Michaela Jae Rodriguez
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Tenn. Trans Woman's Plight Reveals Reality of Rape in Prison

Paula Smith

Paula Smith, a 21-year-old transgender woman incarcerated at the Sumner County Jail in Gallatin, Tenn., alleges she was sexually assaulted by her cellmate on August 24, according to The Huffington Post.

But the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation says that Smith made a false report of sexual assault to obscure a consensual sex act with her cellmate that a corrections officer discovered before separating the inmates, reports The Tennessean.  

Whether Smith's own testimony or that of prison officers and her cellmate is believed, the grim reality of Smith’s life in prison departs significantly from the popular fantasy represented by out trans actress Laverne Cox's portrayal of trans women's prison inmate Sophia Burset in Orange Is the New Black, the Emmy-winning Netflix comedy-drama series. 

Like Smith, most trans women in the United States are imprisoned in men’s facilities. They endure high rates of physical and sexual assault and daily acts of dehumanization. It begins with misgendering and deadnaming: trans women are identified as "men" against their wishes and called by the names that they have repudiated.

As Smith’s case demonstrates, members of law enforcement, prison officials, and the media all join in this dehumanization. Statements from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation that consistently refer to Smith by a male name and with male pronouns, in addition to reports by The Tennessean and local TV news make this harsh reality painfully clear. 

Smith has served four months of a possible three-year sentence for two counts of violation of probation and failure to appear in court, stemming from an earlier conviction of arson and vandalism. Standing 5'6" tall, the 120-pound white woman, originally from Georgia, had already begun her clinical transition when she was incarcerated. Smith's friends report that she was living in Georgia while serving probation for the initial charges, and was financially unable to travel to Tennessee to meet with her probation officer, which prompted the violation that ultimately saw her extradited and incarcerated in Tennessee.  

Speaking to HuffPost, Smith's fiancé described deplorable conditions, in which Smith is allegedly preyed upon by prison officers in addition to her alleged rape.

Smith is now in "protective custody," a form of solitary confinement where she is only released for an hour each day for exercise, according to HuffPost, and she has been denied access to study programs that would allow her to obtain her GED. 

In California, 59 percent of transgender women housed in men’s prisons reported being sexually assaulted while incarcerated, as opposed to 4 percent of cisgender (nontrans) inmates in men’s prisons, according to a 2007 study from the Center for Evidence-Based Corrections called “Violence in California Correctional Facilities: An Empirical Examination of Sexual Assault.” 

Furthermore, as research by the federal government into the widespread prevalence of prison rape reveals, vulnerable inmates face an uphill battle when trying to prove the nonconsensual nature of sex in prison while simultaneously contending with complex social hierarchies. Inmates who may be LGBT or smaller in physical stature are often coerced into sexual compliance by dominant offenders in order to survive. Just as importantly, studies have shown that fighting back during an assault may lead to severe maiming or even death, prompting some rape survivors to lower their own levels of resistance to persevere during the ordeal.

Incarcerated trans women are frequently presented with such an impossible choice. Nowhere is this better illuminated that in the story of Ashley Diamond, whose case has brought national attention to the plight of women like her. First, women who are already at greater risk of violence, poverty, and hostile interactions with law enforcement harassment are placed in men’s prisons. When these incarcerated women report various instances of assault, they are frequently placed in isolation units, ostensibly for their own protection. However, prolonged solitary confinement has been proven to damage and exacerbate existing mental health conditions and lead to extreme sensory deprivation.

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