Ahile anyone can be sexu-ally assaulted in detention, transgender inmates are ex-ceptionally vulnerable to this form of violence. One study of California prisoners found that 59 percent of trans- gender women housed in men’s prisons had been sexually abused while incarcerat- ed, as compared to 4 percent of non-trans- gender inmates in men’s prisons.1 Making matters worse, transgender inmates often face prejudice and discrimination in the aftermath of an assault.

The Basics about the Transgender Community

People who are transgender have a gender identity that is different from their as- signed sex at birth. Everyone has a gender identity – a sense of being male or female (and for some, neither male nor female). A transgender woman is someone who was identified as male at birth but whose gen- der identity is female and lives, or desires to live, her life as a woman. A transgender man is someone who was identified as fe- male at birth but whose gender identity is male and lives, or desires to live, his life as a man. Gender identity and sexual orien- tation are not the same thing – a trans- gender person may identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or heterosexual.

The federal government and almost every state recognize transgender people’s right to change their name and to have identifi- cation documents with the gender marker

that matches their gender identity.2 Despite that right, grave misconceptions about what it means to be transgender are common, in detention facilities and in society as a whole. Some think that transgender people’s “true” sex or gender is the one they were assigned at birth. Others believe that transgender people only become “real men” or “real women” after they have had surgery, failing to recognize that each person transitions in their own way and that someone’s gender identity always is that person’s “true” gender.

Most transgender people face discrimination. Many are rejected by their families, denied housing, and verbally abused simply for be- ing themselves. Transgender people also have a very hard time finding a job; employ- ment discrimination forces many to become involved in the street economy and in sur- vival crime.3 Widespread bias and ignorance among law enforcement and other officials mean that transgender people are dispro- portionately subjected to arrest and, in turn, imprisonment.4

Transgender People in Detention

In most cases, corrections agencies make gender classifications based on genitalia and not a person’s gender identity. As such, trans- gender women are held in men’s facilities and called “he”; transgender men are held in women’s facilities and called “she.”5

Transgender inmates face unique challenges and extreme danger, fuelled by hostile and ill- informed notions among officials and prison-

Targets for Abuse: Transgender Inmates and Prisoner Rape

march 2013

just detention international march 2013 | fact sheet

“My rape crisis counselor was the first person to see me as a woman, apart from the people who wanted to abuse me.”

— Michelle, a transgender survivor of sexual abuse behind bars

WTwo transgender women inmates in a men’s jail. © Axel Koester/Corbis


fact sheet

Seek out an appropriate advocacy orga- nization and request training for your staff. The membership list of the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects is a good place to start for regional resources: www.ncavp.org/AVPs/default.aspx.

Remember that transgender detainees have likely faced significant discrimina- tion, harassment, and violence before they contact you, and that they may fear the same reaction from your agency.

Listen carefully and use the same language as the client for pronouns, relationships, and names. The words that transgender people use to describe themselves vary, but you should use their language. If in doubt, be comfortable asking simple, clar- ifying questions – transgender people, as other clients, will appreciate your candor.

Do not let a mistake in your language stop you from helping the survivor. Apologize and continue to offer help.

Respect the privacy of transgender peo- ple. Only ask questions about his or her body and medical history if it is necessary for your crisis counseling.

Tips for Advocatesers alike. In many cases, the gender identity of transgender inmates is simply ignored and they are denied gender-appropriate clothing and hygiene products. Because transgender women are typically housed in men’s facili- ties, they often have to shower and change their clothes in front of male inmates and staff. Once targeted for abuse, the majority of transgender survivors are subjected to re- peated sexual assaults.6

Transgender inmates are frequently unable to get the health care they need, especially care related to their gender transition, resulting in significant medical and emotional problems. Many are also cut off from the outside world, as visitation policies in prisons and jails typi- cally do not recognize transgender inmates’ chosen families as relatives. For those who al- ready have been rejected by their birth fami- lies, such policies can lead to an acute sense of isolation.

The health and wellbeing of transgender in- mates is further affected by relentless verbal abuse by staff and other inmates. Sexual abuse thrives in prisons and jails in which staff al- low, or participate in, the degradation of in- mates on the basis of their gender identity. Widespread use of epithets creates a hostile environment for transgender people and any- one who is gender non-conforming. Because of their masculine appearance, transgender men (and gender non-conforming women)

held in women’s facilities are often incorrect- ly identified as safety threats or aggressors. When transgender inmates report sexual violence they are frequently blamed for the abuse by staff members, who may feel that transgender inmates deserve to be victim- ized, that they “are asking for it.”

In many facilities, officials have a stand- ing policy to house transgender inmates in solitary confinement, either as soon as they enter a facility or after they have been sexu- ally assaulted. Sometimes officials make such housing decisions in an attempt to protect transgender people; other times the isolation itself is used as a form of abuse. Regardless of the intent, solitary confinement causes sig- nificant emotional distress. Inmates who are locked down in a tiny cell for 23 hours a day are cut off from vital services and programs. Not surprisingly, many transgender rape sur- vivors suffer in silence, afraid that speaking out will result in isolation.

Because of the unique challenges facing transgender inmates, and their extreme vul- nerability to sexual violence, rape crisis ser- vice providers play a particularly important role in promoting their health. As Michelle described in the opening quote, counselors are sometimes the only people who will treat transgender detainees with respect, recognize their gender identity as their true gender, and care about their safety.7

Endnotes 1Valerie Jenness et al., Violence in California Correctional Facilities: An Empirical Examination of Sexual Assault (Irvine: Center for Evidence-Based Corrections, University of California, 2007), 3. 2 Jami Kathleen Taylor, “Transgender Identities and Public Policy in the United States: The Relevance for Public Administration,” Administration & Society vol. 39 (2007): 837-8. 3 In a recent survey, the percentage of transgender people who were unemployed was double that of the national average. See Jaime M. Grant et al., Injustice at Every Turn A Report of the National: Transgender Discrimination Survey (Washington: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2011), 55. 4 Ibid., 158. 5 More information about transgender people can be found in JDI’s forthcoming Advocate’s Manual (due in 2013). 6 For first-person testimony from transgender survivors, visit JDI’s website: www.justdetention.org; such ac- counts of abuse can also be found in a joint report by JDI and the ACLU National Prison Project, Still in Danger: The Ongoing Threat of Sexual Violence against Transgender Prisoners (Los Angeles: 2005), 6. 7 For more information on new protections for transgender detainees required by the Prison Rape Elimination Act, see JDI’s factsheet, The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) Standards: An Overview for Community Service Providers, 2013.

This project is supported by Grant No. 2011-TA-AX-K100, awarded by the Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed in this document are those of Just Detention International and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women.

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just detention international march 2013 | fact sheet

Just detention international is a health and human rights orga- nization that seeks to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention.