The War in Here

(Hat tip to Holly. I know I said I´d have this finished a few days ago. I apologize, too, to everyone, for the roughness of the quoted material. This keyboard is so dodgy there´s no point. Please go read the whole thing.)

The Sylvia Rivera Law Project, now in its sixth year, recently released a report (long pdf) on the conditions that trans and intersex people face in New York State prisons. As one might imagine, violence, sexual violence, brutality, harassment, neglect, and bureaucratic stonewalling are pretty much the norm.

The report takes pains to point out that the prison system´s failures are far from limited to any single community, and paints a depressing if familiar picture of the factors that have created our massive prison population. I would be remiss if I didn´t do the same. Some of the problems faced by trans and intersex prisoners are the result of hatred and ignorance specific to trans and intersex people; many of them are a function of the prison system itself. Neglect, brutality, and bureaucratic callousness are the norm for incarcerated people in general. Medical neglect in particular is not a problem trans and intersex prisoners face alone. Neither is sexual assault. Other prejudices on display in the maintenance of our prison system and its treatment of prisoners–racism and classism most notably, as well as the WoSCoPWUSKoD–are also important factors in the lives of trans and intersex prisoners. New York is no exception:

These national patterns are replicated in New York State, which as a state imprisons the fourth greatest number of people in the country (after Texas, California, and Florida).16 As of June 2005, 482 out of every 100,000 about 92,769 New York residents were in the state s prisons and jails.17 New York s rate of incarceration is nearly 153% more than the national average. People of color are disproportionately represented in New York State prisons and jails. African Americans make up 15.9% of the states general population, but represent 50.4% of the state´s imprisoned population. Together, African Americans and Latino/as make up about 91% of the 14,000 people in New York City jails.18 Reflecting national trends, people imprisoned in New York State are disproportionately from low-income backgrounds, lacking educational and economic opportunities. Ninety percent of people in New York City jails do not have a high school equivalency, and between 50 and 70% of the population reads English below a sixth grade level.More than 50% of people in New York State prisons do not have a high school diploma. Additionally, between 60 and 70% of prisoners in New York have a history of drug abuse.19 Nearly 60% of people in women´s prisons nationally were not employed full-time prior to their imprisonment, and about 37% had incomes of less than $600 per month prior to arrest.20

From the introduction:

Unfortunately, very little information has been collected about transgender people and people with intersex conditions across the United States or their experiences of confinement. A few key legal cases have highlighted the pervasive sexual violence1 or gender-related medical discrimination that they encounter while imprisoned.2 However, because corrections systems do not generally keep data regarding how many people in the criminal justice system are transgender or intersex or the nature of their experiences during imprisonment, a considerable gap exists with respect to information about this group of people.

Forty percent of SRLP s clients over the last four years have had criminal justice issues in their cases, demonstrating the disproportionate role the system plays in our communities. SRLP has served 106 clients who were imprisoned during the period over which we provided them with services. These clients overwhelmingly report experiencing assault, denial of urgently needed medical care, and placement in gender inappropriate facilities. While much of this discrimination is clearly illegal under existing law, the lack of legal support available to imprisoned people results in most being unable to enforce their rights.3

SRLP undertook this research to document the experiences of our clients in New York State prisons.We recognize that while we do not have the capacity to collect broad-scale empirical research about this population, we can share the wealth of qualitative information we have obtained through advocacy on behalf of our imprisoned clients over the past three years. To create this report and to illustrate the conditions of confinement that are commonly reported by our clients, the author corresponded with and gathered detailed narratives from twelve SRLP clients who are currently or were formerly imprisoned in various New York State men s prisons. In addition, the author interviewed a range of New York City based advocates and service providers who work with transgender communities. We hope that the information contained in this report is useful in assessing the issues facing members of our community who are entangled in the criminal justice system, and in developing and implementing policies and practices to alleviate the violence and discrimination they face inside New York State correctional facilities.

Before going on, it´s worth taking a moment to point out one specific problem: “placement in gender inappropriate facilities.” The most popular strategy used to punish trans and intersex people for existing is to de-gender them or to deny them the gender with which they identify. It´s a very effective way of masking discrimination, too: if that transwoman isn´t a woman, it isn´t discrimination to force her to wear men´s clothing. It also works to amplify the abuse and make it a community sport rather than an administrative indulgence, since it outs and publically humiliates its targets, and signals their position to everyone.

Interviewees consistently reported that placement within prisons was central to their safety concerns.U.S. correctional facilities are sex-segregated, and house prisoners according to their birth-assigned sex and/or genitalia.62 Transgender women who live and identify as women but who were identified as male at birth are generally placed in men s facilities. In men s facilities, transgender women, gender nonconforming people, and intersex people are frequent and visible targets for discrimination and violence, and are subject to daily refusals by correctional officers and other prisoners to recognize their gender identity.63

Most of the interview subjects recount the same routine: humiliation and abuse for being transgendered, intersex, transfeminine, or transsexual; retailiation for resistance or official complaint; escalation of the abuse along with extra humiliation and abuse by authorities. In many cases, prisoners are punished for causing the abuse or for allowing it to continue.

Trans and intersex prisoners live in a state of permanent punishment. Their trans and intersex status is only acknowledged when it can result in pain or vulnerability, never when it might compel assistance or accomodation. Bureaucratic scrutiny and invisibility all at once: simultaneous special efforts to humiliate and to ignore.

The report starts not with conditions in prison but conditions that lead to disproportionate imprisonment: unemployment, employment discrimination, family abuse and neglect, medical discrimination, housing discrimination, harassment at school. It leads up through the conditions that prevent assistance: shelter and public-assistance discrimination, abuse and harassment in situations like shelters and foster care. It continues through the abuses that occur in prison, and the difficulty trans and intersex prisoners have with reporting abuse or protecting themselves from it. Again, you should go read the whole thing.

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2 comments for “The War in Here

  1. antiprincess
    October 8, 2007 at 3:01 pm

    thanks for this, Piny.

Comments are closed.