Transgendered Behind Bars

A recent study by the San Francisco-based Transgender, Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project on rape in California prisons found that 59 percent of transgender people reported being sexually assaulted in prison in 2006, compared to 4 percent of the general prison population

Lewis Wallace October 31, 2007

Alexis Giraldo is suing the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to bring abuses of transgender prisoners to light.

Alex­is Giral­do, 30, a male-to-female trans­sex­u­al was sent to Fol­som State Prison, a men’s facil­i­ty in Cal­i­for­nia, in Jan­u­ary 2006 for a mis­de­meanor and sep­a­rate parole violation. 

While there, she was repeat­ed­ly beat­en and sex­u­al­ly assault­ed, she says. Accord­ing to her tes­ti­mo­ny, an abu­sive cell­mate con­sid­ered him­self to be her hus­band,” and Giral­do made numer­ous requests to guards and health­care work­ers for a trans­fer to a dif­fer­ent facil­i­ty. She says this yield­ed no pro­tec­tion. The Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions and Reha­bil­i­ta­tion claims it moved her to a dif­fer­ent unit as soon as phys­i­cal evi­dence of abuse was clear. (Giraldo’s injuries includ­ed vis­i­ble signs of stran­gu­la­tion and cuts from a boxcutter.)

It’s been a night­mare,” Giral­do says. They are doing peo­ple wrong, and they are cov­er­ing it up.”

A recent study by the San Fran­cis­co-based Trans­gen­der, Gen­der Vari­ant and Inter­sex Jus­tice Project on rape in Cal­i­for­nia pris­ons found that 59 per­cent of trans­gen­der peo­ple report­ed being sex­u­al­ly assault­ed in prison in 2006, com­pared to 4 per­cent of the gen­er­al prison population.

Trans­gen­der peo­ple become tar­gets in part because, in Cal­i­for­nia, as in most oth­er states, the pro­hib­i­tive cost of surg­eries, ther­a­py and hor­mones pre­vents many trans­gen­der peo­ple from acquir­ing legal sex changes, which can land peo­ple who live as men into women’s facil­i­ties, and peo­ple who live as women into men’s facil­i­ties. While incar­cer­at­ed, many trans­gen­der pris­on­ers have dif­fi­cul­ty acquir­ing hor­mones, and none have access to surgery while serv­ing time.

In March, Giral­do filed suit in order to bring abus­es of trans­gen­der pris­on­ers to light, she says. She sued sev­en employ­ees of the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions and Reha­bil­i­ta­tion for neg­li­gence, inflic­tion of emo­tion­al dis­tress, and vio­la­tions of the state constitution’s pro­hi­bi­tion against cru­el and unusu­al punishment. 

But well into the tri­al, Judge Ellen Chaitin of San Fran­cis­co Supe­ri­or Court dis­missed alle­ga­tions of neg­li­gence and cru­el and unusu­al pun­ish­ment on the grounds that prison guards do not have the duty to pro­tect inmates, but allowed the claim of inten­tion­al inflec­tion of emo­tion­al dis­tress to stand.

The dis­missal rais­es extreme­ly trou­bling issues under state law, that prison guards have no duty to pro­tect inmates,” says Gre­go­ry Wal­ston, Giraldo’s attorney.

Kelani Key, a mem­ber of the Trans/​Gender Vari­ant in Prison Com­mit­tee, is no stranger to the kind of vio­lence Giraldo’s tri­al brought to light.

I was raped, beat up, ridiculed,” says Key, who has been incar­cer­at­ed sev­en times. She says ver­bal abuse and oth­er forms of dis­crim­i­na­tion are a prob­lem, as well: A lot of it comes from the staff. If we com­plain about any­thing, they put us in the hole. Either you shut your mouth, or you open your mouth and you go to the hole.”

Key says the Trans in Prison Com­mit­tee has got­ten calls from trans­gen­der peo­ple around the state describ­ing sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences – some even call col­lect from prison.

Tume­ka God­win, direc­tor of the Dig­i­tal Sto­ry­telling Project, which details the expe­ri­ences of women of col­or who have been incar­cer­at­ed, says trans­gen­der peo­ple who suf­fer prison abuse have lit­tle recourse, and suing is rarely an option con­sid­ered. A lot of the women that are incar­cer­at­ed have no kind of home sta­bil­i­ty, they can’t find a job and they have to turn to the streets to sur­vive,” she says. God­win was sex­u­al­ly assault­ed in a San Fran­cis­co jail and set­tled a case out of court in 2000.

Accord­ing to the Trans­gen­der, Gen­der Vari­ant and Inter­sex Jus­tice Project, 75 per­cent of trans­gen­der peo­ple in San Fran­cis­co are with­out full-time employ­ment. Six­ty-five per­cent of male-to-female (MtF) trans­gen­der peo­ple have spent time in prison or jail, as well as 29 per­cent of peo­ple who iden­ti­fy as female-to-male (FtM) – rates far above that of the gen­er­al population.

On Aug. 2, Giraldo’s tri­al end­ed with a hung jury, but she has already filed an appeal. She says she will bring back alle­ga­tions of neg­li­gence and cru­el and unusu­al punishment.

Nobody should go through that,” she says, regard­less of what you’ve done. I’m not the first, and if things don’t change, I won’t be the last. I’m doing this so peo­ple can know what’s going on in there.”

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