Travesties like the battering of Rodney King, the OJ chase, and the Rampart police misconduct scandal have made the Los Angeles Police Department a national symbol of law-enforcement racism, incompetence, and corruption. So it was a strange sight last April to see LAPD suddenly receiving accolades from the likes of Huffington Post and the New York Times. The cause celebre: announcement of plans to open a new jail facility exclusively for transgender people. As jail division commander Dave Lindsey explained to the Los Angeles Times, “This is a major change” allowing for “an environment that's safe and secure, as there's been a history of violence against transgender people.”
The irony of that statement was apparently lost on the good captain. His words reflect a painful truth outside the carceral context -Trans people face inordinate obstacles to accessing housing, employment, health care, and education, rocketing upward their likelihood of being arrested and jailed. To suggest that building them a special cage could move us closer to righting that historical wrong is absurd.
It’s certainly telling that no one has even bothered to count how many trans people are currently imprisoned in federal prisons or California jails. We do know, however, that trans people are far more likely to be incarcerated than nearly any other group of Americans. In a 2011 survey from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality, 16 percent of trans respondents reported detainment in either a jail or prison at some point in their lifetime. Compare that to 2.7 percent of all Americans who will ever serve prison time in their lifetime, according to the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Once caged, disparate treatment of trans prisoners is equally abhorrent. In 2007, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) found that 59 percent of transgender inmates had experienced sexual assault, compared to 4.4 percent of the general population. Corrections officers were aware of 60.6 percent of general incidents, but knew about only 29 percent of sexual assaults on trans prisoners. In other words, sexual violence against trans prisoners is 13 times more likely to occur, and twice as likely to go unnoticed.
In part, that’s because corrections officers are often the perpetrators. “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,” explains formerly incarcerated New Yorker Candi Raine Sweet
Historically, prison policy has ignored the threat of violence from corrections officers, attempting to protect trans prisoners by separating them from general population into isolated “protective custody.” To the uninitiated, simple separation sounds like a decent accommodation. But prison is not a decent place. Conditions of protective custody vary between facilities, but it always entails some greater degree of isolation than general population. Sometimes isolation lasts 22 or 23 hours per day, inhuman confinement usually reserved as punishment. Sylvia Rivera Law Project’s (SRLP) groundbreaking study of trans incarceration, “It’s War In Here” reports that the isolation of protective custody makes it that much easier for officers to abuse trans prisoners. In fact, the study found that 50 percent of sexual violence against trans inmates was perpetrated by staff, not other inmates. Candi Sweet concurs, writing that “we all have one very strange fear in common, which is the fear of being harmed by the very ones who are there to protect us.” The SRLP report also cites complaints that protective custody prevents inmates from accessing educational and recreational programs. In a country where discrimination against formerly incarcerated people is rampant, blocking access to these programs for trans people creates yet another major barrier to survival once they are released from jail.
In New York City, the question of what to do with sexual and gender minorities has swung in both directions, revealing the insurmountable contradiction of attempting to protect anyone who is already in a cage. When the gay liberation movement of the 1970s brought to light mistreatment of gay and lesbian prisoners, a separate facility was opened for them at New York’s jail complex on Riker’s Island. In order to be housed there, an inmate could declare that they were homosexual, or “appear” transgender to admitting officers. Whatever progressive intentions were embodied in that open door policy didn’t work. Queer and trans prisoners in gay housing were still victimized by other inmates who used the gay tank as asylum from enemies in general population, or were in fact intending to inflict violence on a population perceived to be weak. When the facility finally closed in 2005, then-city corrections commissioner Martin Horne reported that “the very units that should be the most safe, in fact, had become the least safe.” At the same time, queer and trans legal advocates criticized the change, citing the long hours of solitary confinement prisoners would likely have to endure in the name of safety.
The LAPD plan is history repeated. It’s worth pointing out, however, that some of those same advocates who defended gay housing at Rikers are amongst the vocal opponents of the LAPD plan. As SRLP attorneys have noted, relative safety in general population or protective custody varies greatly on a case-by case basis, depending on the particular emotional and physical needs of the inmate. Transphobia applies inside prison just as on the street, and an incarcerated trans person’s safety may depend on whether they are perceived to be trans. Prison safety, for trans people in particular, is a contradiction in terms.
All of this should be beside the point. As long as trans people are incarcerated, it remains crucial that allies fight for their protection and well-being. But as a matter of policy, incarceration cannot be taken as the primary site of intervention on behalf of oppressed communities. The threat of staff abuse within prisons is only one facet of the pervasive injustice trans people face throughout the judicial system, and indeed, throughout society. Constructing more jails for trans people will not affect the fact that compared to other Americans, they are four times as likely to live in extreme poverty, four times as likely to be infected with HIV, and twice as likely to be unemployed. It wont affect the fact that one fifth of trans people have experienced homelessness, that 16 percent have been compelled to work in the underground economy, or that an astonishing 41 percent have attempted suicide. All these vectors of discrimination against trans people in the public sphere lead to disproportionate interaction with law enforcement. Add to that toxic mixture police profiling of trans people as deviant and inherently criminal, and it’s little wonder that trans people are so much more likely to end up in jail than other folks. The only thing ensured by building prisons for trans people is that they will be full.
If we wanted to do something about this, if we wanted to address this most egregious social justice catastrophe, we would need to set our sights higher than the prison walls, and seek to abolish transphobia from our hearts, our laws, and our institutions. Only then could we imagine justice for someone like Cece McDonald, a transgender woman of color who pled guilty to second degree manslaughter for the death of Dean Schmitz in early June 2012. A year earlier, McDonald had been brutally attacked by a pair of white people while walking with friends to the grocery store in Minneapolis. Schmitz and his friend Molly Flaherty shouted transphobic and racist epithets at McDonald and slashed her face with a bottle. Although McDonald did not respond to the initial attack, Schmitz and his friend pursued, and Schmitz received a fatal stab wound in the fight that followed. Despite clear evidence that McDonald acted entirely out of self-defense, she was charged with Schmitz’s murder and pled down to man two in exchange for a reduced sentence of 41 months. The gross miscarriage of justice in this case is not alleviated one iota by the prospect of separating McDonald from the general population because of her transgender status. Not that it matters: McDonald will be serving the remainder of her sentence in a men’s prison.
As McDonald’s case helps demonstrate, prison is horribly inadequate as a site of state intervention on trans people’s behalf. If Los Angeles is so concerned about the safety of trans inhabitants, wouldn’t the city aim to provide support before they end up in the slammer?