“We Need to Listen”

Transgender people who have experienced prison call for more humane conditions and treatment.
Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
Feb 20, 2024
Illustration by Bea Hayward.

Nearly one in six transgender people report experiencing jail or prison at some point during their lives. For Black transgender people, the rate is nearly one in two. Once incarcerated, transgender people often experience assault and face isolation or solitary confinement. Too often, their voices go unheard.

“We don’t want to hear what is happening inside of prison because it makes us hurt,” says Kenna Barnes, advocacy manager for Black and Pink National, a membership-based prison abolitionist organization that helps LGBTQ+ people and people living with HIV/AIDS affected by the criminal legal system and connects incarcerated members with pen pals to build support systems. “But by cutting pieces of ourselves off, we are being disconnected from our humanity.”

Transphobia and discrimination cause transgender people in prison to be more vulnerable to additional harms on top of the already devastating effects of incarceration. Overuse of incarceration does not make us safer, and far too many incarcerated people are subjected to conditions that hurt their ability to establish healthy lives after release. Helping to protect transgender people from harm in prison and to break the cycle of incarceration when they return to their communities is a true investment in public safety.

The Vera Institute of Justice interviewed five transgender people who survived incarceration and asked them to share their stories. In freedom, they are advocating for safety, community, respect, and opportunities for those who remain behind bars. For further reflections from currently incarcerated transgender people and their recommendations for policy changes in their own words, read Vera’s new publication, Advancing Transgender Justice, produced in partnership with Black and Pink National.

“People are the experts of their own lives,” says Barnes. “Society often sees people who have been incarcerated—or who are incarcerated—as folks who don’t know what they need. And they certainly do. We need to listen.”

Illustration by Bea Hayward.

Ky (he/him/his)

From the very beginning, when I entered the prison, I was harassed by staff because of the way I looked. The male staff would follow us around and call us names. One officer told me I deserved to be raped, so that I would know I was a woman.

When I told the warden I am transgender and needed certain things to be added to the commissary, she told me, “There is no such thing as a trans man.” I was incarcerated in the Bible Belt and the warden said she had heard of trans women, but not trans men. She said she didn’t have information, even though my friends and family were sending information and gender dysphoria is in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition [DSM-5]. But the staff didn’t want to believe anything other than what they knew, or thought they knew.

It took a year for me to get hormones, and I had to argue with the staff to get bloodwork to make sure my dosage was correct. If your dosage is too high, the testosterone can change your red blood cell count and cause clotting. You can have a heart attack. They didn’t even want to do the blood work.

The nurse who gave me my hormones just literally stabbed me with the needle. She would say she didn’t believe I needed the hormones and that I would be better off without them. She didn’t know how I felt or really anything about me. I had to write a grievance about her because she would literally stab me with the needle.

There were times when the medicine wasn’t correct, and I would bleed. They refused to give me any sanitary items or take me to the doctor. They said, “Oh, you think you are a man, you don’t need that.” Some people would share their sanitary products with me; if not, I would use a shirt or sheets from the bed and fill it with toilet paper to try to protect myself.

They prescribed me four different psychiatric medicines for depression and anxiety that I didn’t want to take. If I refused to take them, I would be placed in lockdown, which is when you are locked in a room all day. If they have enough staff, they let you out to shower. For time outside, you are locked inside a fence inside a bigger fence. It was like a very small cage you would see in a dog pound. I would refuse to go to yard call because I didn’t want to be inside of that cage. They medicated me to the point where the medicine made me sleep a lot. Then I would get in trouble for sleeping because I wouldn’t be able to stay awake for the random inspections. I was pepper sprayed and attacked in my room because they came for [an] inspection and I had just come back from pill call and I couldn’t stand up and stay awake. When one of the male officers from the inspection team came in and saw me sitting down, he said that I thought I was a man and that I could do what I wanted to do. He was going to teach me a lesson.

At first, I would lash out when they would say things to me. Then I realized that they would do this just so they could bring charges on me to take me to lockdown in a solitary confinement cell. I would be in lockdown for a month at a time. For a year, I was in and out of lockdown. Sometimes they would turn the lights on and leave them on forever as a way to irritate people. Or they would just leave you in complete darkness. You could go a day, or two days, without them turning the lights on. You had no light except the little light coming in under your door.

When we were in lockdown, we would scream to each other through the vents, like, “Hey what are you doing over there?” We would try to slide notes across the floor to other cells, just to have some human contact. If the officers saw us slipping paper under the door, they would step on it and throw it away, or they would get it and read it in front of everybody. I had only two officers, that I remember, who refused to treat us [as] less than human, and they got fired. It really hurt when they got fired because it felt good to have somebody who treated you like a person.

It would be good if all the officers treated people with common decency and just respected people, but I don’t know if you can put that in a policy. It seems like they have all the policies they need; it’s just training the staff and having them put the policies into action. Most of the issues come from the staff not being knowledgeable. They need to follow actual policy, versus their personal belief about what should or should not happen.

It took me a long time to get used to being free. To know that the doors weren’t going to be locked as soon as I got inside. I would hear the sound of keys and instantly jump. I would wake up at inspection times and stand by my door. My mom was like, “What are you doing?” It was one of the best feelings ever when I realized that I didn’t have to stand for inspection anymore. I had done it for so long that it was my normal. I have only been home for three years. It took about two years to get that feeling out of my system.

Today, I run an organization called Freedom Overground that helps people with the reentry process and helps people who are incarcerated file a grievance. A lot of people get ignored because they don’t use the correct language or the correct form. We make calls to prisons to advocate for people. We try to help them as much as we can. When people get out and have a criminal record, most of the jobs they get are factory work. For transgender men, we give them a backpack with work clothes, steel toed boots, a wallet, a gift card, personal hygiene items, and a cell phone. For transgender women, it’s a similar bag, but with makeup. I had an idea when I was in prison that I was going to get out and help people someday. A lot of people who are incarcerated really don’t have the support they need. I figured, why not start something to help them get on their feet when they get home? For people who have friends and family who are incarcerated, try to be there to support them and be involved. Even if you can’t help financially, sending a card really means a lot in there.

Illustration by Bea Hayward.

Brenda Plante (she/her/hers)

When I was younger, we didn’t have a name for it. I felt like I should have been born female. I felt like I couldn’t be me. You want people to accept you, so you try to pretend to be what they want you to be.

I was self-destructing because I hated who I was. I had male characteristics, but I felt different inside myself. I was an alcoholic to escape the feeling that I didn’t want to exist like that. It is hard to pretend you are something that you are not. Today, they have hormones and different clothing and stuff like that. It was tough to get help back then.

I had one therapist, and when I told her how I felt, she said, “Oh, you need to toughen up.” They would give you labels that you are crazy for what you feel. I even had to change my medical doctor because when I told him about my gender, he got angry at me. He wouldn’t hear it. There was a time in the 1990s when a medical provider told me it was against her religious beliefs to prescribe me medicine that I needed. I couldn’t find doctors till I was 50-something years old. Being 63, I go back a little way.

A lot of trans people I know keep going back to jail because they need better counselors who understand gender issues. A lot of our Black and Pink National members haven’t had stable environments. They have experienced homelessness, struggled with addiction, and have been sex workers. I was also homeless and exploited in the past. I was molested by a priest when I was in an orphanage. When I was homeless, I sold myself on the streets. When you go through the ringer like that, it is tough. At least now I have a gender therapist and a psychiatrist. I didn’t have really good counseling until maybe five years ago. If you don’t work on these issues, you are doomed. You are just going to keep on repeating the cycle.

When I went to prison, I hid everything at first because I was afraid of getting beat up. I would try to exercise and put on a tough guy defense because I was really scared. I was in different prisons in different states, and if you don’t act tough, people will step all over you. In prison, I eventually came out. All my friends knew, and everybody on our block [did too]. There were gangsters in there, and they didn’t care. I was fortunate that the block I was in was nicer. I had good luck because it was a drug treatment unit where you do programs, and that kept me safe. There was structure and a lot more rules. The people in that block were trying to recover and get counseling and work on their drug addictions. They took things seriously.

If you are going to have prisons, you need to have mandatory counseling and education. People really need better counseling. When you are sitting there for a year or two, a lot can change. You have nothing else to do but focus on yourself. Counseling would be the number one thing to help to stop that revolving door. But a lot of times, the counselors you get in jail are not helpful. If I was depressed in jail and suicidal, they would throw me in a cell naked. That was hard; in fact, I think it is sadistic. They took the mattress out, so that you just had metal to lie on with no clothes on. They would turn on the air conditioning and you would just shiver. I don’t know if they were trying to shock it out of you. It was rough. It’s like you are being punished for being depressed. Depression is something you are going to experience if you are in prison, especially if you have a difficult background.

I have been out [for] over 20 years, and I have not been in trouble again. I would never want to go back to a men’s prison. I would be afraid. Even when I am on the streets, I am nervous. I am hypervigilant, always on guard. If we lived in a world where everybody had access to housing and food, and we all did our jobs for the betterment of the whole, and we didn’t need people to make billions of dollars, we wouldn’t have prisons.

Illustration by Bea Hayward.

Teah (they/them/theirs)

I graduated from high school in 1979 and went to prison on August 11 of that same year. I did 26 years. We have to allow people like myself, who have spent lots of years in prison, to get behind those walls and advocate for the people who are still there.

When I went in, there were only three girls in there: me, April, and Miss Jeanne. We were good cooks and good people, and we could sew and stuff. The prison was kind of fascinated with us because they had never seen guys that acted like girls in a men’s prison. We kind of kicked the doors down for the girls that ended up coming after us.

In prison, we had boyfriends and lived a normal prison life. I was in the kitchen; I cooked. The boys looked at us as their mothers and their sisters. A lot of them were mama’s boys anyway, and they were looking to us as mother figures. Hormones were not a thing back then. Transitioning wasn’t something that was talked about, and you don’t know what you don’t know. I was comfortable in my skin. Hormones weren’t the talk of the town or part of the conversation back in the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s. We dolled ourselves up to look the way we wanted to look with the shit that they gave us.

There was no counseling. That wasn’t a thing back then. You just came in as one of the girls. When more girls started coming in, in the 1980s and the 1990s, we were already established. We took them under our wings and tried to show them the way. We didn’t have counseling, but when the newer girls came in, we welcomed them.

When I got out in 2005, things were different. It inspired me; we weren’t even thinking about things like hormones and surgeries when I went in. I am in recovery—13 years clean. I work in the harm reduction field where I share my story. I know there is somebody who suffered after being molested as a child, as I was. Back then, we didn’t talk about shit like that. If somebody can identify with a little piece of what I said, then I am grateful I can share my story. If someone out there is going through it as we speak, they can see that they can get out on the other side of it.

My goal is to live life the best way I can; to have fun with my girls and my LGBTQ+ people. I am comfortable in my skin. I have old-school parents and they are okay with me being me. I want to remain an outspoken member of the LGBTQ+ community, the transgender community; all communities that love free expression. The freedom comes from knowing who we are, and who we have become, and who we feel comfortable being. I don’t have to hide.

I like to shake branches. I know people still behind those walls, and I can advocate for people who don’t have that voice, that volume. I want to sit at the table. I want to be in the room when decisions are made that have anything to do with me and my community of people. I am tired of sitting in the other room waiting for the answer. I want there to be an empty chair for me, and the person experiencing addiction, and the transgender girl or guy. We should be sitting with the deputy director of the prison system. When you have transgender people walking through that door, you need to look at each and every situation. There are health issues that need to be addressed. We need more advocates to break down the barriers. They have got to know that we are not going to stop.

I write letters to people behind the wall. I try to be supportive on the phone and include them in Black and Pink National meetings. I try to get them the right books and magazines. We help out when there is an issue with mail. I know how the prison system moves. They are not big on transgender rights because they are not big on human rights.

It’s not okay to do nothing for the LGBTQ+ community. The LGBTQ+ community has been so unheard for so long. Now that we have social media, it is a leg up for us. It lets us get our message out, our energy out.

We have to partner with people and make connections so our community of people can come back from prison and be productive members of society. How are you going to incarcerate someone and let them out with no money? If you don’t have a plan after you get out of prison, you are going to be subjected to recidivism. We have to take care of ourselves.

It took African Americans so many years to get to the place we are at now. We have had a Black president, a Black vice president—but look how long it took. This is 2024—an election year—and we have to get more involved and advocate in this voting process. Progress has been made, just not fast enough.

Illustration by Bea Hayward.

JK (she/her/hers)

I was born and raised on Long Island, but I always considered Brooklyn home. My childhood was extremely difficult and traumatic. My father was neglectful and abusive, and my stepdad and mother made things difficult for me at home as well. I grew up in between two places where I felt I didn’t belong and wasn’t accepted.

I was also struggling with my gender identity from a very young age. I didn’t really feel comfortable as a boy, but I knew very well not to express that. My father was hypermasculine and drank a lot. When I was a little child, he would tell me to stop acting like a bitch if I would cry or if I wanted to play with little girls in the neighborhood. He was very, very anti-woman. It wasn’t just like [the] average working-class white dad in the 1990s—he was actually extremely anti-woman. He used to beat all the women in his life: my mom, my stepmom, his girlfriend.

As I got into my teens, I started running away a lot. This was before queer and trans people were in the mainstream. This was before marriage equality. It was seen as a big deal to be gay, let alone trans. I never saw any positive media portrayals of us. You just saw us being weirdos and sex workers and stuff like that. I hated myself for feeling the way I felt, and at the time, I was extremely depressed. I found religion as an outlet. I was very studious and am still an avid reader. I would just retreat into my books. I used to read a lot about social justice struggles, especially the Black liberation story. I came across The Autobiography of Malcolm X and loved his discussion of how he became a Muslim. I converted to Islam and found a community. I found people who loved me unconditionally for the first time ever. However, Islam is still one of the Abrahamic religions, and the more conservative teachings still teach the gender binary. I felt like I had to act like a man, like how I was feeling was a sin.

At this time, it was 2010 and there was a lot of Islamophobia. My whole family was calling me a traitor and a terrorist. People were throwing stuff at me on the street. I was going on a whitewater rafting trip with a mosque youth group and the NYPD [New York Police Department] thought it would be cool to infiltrate the youth group. I met a guy who ended up being a cop. He befriended me and I was [later] arrested in a sting operation. They wanted me to be an informant and go to a Palestinian community and start conversations with people to make them say things that could be interpreted as radical. Even at a young age, I refused to go along with it. Because I refused, they punished me by giving me 13 years in prison for “attempting to provide material support to terrorists.” For essentially nothing.

I came of age in a supermax prison. I went into a men’s prison struggling with my gender identity and my attraction to men, while following an interpretation of a religion that told me that was wrong. During the coronavirus pandemic and the racial justice uprising of 2020, I came out as trans. By this time, I considered myself to be an activist and was involved with a prison abolitionist organization. I was doing what I call “jailhouse journalism.” There was a huge COVID-19 outbreak at the prison I was in in Georgia; people were dying, and nobody cared. I was doing interviews on the phone. They sent me to solitary confinement for two weeks, and I came out as trans. I just had enough. There was so much death around me, I felt like, “I have to live my life.” When I was in solitary confinement, I told my psychologist I was trans. When you tell your psychologist something in prison, nothing is private. After that, every officer on the block knew that I was trans, and these were not progressive people. These were people who got a kick out of it. They put me into a cell with a known rapist. We were on COVID-19 lockdown, where you would be in your cell 21 hours a day.

In prison, when you come out as trans or queer, you are immediately ostracized by everybody. When this happens, prepare to lose all your friends. Everybody basically treats you like they treated lepers in the Bible. They want you to stay away from them and not talk to them. But you would have people who would come to you on the sly asking for sex. Nobody wants you socially, but you still have a high percentage of people who want your body. I didn’t want to give my body to this dude in my cell, so he did what he did.

In prison, the queer community is close knit. We were locked down and I saw one of my friends who was nonbinary and I slipped them a note saying what happened. They told me to report it and I ended up telling the psychologist. They sent me to the lieutenant’s office, which is where you go when you get in trouble. Instead of giving me a rape kit or examining me, they started interrogating me like I had done something wrong. I started screaming at them that I was just sexually assaulted but the lieutenant said, “Oh, but you are gay right? Aren’t you supposed to like that stuff?”

This is the mentality of a lot of them. I said I was not going back to my cell, and they said, “We can just put you in protective custody.” For people who are not familiar with prison, protective custody sounds like a good thing. It’s not—it’s solitary confinement. You are not waiting for anything disciplinary; you are just there indefinitely. I didn’t get an evaluation by a psychologist or anything. They just threw me in a cell. They are supposed to have protocols by law, but they didn’t follow them. My friend ended up getting in trouble right after I got sent to solitary confinement and they demanded to be put in a cell with me. At least I had that.

Then they ended up sending me to a communication management unit, which is called “Baby Guantanamo.” These units are for people who had terrorism cases. There were a lot of white supremacist wackos, and you can only make two phone calls a week to your family. There is audio surveillance and video surveillance, and they have to approve of everyone who you get your mail from. They sent me to a unit in Illinois and it was filled with white supremacists. It was a horrible place to be. The walls just dripped with hatred. When I got there, an officer came to my cell and said, “Do I need to know anything about you? Do you need protection or anything like that.” And I am like, “For what?” I was trying to act as tough as possible. Deep down I was scared. He said, “You know what I am talking about.” He blurted out in front of everyone, “You are a faggot.” I was going to keep things to myself because of the environment, but he outed me to the whole unit. And, of course, I ended up denying it because I was afraid. And during the time I was in the communication management unit, they didn’t give any psychological support. There is none of that there. I ended up going back in the closet because I was afraid.

I had lawyers who were concerned enough about my situation, and they helped me get out of there 18 months later. I didn’t go home; I was sent to another jail in Maryland. Compared to where I came from, it was heaven. Everything is relative. It was like I came home. They put me in the cell with another femme. I still had to deal with the daily prison bullshit, but I felt a lot safer. I came out again. I started HRT [hormone replacement therapy] and this is when I really experienced the fact that they don’t care about the medical aspect of being trans. They didn’t send me to a specialist or endocrinologist; they sent me to a regular prison doctor. The doctor said I was “diagnosed as a transgender.” I said, “You mean with gender dysphoria?” He just had no idea what he was doing or what was going on. He was doing Google searches for the doses. They ended up putting me on one milligram, which is too small to do anything. There was no blood test.

At least at this prison, I didn’t experience the same type of harassment from the guards as at the other prison. But I feel like it is hard to make something that is so intrinsically inhumane, humane.

When they released me to a halfway house, they refused to send me to the women’s section. They sent me to the men’s section. I experienced daily harassment just for being a trans woman. They should make it easier to get into a facility of the gender you identify with. That is something I would have jumped on if I had the chance.

When I was in prison, I was involved in prison abolition work, and I felt like I was part of something bigger than myself. I would read the memoirs of Huey P. Newton and Assata Shakur. Their experiences in prison gave me inspiration to push on. Towards the end, I got into an intimate relationship with another prisoner that was very grounding and really helped me to push through all the trauma.

While I was incarcerated, the Black and Pink National pen pal program meant a lot. It helped to see people who are living their identities and living their truth and seeing that it is possible and doable. You can live a full life and be happy. Socially speaking, prison culture is like the 1950s. It is really conservative and you don’t see anything beyond the extremely hypermasculine. To see people who are like me was really awesome; it helped me push through. Experiencing an emotional connection in an environment where you are treated like an “other” was very helpful.

Illustration by Bea Hayward.

Sandra (she/her/hers)

I knew I was transgender at the age of eight. Growing up, I was feminine; I played with dollies. I was not like any of the other boys. I could never be the son my dad wanted, being a Marine. I could never be his son with an M16 strapped to his back.

I was in federal prison for 18 years. It was very, very difficult for me. I was raped several times throughout my incarceration. I only reported one rape because I was beat up completely. I was locked inside a cell. What could I do? I couldn’t flush myself down the steel toilet. The man was beating on me and throwing me around the cell. I had to be taken to the emergency room where they did a rape kit. After I went back to the prison, they put me into segregation lock up. I had to go through an invasive strip search, and I kept having flashes of the assault. I remember crying and the officer saying, “Toughen up. How can you claim to be raped, this is what you do, you go with men.”

I was the victim of a brutal sexual assault and there was no sympathy whatsoever. You are not a person in there, not even a name, just a number. I was placed inside a holding cell by myself with a bare metal bed. It was freezing cold with no cover, no nothing. There was a sink and toilet connected as one. The air conditioning is on to cause you to be uncomfortable. They keep it very, very cold. I waited in the freezing holding cell for three to four hours. Finally, they got a cell ready and brought me to the door of the gate and asked me to put place my hands though the food slot so they could cuff me. Then they told me to kneel down with my back facing them so they could put shackles on. It’s a 10-minute walk from one side of the prison to the other, to segregation.

They locked me in solitary confinement for “protection.” The way to get rid of the “problem” was to leave me locked in a cell for 23 hours a day. You have a room with a steel bed with a mattress and a steel toilet-sink combination and a little food table connected to the wall. You have a window you can’t see out of, and you don’t get natural light. You are left in your cell with a light that is always on.

They do come around with a book cart. And when you come out of your cell, for one hour a day, you can ask the officers for writing paper and make a phone call and shower. That is your day. Basically, you would pray every day that God, or whatever power, would help you get through. You could easily go crazy. You basically have to learn to entertain yourself. For the first three weeks, I was scared to come out of my cell. I did a lot of sleeping. I would have nightmares reliving the assault. I would experience flashbacks and it was like being assaulted all over again. I used to feel like I could smell the body odor of the person. I used to wake up with sweats because I swore up and down that he was there. But there was no evidence of that—it was just my emotional state of mind. I didn’t know this until I got into therapy. I was able to see that it was not my fault. I was not wrong, and I was not a bad person.

I spent 10 years in solitary confinement. I went through major depression and suffered PTSD. Prison systems are not formed to provide medical or health care for people. They are not trained to deal with a problem; instead, they sweep them under the carpet, or lock them away. They don’t have a staff member that is an actual psychiatrist. They never had a persistent form of behavioral health counseling for inmates who were traumatized. I wholeheartedly believe that staff should be better trained to deal with LGBTQ+ people. They need to have more understanding for what it is for a person to be raped.

While I was in protective custody, I could go to the legal library and ask for pencils, stationery, paper, stamps, and envelopes. I just started writing to attorneys and asking if they would help me. One lawyer took my case, and she was a tiger. She respected me, she accepted who I was, she accepted that I was female, and she also understood that I was a person who needed to have my rights respected and to be protected, just like any other person. She fought wholeheartedly with everything she had, and she went up against a male committee of judges and prosecutors and she beat their asses.

It was a long fight, but I won. My assailant can’t hurt somebody again; they are not going to house him with anyone who is vulnerable. I don’t feel that I am a rat or a snitch. I am a survivor who has rights and stood up for those rights. If I cry, they are tears of strength. By suing, I opened up a lot of doors for laws to be changed in federal prison. It was very, very empowering because I had made a difference.

Because of the lawsuit, they made changes. They had to give me my hormones, acknowledge that I am female, and call me by my name. I had a diagnosis, and everything was as it should be. I was able to get hormone therapy and be treated better, thanks to the lawsuit.

Unfortunately, I had to go through a very bad ordeal, but the only way to change that is for people like me to come forward and speak. We want to be beautiful, vibrant women, and have the same acknowledgement as women. We must say that it is wrong for prisons to allow people like us to be hurt. Just because people have committed a crime doesn’t mean they don’t deserve dignity and respect. Our prison system is not formed to make people better, it is designed to punish.

I would like to see there be more sensitivity training. I would like to see where they actually have a better screening process for LGBTQ+ people to see that their needs are met. Women in male prisons need to be identified as women, and they need to be protected.

In 2016, I got released. The officer said, “You’ll be back.” I turned around and looked at him and I said, “No, I won’t be back. You will be in prison before I will be.”

Vera believes in using our platforms to elevate diverse voices and opinions, including those of people currently and formerly incarcerated. Other than Vera employees, contributors speak for themselves. Vera has not independently verified the statements made in this post.