In 2014, a young transgender woman pleaded with the state of Connecticut’s corrections facility in a sworn affidavit to not transfer her to an adult male facility.
“I need to be given treatment and services specific to my needs,” wrote the woman referred to as Jane Doe because she was a minor. “I need to deal with the trauma I’ve experienced in my life...I don’t think being placed in isolation or in a male facility would prepare me to re-enter the community.”
She was 16-years-old when she begged to be released from prison.
For years, New England has been touted as a progressive sanctuary for anyone who is LGBTQ+. But while all six states in the region have laws protecting trans individuals from hate crimes, trans prisoners do not experience the same level of security.
Transgender people are more likely to experience sexual assault and physical assault, or to be victims of a hate crime, according to a 2015 report by by the National Center for Transgender Equality. The same study found that nearly 19% of all transgender people and 42% of black transgender people will be incarcerated at some point in their lives.
Prisons should house transgender inmates according to their identifying gender, not the one they had at birth, say representatives from Gay Legal Advocates and Defenders (GLAD). Right now, most are held in protective custody, a form of solitary confinement, or with the general prison population. This means a trangender woman who has been on hormones and has breast implants is still housed in a male prison despite her feminine characteristics.
Jennifer Love Williams didn’t realize that discrimination against her transgender status would start from the moment she was arrested. She had been a passenger during a car chase and a gun fight between her then fiance and the police in Jersey City, New Jersey.
After she was arrested along with her fiance and another man, an officer looked at her identification that still listed her birth name.
“He said, ‘This is a whole man. This doesn’t have anything to do with females,’” Williams said. “I didn’t even have time to be disturbed by what happened because I’m sitting in a cop car.”
Williams was kept in protective custody for months after her indictment. She was allowed outside for one hour every 32 hours. She was eventually moved to a different prison where being held in protective custody meant she was allowed out once every two weeks, besides the 20 minutes she would get every other day for a shower.
She never was transferred to a female prison.
In a story for NBC using data gathered from all 50 states, reporter Kate Sosin identified approximately 5,000 transgender people incarcerated as of February. Sosin found that 138 were imprisoned within New England.
Yet only one -- a woman in Maine -- is housed according to her gender identity. Misgendered assignment is the rule in prisons rather than the exception: nationwide only 14 trans individuals are housed in a facility that matches how they identify.
Massachusetts is no stranger to having their prison systems criticized. The Boston Globe recently published a story about how Massachusetts’ prisons are failing mentally ill inmates. Gender dysphoria is a diagnosed psychiatric disease; transgender inmates housed according to their birthsex are often diagnosed with it. According to the Mayo Clinic, physical treatment for transgender people is hormone therapy and feminizing or masculinizing surgery, such as breast reduction or implants. The American Psychiatric Association also stresses that psychotherapy can be extremely helpful.
Missy Gagnon, an incarcerated transgender woman from Maine, filed a lawsuit that stated Maine’s correction’s department ignored her for years.
Upon initial placement in 2013, Gagnon was housed in a male facility and denied hormone therapy. It wasn’t until 2016 that she was diagnosed with body dysphoria, which could have been avoided with treatment.
Within the last year of her sentence, Gagnon received therapy, both hormone and talk, and within the last six months, she was transferred to a women’s prison. She was released in May of 2017.
The judge ruled in the state’s favor, citing that there was no documented proof of Gagnon’s claims of the state’s indifference, despite Gagnon stating she made several formal complaints in her case.
Before her release in 2019, Angelina Resto was the first transgender woman in Massachusetts to be housed according to her gender identity. Even though, on paper, the male corrections facility she was housed at followed guidelines set forward by the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), Resto said she had experienced tremendous abuse.
“I’ve been raped three times, two of them were in the prison system,” Resto said at the 2020 Cape Cod Transgender Day of Remembrance hosted by Fenway Health. “Many times I wanted to take my life because I thought life wasn’t treating me fairly and I wasn’t getting what I deserved from this world.”
Resto, now 57-years-old, has been out as a trans woman for over 40 years. She petitioned the court to allow her to be housed according to her identity, saying that living in a male facility was causing her mental, emotional, and physical harm.
“I’m very proud and lucky to be the first transgenderr woman in Massachusetts to be put in a women's prison,” Resto said. “I’m doing something I never thought I would do in my life: helping women like myself, especially women of color.”
Three New England states disclosed their policies toward trans prisoners: Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine. Only Massachusetts had policies that allowed for transgender prisoners to receive hormones whether or not they were prescribed outside of prison. Vermont was the only state with policies mandating that correction’s officers call transgender inmates by their preferred names and allow transgender women to receive gynecological exams.
All three states had policies refusing prisoner’s access to any type of gender reassignment surgery.
While all three states are in total compliance with the guidelines set by PREA, Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont do not have criteria that is specific enough to address the abuses transgender inmates face.
“PREA just really is a protocol to evaluate people going into the system. But it really doesn't give clear direction how to treat trans people,” Romero said. He added that it “identify(s) inmates who might be at risk of being raped, and then provides them with certain precautions.”
Transgender prisoners are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted while in prison and five times as likely to be physically assaulted, according to a study mandated by PREA. While PREA does attempt to keep track of transgender inmates’ assaults, information is collected through prisoner survey reports, meaning that there is no offical data reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The National Center for Transgender Equality says that this makes it almost impossible for them or PREA to keep track of the amount of assaults happening to transgender inmates.
Williams had spent only two weeks on a new prison block when she was assaulted. The block had 151 men on it with only two guards during the day, one at night. She had heard some of the other prisoners talking about a “punk [they] had to take care of.”
One night, 11 men came to her bunk, held her down, and assaulted her.
“Before I can even lift my head up I’m punched in the face and the pain of life came through me,” Williams said. “I’m sitting there. Nothing came out but just tears. I can’t believe I’m sitting here being raped.”
The next night, they beat Williams so badly she couldn’t speak for weeks for fear that she would identify them as her attackers.
When her assailants were captured and she had finished healing, Williams decided to find her own way to stay protected in the general population. She would find men who were in for long sentences or for life and would exchange stripteases in the shower and flirtations for them to protect her.
“I had to learn real fast that I have to do what I have to do to stay protected,” WIlliams said. She was adamant during her interview, saying she had never worked as a prostitute before incarceration or since her release. “[The guards] aren’t going to protect me. I had to do what I had to do to be safe. I’ll work the guys until I get home to gain my sanity back.”
The main reason transgender individuals are picked up by police in the first place is usually due to them being suspected of prostitution. Other more serious charges often follow.
The 2015 Transgender Survey stated that 19% of transgender people partake in some form of sex work. In six states, multiple arrests for prostitution can lead to a felony charge. All of New England’s states have prostitution listed as misdemeanors with the highest potential sentence being in Vermont, up to three year’s imprisonment.
Doe documented her first experiences of prostitution at age 13. She was given gifts in exchange for giving oral sex to a staff worker at Connecticut Children’s Place, a school in East Windsor.
Doe was abducted and trafficked at age 15. She escaped and turned to drugs and ultimately became a sex worker to support her drug addiction.
“Even now that I’m sober and out of that situation, I can’t see anything else in my future besides this.” Doe wrote. “People constantly tell me I can change but I just can’t see myself doing anything else.”
Doe was taken by Connecticut’s Department of Family and Children. They determined that she was unfit to live in the community at age 15, confining her to a male juvenile detention center without any charges pressed against her. An agreement was reached that when she aged out of the facility, she would be transferred to an adult woman’s facility.
Mike Lawlor, Connecticut’s undersecretary for criminal justice policy and reform, said that Jane Doe’s case was pivotal in passing the law in 2018 that states transgender inmates must be housed according to their gender identity. Connecticut is the first, and so far only, New England state to have such a law.
While Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine all either currently or have in the past housed transgender prisoners according to their gender identity, none of them have laws stating they must continue to do so.
In 2018, the Federal Bureau of Prisons rewrote their Transgender Inmate Manual. Full phrases regarding gender identity were replaced with sex assigned at birth. At the manual's conception in 2017, it stated that prisoners would be recommended for housing with their identifying gender. The entire phrase was struck from the 2018 rewrite.
Currently, if a transgender person feels they aren’t safe, are being housed in solitary confinement, or is facing abuse from other prisoners due to their identity, the most they can do is file appeals and lawsuits. Prisoners across the country are restricted when it comes to lawsuits under the Prison Litigation Reform Act. This makes it harder for transgender prisoners’ voices to be heard.
Jane Doe’s former lawyer, Aaron Romero, filed an order of protection against Connecticut’s Department of Children and Family, urging them to release her from the facility she was being housed in. He said that the department was neglecting Doe by leaving her in a facility for delinquent males age 18 to 21 when no criminal charges were being pressed against her.
Ultimately, Jane Doe was transferred to a female prison. She was held in solitary confinement for 20 to 22 hours a day. This transfer was touted as a victory for transgender rights.
Romero said a true victory would have been Doe’s complete removal from the system. He left the case when her new legal team decided to not go to trial.
Despite the outcome of Doe’s case, Romero is thankful for the opportunity he had to help her, and humbled by seeing how activists gathered to support her.
“The protesters taking to the street had more heart than Jane Doe’s Lawyers,” Romero said. “They’re the ones who should be getting the credit, otherwise the case would’ve been swept under the rug.”
Even though Jane Doe and Angelina Resto were able to be moved to female housing units, the vast majority of transgender prisoners’ experiences are more like Gagnon and Williams.
The New York Times published an article in November of 2020 about a transgender woman, Ashley Diamond, from Georgia who had been reincarcerated on a parole violation. Even though Diamond sued the state and won to be housed with the female population during her initial incarceration, when she was reincarcerated, she was forced into a male facility.
“Transgender people are basically serving double sentences,” said Jennifer L. Levi, director of GLAD’s Transgender Rights Project, in 2018. “One for the underlying crime for which they’ve been convicted of and the other just for being transgender.”