Graphic by Hannah Boston
Life inside of a men’s prison is not easy for anyone, but it is especially difficult for trans women. The U.S. prison system houses transgender individuals on the basis of their genitals instead of their gender identity. This means that preoperative trans women are placed in men’s correctional facilities instead of prisons for women. These trans women face unique threats when placed into a correctional facility for men.
Cruel and Unusual, a documentary by Vadim Jean, shows that these women are at a significantly higher risk for sexual abuse by other inmates and the prison staff when placed in a men’s correctional facility. Trans women are only placed in women’s prisons after they have undergone sexual reassignment surgery (SRS). Although more and more correctional facilities are now providing SRS for transgender inmates, the prison system fails to recognize that one does not need to undergo SRS to be transgender. The U.S. prison system should be able to recognize and accommodate inmates of any gender identity. The prison system needs to evaluate inmates who may have special concerns (such as trans women) by conducting interviews with these inmates and conferring with psychologists for guidance. Currently the prison system’s solution to protecting preoperative trans women in men’s correctional facilities is solitary confinement, which is essentially an additional punishment.
When Cruel and Unusual was filmed, there were actually no statistics on the rate of sexual abuse of trans women in prison; however, the documentary sheds light on this neglected issue. This documentary shares the story of five trans women who have spent time in a men’s prison. All five of these women have experienced sexual and physical abuse in prison. Much of this abuse could have been prevented by placing these women in a women’s correctional facility instead of a men’s facility; one of the primary reasons why male and female prisons are separated is to prevent gender violence.denying these women psychological support, withholding their cross hormone therapy, and subjecting them to solitary confinement––violates the eighth amendment of the constitution, which is supposed to protect people from cruel and unusual punishment (hence the title of the film).
In this film we meet a trans woman, Anna Connelly, who is denied female hormones and psychological counseling for her gender dysphoria while in prison. Anna suffers from physical withdrawal and depression and she eventually castrated herself, yet she still was denied the treatment she needs. Legislation needs to be passed that requires prisons to provide psychological and medical resources to transgender inmates so that tragic events, such as those that Anna Connelly suffered, can be prevented.
Yolanda, a trans woman of color, says she started taking female hormones at the age of 12. She has never known her father, and her mother is a recovering drug addict. She had to drop out of school in the sixth grade and had to resort to prostitution in order to survive.
Yolanda’s story is one that shows how race, gender identity, and socioeconomic status interact. Trans women of color are at a particularly high risk for incarceration. According to a national survey done by The National Center for Transgender Equality, 47 percent of trans people of color have been incarcerated at some point in their lives. LGBTQ attorney and activist Andrea Ritchie says LGBTQ people of color are significantly more likely to be homeless due to poverty and rejection from their families and thus, more susceptible to arrests for these crimes they commit in order to survive. Once in prison, trans women are vulnerable to higher-than-average rates of sexual abuse which is represented in statistics from The National Center for Transgender Equality’s survey which shows that transgender inmates experience physical and sexual assault at higher frequencies (19% and 16%) than other inmates (4% and 8%). The rate of this is even higher for trans women of color, with thirty-eight percent (38%) of those reporting having been sexually assaulted by either another inmate or a staff member in prison.
One does not need to (or even want to) have SRS to be considered transgender. Having a surgery to obtain certain genitals does not define one’s gender. Transgender people need to have access to SRS if they feel it is necessary, but they should not be required to have SRS to be housed correctly in prison. The determining criteria for an inmate’s housing should not be their genitals, but rather, their safety.
“Cruel and Unusual” the documentary: https://youtu.be/5Yzy8oh5Fw0