Gender Behind Bars

Ophelia De’lonta, a transgender woman inmate housed in a men’s prison, is suing the state of Virginia for failing to provide her with adequate medical care. When the Virginia Department of Corrections denied De’Lonta’s request for genital surgery, she attempted self-castration.

De’Lonta’s story is part of a much larger picture. It is all-too-common for prisons to deny transgender inmates access to gender reassignment treatment–not only genital surgery, but also hormones. In a recent study of the experiences of trans and gender variant people in Pennsylvania’s prison systems, 62.7 percent of respondents were on hormones prior to incarceration but less than 20 percent were able to continue their hormones while incarcerated.

Preventing transgender people from continuing their hormone therapy while in jail or prison has serious mental and physical health implications. According to a 2008 Harvard Journal of Law and Gender [PDF] article, withdrawing or withholding gender reassignment treatment may lead to anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation or, as in De’lonta’s case, self-castration. One incarcerated trans man denied hormones experienced high blood pressure and heart trouble. A trans woman housed in a New York men’s prison who was denied her hormone therapy–and a razor to shave with–told researchers at the Sylvia Rivera Project [PDF] that she felt she was having a nervous breakdown as her facial hair grew back.

Transgender prisoners also face many forms of sexual violence: rape, coercion, harassment, unnecessary strip searches and forced nudity. Among respondents to a national study of transgender discrimination, 16 percent who went to jail or prison reported physical assault and 15 percent reported sexual assault perpetrated by both other inmates and staff. Black respondents reported an even higher rate of sexual assault in jail or prison (34 percent). One respondent reported experiencing violence almost as soon as she was put in jail:

I was arrested one day regarding something minor. Due to my gender being marked male, I was put in with the men. Within 15 minutes, I was raped by 3 different men. My mother even called and warned the officers NOT to put me in with general population as I would be an easy target. When I got out I tried to seek help from Victims Services but was denied. I was also discouraged from trying to press charges on the men.

Allowing transgender inmates’ access to genital surgery may also reduce their risk of sexual assault. Most prisons house inmates according to genitalia, and being a transgender woman in a men’s prison is extremely dangerous. According to a 2000 article in the Michigan Journal of Gender & Law, “The result of placing a transgendered woman in [a men’s prison] is rape and abuse, endemic in an atmosphere of deliberate indifference.” Allowing transgender women in men’s prisons to have genital surgery and move to women’s prisons may make them safer–though in women’s prison’s, they still face sexual violence from women prisoners and prison guards. Nor does this approach help transgender women inmates who do not desire genital surgery.

There are several ways to help transgender inmates. To help them get needed access to health care–including hormone therapy, genital surgery, and other gender reassignment treatments–you can write the Federal Bureau of Prisons, urging them to issue program statements guaranteeing transgender inmates access to transition care. You can also work with your local and state elected officials to ensure that all transgender people have access to health care, building on the recent victory in Portland, OR.

To protect transgender inmates and other inmates from physical and sexual assault, a first step would be to improve the national standards established in the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act. To take action, sign this petition urging the Attorney General to adopt these standards:

While improving the safety of prisons should be a priority, reducing poverty and other root causes of transgender imprisonment is equally important. In 2007, the Sylvia Rivera Project released a qualitative study of transgender people’s experiences in New York men’s prisons. The report found a disproportionate representation of transgender people in the criminal justice system due to multiple forms of discrimination leading to high rates of poverty and therefore survival crimes and policy profiling.

To support transgender prisoners, check out the following projects:

Illustration from under Creative Commons 3.0.


Kyla Bender-Baird is the Research and Programs Manager for the National Council for Research on Women, where she acts as the in-house researcher, manages social media outreach, is the managing editor of the Council’s blog, and assists in the development and implementation of programming. Kyla holds an M.S. in Women’s Studies from Towson University and a B.A. in Sociology from Principia College. Her forthcoming book, Transgender Employment Experiences: Gendered Perceptions and the Law (SUNY Press), examines the holes in policy protections and their impact on the workplace experiences of self-identified transgender people. You can read her work in the second edition of Getting Bi (Bisexual Resource Center), Privilege and Prejudice: Twenty Years with the Invisible Knapsack (Cambridge Scholars Publishing), and Curve Magazine. Originally from Oregon, Kyla has been a proud resident of Brooklyn, NY for three years.