In Real Life The Dangers of Being Trans in Prison Are Even Greater Than on TV...

January 12th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

This year's Golden Globes award ceremony arrived at an especially tense crossroads as issues of race, free speech, privacy, and identity burn across the globe. And indeed, many of the productions that won accolades dealt centrally with those very issues. Speakers were eloquent and emotive, and the event's atmosphere was charged in a way that is rarely seen alongside the glitz and glamor.

Among the many powerful speeches was Jeffery Tambor's as he took the award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series for his role in the show Transparent. Tambor, who in the show plays an aging transgendered parent grappling with the struggles of coming out, dedicated the award to transgender people everywhere, saying "I would like to dedicate my performance and this award to the transgender community. Thank you for your courage. Thank you for your inspiration. Thank you for your patience. And thank you for letting us be part of the change." Backstage, Tambor told reporters that "this is about changing people's lives"–a genuinely marked and welcome departure from the usual teary-eyed modesty found backstage.


In another win for the show, this time for Best TV Comedy, the show's creator, Jill Soloway delivered a passionate and spot-on acceptance speech highlighting transgender struggle, the tragedy it can lead to, and her own parent: "I want to thank the trans community. They are our family and they make this possible. This award is dedicated to the memory of Leelah Alcorn, and too many trans people who died too young. And it's dedicated to you, my trans parent, my "mapa," if you're watching at home right now. I want to thank you for coming out because in doing so you made a break for freedom, you told your truth, you taught me how to tell my truth and make this show, and maybe we'll be able to teach the world something about authenticity and truth and love. To love." 


Despite the cultural strides from shows like Transparent or Orange is the New Black, several recent cases still indicate the long road ahead.

In February of 2013, as LeslieAnn Manning delivered paper to an inmate's cell at the end of a long hallway as part of her job at a New York state correctional facility, she was grabbed from behind and raped. Despite identifying as a woman, growing her hair long and being authorized to wear women's undergarments, Manning was housed in a male facility–a "gender at birth" decision that many New York state prisons go by.

Last Monday, Manning filed suit against Sullivan Correctional Facilities and several officials there after she says they failed to take the steps necessary to protect her from being raped two years prior. This negligence in effect constitutes a deliberate indifference to her safety, and, according to the case, violates her constitutional rights that protect from cruel and unusual punishment. Her case has gained attention for the unique problems it brings to the table for incarcerated trans people–but it is not the first of its kind.

Back in 1994, the Supreme Court heard the landmark Farmer v. Brennan, involving Dee Farmer, a trans woman who sued correctional officers in Indiana after being placed in a male facility and subsequently raped there. They ruled unanimously that officers' "deliberate indifference" to her safety did indeed violate the eighth amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment–something of a watershed moment for inmates' rights. But a Supreme Court case isn't all that stands in the way of prison rape and abuse of trans inmates. In 2003, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which laid out steps prisons would take to cut down on rape numbers and protect it's vulnerable inmates. But it took nearly a decade to implement the measures PREA stipulated, like increased video surveillance, more trained personnel, and special protection for vulnerable inmates, and another year to begin auditing prisons and docking the small percent of federal funding from non-complying facilities. 

Meanwhile, all of this stands in the face of a growing body of evidence on the dangers and sexual violence trans people face while locked up. According to a 2009 study, trans prisoners in California were 13% more likely to face sexual assault, with half of them reporting rape while in California facilities. Similar reports have cropped up in neighboring Oregon, and other states like Texas, Georgia, and Pennsylvania, too. What's more, there is legislation in the works that would diminish funding the PREA programs in the new Republican Congress.

On the slightly more positive end of things, in places like some Washington, D.C. jails, trans women are given their own designated sections. Other facilities like a gay section of the L.A. County Jail, or a 30-bed trans area in New York's Rikers show that some effort is being made to simply protect inmates from targeted assault. But on the flip side, special protection or a designated section could simply mean being placed in solitary confinement–which can be a dangerous institution in itself. (According to Manning's case, she was housed for up to 22 hours per day in a solitary cell following her rape.) 

Things like Transparent and Orange is the New Black are fighting venerable battles to bat away the resistance to and misunderstanding of anything other than cisgenderness that once was woven into the cultural fabric. And hopefully, despicable cases such as Manning's and others like hers, like the trans woman in Georgia who was housed in the same cell as the inmate she accused of assaulting her (and was subsequently raped), will act as sobering reminders of the humanity blindsided in this unofficial crisis. "My rape crisis counselor was the first person to see me as a woman," wrote Michelle, a trans victim of sexual abuse behind bars in a 2013 study, "apart from the people who wanted to abuse me."