For trans people in prison, there is no safety. Whether from the constant threat of assault and harassment from officers and other prisoners or from the ever-changing matrix of arbitrary rules enforced against them, our incarcerated community members navigate unrelentingly violent conditions of confinement.
This past week, convicted WikiLeaks whistleblower Chelsea Manning, a transgender woman confined at the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., made public the prison’s attempt to silence and dehumanize her. After being charged with disrespecting an officer, misusing medication, and possessing prohibited property, Manning faced an Army Disciplinary Board and a potential punishment of indefinite solitary confinement. And for what?
She allegedly possessed prohibited materials including LGBT reading materials, including the Vanity Fair magazine that featured Caitlyn Jenner on the cover, a copy of the Senate report on torture, the issue of Cosmopolitan that contained an interview with her, and an expired tube of toothpaste. For possessing the toothpaste, she was also charged with “misusing medication.” The most serious charge that she faced was “disrespect,” which carries the same potential punishment and severity as sexual misconduct under the military’s regulations. This charge was based on Chelsea’s request for a lawyer after she was confronted and accused by an officer of acting in a “disorderly” fashion. After 100,000 people rallied behind her, Chelsea was ultimately spared solitary confinement, but she was still found guilty of four charges and sentenced to 21 days of loss of privileges, which includes her library access, recreation, and time outdoors. This punishment and the convictions will stay on Chelsea’s record and could affect her parole or clemency. Additionally, three weeks without access to many of the things that make her feel human (reading, writing, exercising, breathing the outdoor air) is a huge loss.
These charges and this punishment are a reminder to Chelsea that at any moment the networks of support that she relies on to survive could be taken away and her freedom might be even further restricted. And she is no stranger to this. During her five years in confinement she has spent months in solitary. While detained at Quantico before her court-martial, Chelsea was held in solitary, forced to strip naked at night and ask the guards stationed outside of her cell for everything she needed including toilet paper. She recalls of that time: “I would pace around, walk around, shuffling, any type of movement. I was trying to move around as much as I could … I would practice various dance moves. Dancing wasn't unauthorized as exercise."
Chelsea has faced the death penalty, life in prison, and the harsh realities of solitary confinement with strength and creativity. She has cultivated a voice in the public discourse speaking out about government transparency, prisoner rights, and transgender justice. But the lingering threat of solitary is a constant reminder that her voice can be cut off and she can be further separated from those who care about and advocate for her. And while what happened to Chelsea this past week was awful, it was not out of the ordinary for our carceral systems, where violence and punishment are central to the operation of the regime as a whole.
Within this system, the abuses of solitary can be particularly harsh for transgender women. As an investigative reporter, Vice's Aviva Stahl, explained in her exploration of transgender women in solitary confinement in New York State prisons, “Being placed in solitary confinement — whether for protection or punishment — is often particularly psychologically distressing for transwomen: not only because of the violence they face in isolation, but also because they are cut off from transgender-affirming avenues of support, like family or friends on the outside or LGBT peers in general population.”
Rather than disrupt the cycles of violence that transgender people experience in confinement, prison systems often respond by further punishing transgender people because they are vulnerable. One typical order sending a transgender woman to involuntary protective custody in New York justified the use of solitary based solely on the prisoner’s vulnerability as a woman in a men’s facility. The officer wrote, “Based on the Inmate being transgendered, and his [sic] likeness to a female, the likelihood of him being victimized is great. The inmate both looks and sounds like a female, therefore I recommend his [sic] protective custody to prevent any harm based on his looks and transgendered status.”
Some prison agencies, like the Idaho Department of Corrections, have adopted policies that punish gender nonconformity under the auspices of ending sexual assault: “To foster an environment safe from sexual misconduct, offenders are prohibited from dressing or displaying the appearance of the opposite gender. Specifically, male offenders displaying feminine or effeminate appearance and female offenders displaying masculine appearance to include, but not limited to, the following: Hairstyles; Shaping eyebrows; Face makeup; Undergarments; Jewelry; Gender opposite clothing.”
Trans women can be punished in prison for reading magazines featuring Caitlyn Jenner, for dressing in a feminine manner, for “looking and sounding” like a female. Essentially, it is punishment to just exist.
Chelsea’s story can hopefully remind us of the thousands of community members fighting to survive in our prisons. While the operation of these systems seeks to silence and dehumanize them, it is our responsibility to lift them up and make their stories and their voices known.
CHASE STRANGIO is a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union's LGBT & HIV Project.