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At its worst, the U.S. criminal justice system does more than execute individuals: It murders their very souls. That's the premise of Norwegian photojournalist Kristin Schreier Lyseggen’s searing new book, The Women of San Quentin: Soul Murder of Transgender Women in Male Prisons.
Lyseggen crisscrossed the country to photograph, interview, and collect memorabilia from trans women who had been housed in men's prisons, highlighting the resilient spirit of one of the nation's most vulnerable populations inside the criminal justice system. She visited subjects in what she calls the “war zone” of low-income neighborhoods in East Oakland, Calif., and “the run-down and chaotic” Tenderloin district in San Francisco. She met with legendary trans justice and prison reform advocates like Miss Major Griffin-Gracy and Angela Davis.
The images in The Women of San Quentin and the stories behind them bear unflinching witness to the lives of those who contend with a prison system that even President Obama acknowledges is long overdue for change. "Our criminal justice system isn't as smart as it should be," the president told an annual gathering of NAACP leaders in July.
“Grace [Lawrence] shows me scars from one of three attacks in San Francisco,” writes Lyseggen in the book. Grace (pictured) immigrated to California from Liberia, where she survived repeated transphobic attacks. But even in San Francisco, her struggles continued. She was arrested several times for infractions like petty theft of food and sex work — which criminal justice reform and trans advocates often label "survival crimes," committed in an effort to ameliorate abject poverty. Those arrests ultimately landed her in San Quentin, where she was placed in solitary confinement, allegedly for her own protection.
Her body records a horrific legacy of the violent hate that she has faced on two continents, with scars that have turned to keloids and welts.