Trump targets transgender prisoners — but he’s not the first

No shame, empathy, morals, grace, or mercy.

In the latest attack on trans people’s safety, the Trump administration announced that they will assign incarcerated transgender people to prisons based on the sex they were assigned at birth.

The decision was made in response to a lawsuit by a Christian hate group against a 2012 Obama-era guidance that permitted a small number of transgender people to be incarcerated in a prison that matched their gender and allowed some trans people in prison to access gender-affirming hormones and clothing. It also challenges regulations from the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) that aimed to address the extremely high rates of sexual assault against trans people.

The Justice Department claims that housing transgender women in men’s prisons is necessary to “maintai[n] security and good order in Federal prisons.”

Make no mistake: This policy has nothing to do with keeping anyone safe. The safety rhetoric employed by the Trump administration now is the same as that used to justify pushing trans people (especially trans women of color) out of spaces like bathrooms and schools. At the heart of this rhetoric is an assumption that trans women are sexual predators who need to be controlled and ultimately eliminated, while, in reality, trans women are very often victims of sexual violence.  

Trans women of color who are caged in state institutions — prisons, jails, and detention centers — are extremely vulnerable. One in five transgender people are sexually assaulted by prison guards or other prisoners — a rate that is six times higher than cis incarcerated people. Black & Pink estimates that 100% of LGBTQ people in prison experience sexual violence, the brunt of which is experienced by trans women and transfemme people of color. Groups like the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and the ACLU have been working for over a decade to address the way trans and intersex people are treated in men’s prisons, documenting survivors’ stories and pushing for change.

The previous Obama administration policy allowed some trans women to find a modicum of safety in an extremely dangerous institution. This heinous policy change will increase the violence that trans women — particularly black and brown trans women — already experience in prisons.

While this change is a step backward, it’s important to point out that policies and regulations were doing little to protect the most vulnerable trans people during previous administrations either. Despite the Obama guidance and regulations like PREA, trans women are regularly incarcerated in men’s facilities, forced into solitary confinement (a form of torture), and denied lifesaving access to hormone therapy.

In an institution so fundamentally dehumanizing, racist, sexist, and transphobic, even liberal reform efforts like PREA are often used to further punish and isolate incarcerated trans people. Prisons invoke PREA regulations to ban trans and gender non-conforming prisoners from wearing clothing that affirms their identity and to punish trans people for engaging in consensual affection like hugging or hand holding. Far from addressing the root causes of widespread sexual violence against trans people in prisons, these approaches assume that trans people should be blamed for being sexually assaulted, because their mere existence invites violence.

The extreme violence trans people — overwhelmingly trans women and trans femmes of color —  experience is often conceptualized as an interpersonal phenomenon, as in actions like Trans Day of Remembrance. But the transphobic attitudes that lead to sexual violence and murder of trans women of color are also enforced by institutions and their policies. And in prison, where everyone is subjected to total control of their bodies, rape and abuse, and isolation, it is clear that policies do not protect trans people from both the unique violence they experience and the trauma of being incarcerated.

Efforts by activists to provide trans people on the inside with support and access to information and to help formerly incarcerated trans people are a vital form of harm reduction, one that is much-needed in the wake of policy decisions like this one. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the larger goal articulated by trans activists: to get people out of prison entirely.

Image credit: The Guardian