The Harrowing Experience of a Trans Woman Arrested in Baltimore

May 13th 2015

Aron Macarow

When Baltimore resident Deairra Venable was arrested on April 27, it's unlikely that she thought she'd be housed for days among men in the city's jail facility. And why should she? The 30-year-old salon worker began her gender transition more than 15 years ago, living the majority of her life as a woman and had reportedly had "female" marked on her identification. But when Venable was swept up by police along with hundreds of other alleged rioters, amid the protests following Freddie Gray's death, that's exactly where the transgender woman found herself: jailed amongst men.

According to one of Venable's attorneys, Miriam Seddiq, her client suffered a litany of indignities while in policy custody. Prior to her release on part of a $100,000 bail on May 1, Venable was harassed by corrections facility officers and male detainees, forced to wear gender inappropriate clothing, addressed by the wrong pronouns, and blocked from accessing her transition related medications including her estrogen pills. For reasons that are still unclear, intake guards also took away her bra on discovering her birth assigned sex in old documents, giving the trans woman only a "semi-transparent" top to wear. (Venable, whose current identification lists her as a female, was originally booked as a woman.) As Seddiq accounted to the New York Daily News, her client was forced to go without a bra for multiple days, and even appeared in court without one days later.

"Officials then forced the woman to remove her bra and hand it over... giving her a semi-transparent tank top that reveals the outline her nipples [to wear instead]," another member of Venable's legal team, attorney Astrid Munn,told Mashable. "It's been hell for her. She asked to have the 'she' pronoun, but the commissioner refused."

New York Daily News reported that "[b]ecause of Maryland's state of emergency, the correctional guards overseeing her time in custody [could] apparently get away with mistreatment." Another media outlet referred to the incident as "a critical error."

Not just an error

Sadly the Baltimore resident's experience is far from extraordinary for transgender people in the criminal justice system. While most of America has been introduced to the realities of life behind bars for transgender people through the creative lens of Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black," the treatment frequently suffered by transgender detainees is sometimes far less rosy.

OITNB series regular Sophia Burset (played by Laverne Cox) may be singled out by prison authorities from time-to-time as a female, transgender jailbird -- they deny Burset her hormone therapy during one story arc -- but generally the character's treatment matches that of her fellow female inmates. Not so for most transgender people in the U.S. prison system.

More accurate than calling Venable's mistreatment an "error," Baltimore Central Booking's behavior toward the transgender detainee is largely standard practice in jails and prisons across the nation, where transgender people are frequently harassed, held in inhumane conditions, and misgendered as a matter of policy.

Real life Sophia Bursets are often forced to serve their sentences as men

Being denied medically-necessary care is an accurate example of the ways in which transgender individuals are treated unequally in America's prison system; however, in real life, the problem for OITNB's Burset would likely have started before she even arrived at the jail -- as it did for Venable -- with her being booked and housed with men.

Misgendering is a frequent issue encountered by transgender people entering detainment, and it often continues into their jail sentence. Unlike the character on Netflix's series, who resides in female penitentiary in the show, Venable was immediately transferred to an all-male holding facility upon discovery that she was trans. This is commonplace, according to the National Center for Lesbian Rights, as transgender prisoners in the US currently have no right to be housed in a facility that is consistent with their gender identity.

Transgender people who have not had bottom (genital) surgery are usually classified according to their birth sex for purposes of prison housing, per NCLR, without regard to what other medical treatments they may have undergone or how long ago they transitioned. This places an unfair burden on trans detainees, who may not desire lower surgeries or may not be able to afford the often high price tag. (And to add to the injustice, bottom surgery in no way guarantees placement in gender appropriate facilities either.) In some cases, the surgery requirement even means ignoring legal identification which recognizes the individual's gender transition, says the National Center for Transgender Equality.

Although the Prison Rape Elimination Act requires an appropriate determination of housing to be made for trans inmates on a case-by-case basis, not solely based on genitals, in practice it is still common for trans people to be placed with their birth assigned sex.

Following this standard, Georgia Dept. of Corrections inmate Ashley Diamond was jailed with men, despite identifying as a woman. The 36-year-old black trans woman has been incarcerated in several state men's prisons for nearly three years at time of press following a conviction for burglary. Parallel to Venable's experience in Maryland, Diamond also had her female undergarments confiscated when she was booked in Georgia. (Diamond alleges in her lawsuit surrounding the state's refusal to continue her hormone therapy that she has been denied the ability to wear her hair long or express herself in gender-affirming ways as well.)

Trans female activist CeCe McDonald was held for 19-months in an all-male correctional facility, too, prior to her early release in 2014.

Real life Sophia Bursets are also often forced to serve their sentences in isolation

Eisha Love, a 26-year-old trans woman of Chicago, Ill., is being held in a maximum-security all-male facility while she awaits trail. Unlike Diamond, however, Love has been placed in 'protective custody,' spending more than the last two-and-a-half years confined to a single cell for 22 hours a day with a male roommate.

These arrangements also isolate transgender inmates resulting in exclusion from educational, recreational, and occupational opportunities in jail that would be unnecessary if the detainees were held in gender appropriate locations. Long term isolation can take a heavy psychological toll, too, which has been heavily documented. (It's no wonder Sophia Burset in OITNB isn't depicted in a more accurate administrative isolation. With little to no human interaction for the entirety of her sentence, it would be challenging for her character to remain part of the storyline, much less be the prison hairdresser as she is in the series.)

Transgender women face high rates of sexual assault in prison

Transgender women are disproportionately at risk for sexual assault in jail, a U.S. Department of Justice study reported in 2012, suffering at rates at least 13 times higher than incarcerated cisgender women. Diamond reports being raped seven times so far due to her lack of protection in the Georgia men's facility where she is being housed.

Trans people under arrest or in jail experience inequality at every turn

The reality of transgender people in the Department of Corrections is not at all like OITNB. Trans detainees frequently face abuse, isolation, and pervasive disregard for their gender identity. CeCe McDonald pointedly asserted that there was "really no safe place for [me] within the Department of Corrections." While the fictional Sophia Burset wears makeup and styles her hair long, serving her sentence among other women and continuing her hormone treatment, the real life Burset might not be afforded any of these rights. McDonald, Diamond, and Love certainly weren't.

Although Venable was, we can only wonder as she awaits trail what could happen, if she is convicted of the charges against her. Venable continues to be represented pro bono by Seddiq Law.

"FreeState Legal is relieved that Ms. Venable has been released," the organization's deputy director Jer Welter toldthe Washington Blade. "But we understand that she was only released because she was able -- with the help of friends -- to post the remarkably high bail that was set in her case, not because ether the judge or correctional officials recognized that it is dangerous and unlawful to confine transgender inmates in gender-specific correctional facilities simply based on their sex assigned at birth."