Clifton Goring/Candi Raine Sweet explains in Being an Incarcerated Transperson: Shouldn’t People Care? the difficulties trans* people and other gender-non-conforming communities undergo once inside the criminal justice system. According to Sweet, “rapes, very nasty physical assaults, and beatings take place, by other inmates and by the very same prison personnel who are sworn to protect each and every inmate” (186). As a result, law enforcement agencies clearly have not made a significant effort to protect marginalized communities from discrimination and harassment. Instead, officers are the ones engaging in the very painful and unlawful activities, causing trans* people and other minorities to rightfully distrust and fear law enforcement (i.e. their presumed “protectors”). Sweet believes the entire prison system needs to undergo changes that transform the way it functions, making it a safer and fairer place for trans* people. So, what can be done to protect the health and safety of this marginalized community?
I found a small dose of hope in a New York Times article published two years ago featuring the story of Maribel, a transgender female. Maribel was retained with male detainees upon first entering Chicago’s Cook County Jail for retail theft, despite her female gender identification. After two weeks of being harmed and violated by fellow inmates, Maribel was moved to women’s housing. Why the sudden change? In 2011, the jail instituted a new policy to protect those considered having “gender dysphoria disorder” and also to cover procedures related to housing, clothing, grooming, medical care, etc. Trans* detainees are given the choice to either be housed with the gender they identify with or separately kept away from all other detainees. Sheriff Thomas J. Dart chose to institute the policy, because he knew laws protecting trans* people are few and far between. This became apparent during one of his meetings with other jail officials, when silence followed after he asked what should be done to help protect transgender detainees. Law enforcement, similar to medical professionals, simply just don’t understand how to deal with trans* folk.
While the policy seems like a good step forward, I also see its possible limitations. It appears to follow a familiar pattern found in the medical world, where trans* folk need to be defined by others (i.e. the dominant, cisgender society) in order to gain the privileges that come with being labeled as having “gender dysphoria disorder.” If individuals do not follow the typical “gay childhood” or “trans* childhood” narrative as described by Dean Spade, will police officials, like medical professionals, not categorize them as transgender enough, too? The policy has some obvious pitfalls that could end up seriously hurting trans* people rather than benefiting them. Additionally, the policy does not actually eliminate harassment and discrimination against trans* people from occurring—other inmates and officials can still harm trans* people with or without the policy intact. Thus, more radical changes need to occur in order to really change the current penal system.
Here’s the link to the article: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/23/us/for-transgender-detainees-a-jail-policy-offers-some-security.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0