The transgender experience in prison

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Photo by Donald Tong on

Transgender prisoners across the nation face a variety of hardships based on their gender identification, such as sexual and physical abuse, solitary confinement, exclusion from rehabilitative programming, inadequate health care, and prison placement that jeopardizes their safety and wellbeing. Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) statistics showed that in September 2019 there were 29 prisoners in the DOC who openly identified as transgender. 

Over the last year, the DOC has changed some of its policy to address concerns of the transgender prisoner community and their supporters, such as requiring staff to refer to prisoners by the pronoun they prefer. But there still remain unaddressed issues, according to Savannah Williams, a transgender woman housed in Minnesota Correctional Facility (MCF) Stillwater, a prison for males. 

Savannah said the DOC never asked her if she would feel safer housed in a facility that’s designated for the gender she identifies with. According to DOC policy, transgender prisoners are allowed to submit a request to transfer to a facility that matches their gender identity. However, Savannah said the DOC has never allowed a prisoner to be housed in a facility designated for a gender opposite of a prisoner’s birth gender. 

“I’ve had to endure a lot of sexual harassment by staff in MCF-Fairbault and Lino Lakes,” Savannah said. “In MCF-Oak Park Heights, I was put in solitary confinement for a year and told by a captain that my identity was a disruption to security and I wouldn’t be let out of solitary confinement unless I grew a beard and acted like a man. 

“At one point, Stillwater prison staff restricted where I could go in the cellblock because other prisoners complained about transgender people being around them. I was basically treated like Black folk were treated in the Jim Crow era. 

“Many transgender prisoners are vulnerable to extortion. I have a lot of family in here, so extortion doesn’t happen to me, but some of us are really alone in here. There should be support programs for transgender prisoners and anyone who struggles with their sexuality.”

Savannah, whose birth gender is male, was seven years old when she started identifying as a female. She said she didn’t fully present herself as female until she was 18 because her father often beat her if she displayed any feminine behavior.

Savannah has spent nearly 15 years in prison for a “financially motivated” crime. Research has shown that nearly half of transgender prisoners are charged with an offense classified as “financially motivated,” often due to the difficulties transgender people making a living in the above-ground economy. 

“It’s hard to get a job,” Savannah said. “That’s why you’ll see a lot of us hustling or escorting.”

Asked what she thinks of prosecutors who punish and incarcerate transgender people for making a living illegally, Savannah said, “Look at what alternatives we have. Look at the root of what’s causing trans people to escort and rob. What are they lacking—housing? Employment? Is there family conflict or violence? If society was more accepting of transgenders, I think the majority of us would never be in prison. We wouldn’t be committing crimes. We wouldn’t be committing crimes to survive.”

The DOC’s Transgender Committee is responsible for making policy recommendations for transgender and intersex prisoners. The committee is comprised of the DOC health service director, medical director, director of behavioral health, director of nursing, and a few staff from where the prisoner is incarcerated. 

“The DOC doesn’t have any transgender people on the policy committee, and they have never asked me for my input,” Savannah said. “How are you going to make policy affecting transgenders when you have no understanding of our experiences?”

The DOC does allow Savannah to receive hormone treatment, but when she made a request for gender-conforming surgery over three years ago, they told her it’s a cosmetic procedure and denied her request. To date, the DOC has never approved a request for gender conforming surgery. 

Recent research reports that untreated transsexual patients have a suicide rate of 20 to 30 percent. I asked Savannah if she thinks the DOC responds appropriately to transgender prisoners who express thoughts of suicide or attempt to end their lives. “No,” she said, “I don’t think DOC has responded well to any prisoner with suicidal thoughts, let alone transgender people. They just lock you in solitary confinement.”

The DOC makes some accommodations for transgender prisoners, such as allowing them to shower alone. Transgender prisoners may also choose which corrections officers, based on their gender, can conduct pat searches of them.

“I’m speaking out because transgender people in prison need a voice,” Savannah said. “People need to know what’s happening to us in here and in the world.” People who are concerned about transgender prisoners should study prison policy, work with current and previously incarcerated people as well as advocacy groups, and bring their policy concerns to prison officials, state legislators and other government agencies.