March 26, 2008

Prison pipeline for transgender youth

Poor and minority especially at risk

At a prison reception center, dozens of orange-clad men sit in a long row, waiting for an initial mental health screening. Imagine my surprise, one morning, to see an orange-clad woman sitting in one of the chairs.

I did a double-take the first time I saw this while working at the prison. After a while, though, I got used to it. Quite a few transgender prisoners live in mainline men's prisons.

It was always interesting to talk to these women in men's bodies. I remember being especially impressed by the poise and self-assurance of one in particular. I saw Kalani Key during her 14th stint in prison; she now works as an advocate for transgender prisoners and has written an essay entitled "How I Survived Men's Prison as a Woman."

Key's survival story is remarkable in light of the pervasive victimization of transgender prisoners. Since the landmark case of Farmer v. Brennan in 1994, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prison rape is unconstitutional, transgender prisoners have made some modest progress. But rates of sexual violence against them remain astonishingly high. A recent study by UC Irvine criminologist Valerie Jenness found that 59% of transgender prisoners in California reported sexual victimization, compared to 4% of the general prison population.

Last fall, Dr. Jenness testified as an expert in the civil trial of transgender prisoner Alexis Giraldo, who sued Folsom Prison officials over an alleged prison rape. Giraldo lost.

Why such high rates of incarceration and abuse?

As I found out while researching the motivations of hate crime offenders back in the mid-1900s, probably no one is more despised and vilified than the man or woman who violates traditional norms for male and female behavior. Rejection and abuse by family, schools, peers and the community at large lead to high rates of depression, substance abuse, school dropout, and running away. These problems may lead to homelessness and prostitution which, in turn, lead to arrest.

As explored in an article published this month, transgender youth who get caught up in the juvenile justice system face extreme hostility and abuse at the hands of judges, counselors, correctional staff, and even their own court-appointed attorneys. They are more likely than other youths to be given harsh punishment in maximum-security institutions. This, of course, is part of the channeling toward adult prison.

The timely article, by attorney Jody Marksamer, chronicles the case of 15-year-old Destiny, who was sent to a maximum-security facility where she was sexually assaulted, harassed, and mistreated by both youths and staff. Subjected to forced gender conformity in the guise of "treatment," she was punished for dancing like a girl and was told by staff not to report her ongoing experiences of sexual victimization.

Like Destiny, many of the transgender prisoners I saw were poor and nonwhite. Indeed, a large proportion of the young transgender women and men who are murdered every year are minority. This fact is conveniently neglected by the mainstream transgender rights movement, according to a provocative article in the same special issue of Sexuality Research and Social Policy highlighting the murder of 16-year-old Fred "FC" Martinez, a Navajo Indian.

Shutting down the prison pipeline for poor and minority transgender youth is a tall order. The schools need to be safe so transgender youth are not forced to drop out. Professionals in the criminal justice system, and most especially in the juvenile justice system, need education and training. Individualized diversion programs need to be created as alternatives to detention for juvenile status offenders.

Last but not least, the conditions of confinement need to be improved. Labeling transgender youths as sexual deviants and then housing them with aggressive sex offenders is a recipe for further victimization and trauma.

The articles referenced above are in the current issue of Sexuality Research & Social Policy, a special issue dedicated to transgender issues. Jody Marksamer's article is entitled "And by the Way, Do You Know He Thinks He's a Girl? The Failures of Law, Policy, and Legal Representation for Transgender Youth in Juvenile Delinquency Courts." The other article I mention is "Retelling racialized violence, remaking white innocence: The politics of interlocking oppressions in Transgender Day of Remembrance" by Sarah Lamble. A 2005 ACLU report on violence against transgender prisoners, "Still in Danger," is also available online.

Photo credit: Andrew Ciscel (Creative Commons license)

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