl around the forum?

Blueline

When I read the title, it reminded me of that old movie "I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang." I also wonder what they are doing 18 years for.

C.D.Reid

I wondered the same thing, Blueline. I believe it was purposely omitted because to reveal it would reflect this criminal got what it deserved.

public-redux

Perhaps she omitted it because it wasn’t relevant. After all, she didn’t claim innocence or complain about the length of the sentence.

phydeaux994

Yes, Mr. Reid is in a class by himself. I think we’d need a Psychiatrist to untangle it.

phydeaux994

Oops, wrong Add Reply. Meant as a response to News-Post reader.

newspostreader

"What IT deserved" - And I know the IT was not an accident because you did it in your other comments. Calling another human an "IT" is plain ignorant. You're a nasty old man. One day you'll have to answer for your actions and words.

C.D.Reid

Not sure how, but I hit the "Post" tab before I finished:

My first question is why has this "person" been in prison for 18 years? What crime did it commit to end up in a place that it, apparently, doesn't like? Eighteen years is not the punishment for a petty crime, yet no mention of the crimes it did. My next question is why is the FNP even running a story like this? Has it gone so far to the left, become such a "woke" voice for the "progressives," that they feel they have to print this "news" when there's so much real news to report? Between the lack of legitimate news stories, leaving some articles up way longer than necessary (a story about painted rocks in national parks ran for over two weeks,) and now garbage like this, it's getting harder and harder to justify a subscription to this paper.

bhall74

CD, I see where Newsweek has announced that it is giving up the printed version for an all digital version. As such, there's no reason why a second, or even a third, "newspaper" can't start publishing, and succeeding, in Frederick, in an all digital format. Now, whether a center or center-right oriented digital "newspaper" could gain sufficient traction in Frederick/Frederick County remains to be seen, but the cost of standing up such a "newspaper" is significantly less if there is no need for printing presses, paper, paper delivery staff, or even a physical office. The entire thing could be set up and run as a virtual enterprise. I suspect the FNP has the same "echo chamber" view of Frederick County as most liberals who live in Frederick City. Everyone they know is a liberal democrat so they assume that everyone is a liberal democrat. We're seeing that behavior in the Joementia White House right now. Everyone is a greenie and no other opinions or views are heard or sought.

C.D.Reid

Agreed, Bill. The reason why I read the FNP is because it's the only local paper and they do cover local news. But when they print non-local stories, they're usually junk like this one. To date, not one word in it about Hunter Biden's laptop and like stories that would appeal to the local conservatives. Frederick City is now a blue, liberal cesspool, but the county is still very much red. I guess this is the liberal's version of "fair" reporting.

Greg F

Seedy…you don’t read it…you just come in here to spout nonsense.

Greg F

Still on about the laptop, eh, but not a peep about guilty pleas by your Proud Boy heroes who are all ratting out more and more radicalized republicans. How conservative jag-off of you.

Greg F

And if you don’t like the blue cesspool, by all means, please move away.

Greg F

Yesss…someone do it so seedy, hallmonitor, WT-Bonzo-F and Piddle can all share their rubber echo chamber together.

public-redux

Maybe the crime was one of those minor drug offenses that Mr. Stavely discussed in his recent column.

What meaning do you intend to convey with the quotation marks around person?

Greg F

It…how bigoted of you. Your hood is out there for all to see.

C.D.Reid

My first question is why has this "person" been in prison for 18 years? What crime did it commit to end up in a place that it, apparently, doesn't like? Eighteen years is not the punishment for a petty crime, yet no mention of the crimes it did. My next question is why is the FNP even running a story like this? Has it gone so far to the left, become such a "woke" voice for the "progressives"

Dwasserba

“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.” This is the writer’s purpose in writing. A newspaper could choose to reprint it because….?? There could be several reasons. To educate. To titillate. To stimulate discussion. To get “hits.” To break down barriers. One, all or some other.

Welcome to the discussion.

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