Queer prison activists like Angela Davis and Miss Major have long emphasized that trans people are among those most severely mistreated by the prison industrial complex. Oppressive gender norms of the outside world are replicated inside prison walls, with discrimination on the outside translating into poor treatment within.
Some of these issues include sexual abuse by staff and prisoners at far higher rates than non-trans prisoners (a study from 2007 found 59% of trans people reported being sexually assaulted, compared with 4% of the overall prison population) and a higher likelihood to be separated from other prisoners in psychologically damaging solitary confinement (justified as "for their own good"). Thanks to various forms of oppression - from economic discrimination (it's more difficult for trans people to get non-illegal work) to harassment by police simply because of who they are - trans people are roped into the system at higher rates than non-trans people.
These tactics of oppression often turn cyclical under the prison industrial complex, with many gender variant people ending up back in prison soon after release. So it's important to look at ways to close the revolving door between prison and outside by opening up opportunities for employment, housing, health care and other basic human rights, and working to end policing and criminalization of certain occupations, such as sex work.
Grace Lawrence works as a counselor with the Transgender, Gender Variant, & Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP) in San Francisco, which aims to help trans people who are both in and out of prison. She shares her advice for reentering - and staying in - the outside world.
- Before you leave prison, contact TGIJP (address below). "We have a pen pal system, where we get to know the person before they're paroled, personally, so we can know how to empower them," says Grace. TGIJP communicates with trans prisoners in any state, helping mentor them so they can be better prepared for leaving lockup. For example, a counselor might direct you on how to get your work papers, or assist with finding local organizations that can help with legal matters. (They may also be able to advocate for you while you're still inside: "We get people calling from places like Nevada or Texas, and we've contacted prison staff or the inspector general's office, just to make sure that person is being treated fairly.")
- If you can work it out within your probation or parole terms, consider moving to a community that has more services for transgender people - a bigger city like Atlanta, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Portland, or Seattle. While she was imprisoned in central California, Grace's lawyer was able to convince the judge on her case to transfer the case to San Francisco, where she'd found a community of trans people several years before and resources for gender variant people are more readily available.
- If you've had a drug or alcohol issue in the past, locate a residential program that addresses these issues. "There's a lot of discrimination within the jails that can really lower a person's self-esteem" and lead to substance abuse, says Grace. She herself was a client of a program at Walden House, in San Francisco. During her year there, she received therapy and "just focused on Grace, you know?" The organization helped get her papers in order (a Social Security card, for example) which eventually led to her being able to apply for jobs.
- Don't give up on finding legal work, if you want it. It's true, transgender people "have a harder time getting hired," says Grace. "If a non-trans person goes out for the same job, the transgender person won't get it." In fact, trans people are often unemployed at twice the rate of non-trans people. But certain employers such as Apple and Nike do include terms like "gender" and "gender identity" in their company non-discrimination policies (while also requiring that suppliers do not use prison labor), and in 2010 Goodwill opened a new San Francisco store where seven out of ten employees were trans. (Grace herself worked at Goodwill, where she used her knowledge of fashion to price clothing, and soon became a manager.) Visit the web sites of the Transgender Economic Empowerment Initiative (http://www.teeisf.org) and Transgender at Work (http://www.tgender.net/taw/) to learn more about the job search. (While seeking work, it's important to remember that corporations support and benefit from the prison industrial complex - everything from selling cement for prison walls, to using free prison labor to make their products. For example, while American Airlines has a trans-friendly hiring policy, they have used prisoners to crew their phone reservation lines.)
- Once you're back on your feet, remember to support your community by helping others who are going through what you went through. Grace's original advisor, Miss Major, helped her get past some tough times, which caused Grace to want to give back to other trans people seeking help. Grace, who is from Liberia, where being trans is illegal, is now helping to develop a program that will aide trans people from other countries to seek asylum in the U.S. "I want to be like Miss Major when I grow up, and you can tell her that!"
Grace Lawrence lives in San Francisco, where she works with TGIJP and performs at Divas Nightclub. She is currently working on a book, The Boys Are the Most Beautiful Girls in the World.
TGI Justice Project
342 9th Street, Suite 202B
San Francisco, CA 94103
A different version of this piece will appear in the next issue of The Abolitionist.