Violence, Torture, and Isolation: What It’s Like to Be Trans in Prison

Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
Nov 17, 2022

Patricia Trimble’s friend Vanna told her that she did not expect to survive another stay in her prison’s administrative segregation unit. The United Nations condemns long-term solitary confinement as torture, yet it is common for U.S. prisons to use punitive solitary confinement cells to isolate transgender women who are incarcerated in men’s prisons, as Trimble and Vanna were (this is common practice for many trans people who are incarcerated with populations that do not match their gender identity).

“The next time I go into administrative segregation, you will probably never see me again,” Vanna told Trimble before Vanna died by suicide, a known risk of solitary confinement. As Transgender Day of Remembrance approaches, Trimble holds her friend in her heart. “This time of year, I think about her and the others that I have lost along the way,” said Trimble, a prison rights activist who works with the prison abolitionist organization Black & Pink. “It hurts so much, and part of the pain comes from the knowledge that it didn’t have to happen.”

The brutal, inhumane prison system across the United States does immeasurable harm to all who are forced to interact with it, but trans people suffer acutely as the result of unchecked physical and sexual violence and frequent denial of gender-affirming mental and physical health care. Overuse of incarceration does not make us safer, and subjecting trans people to horrible trauma hurts their ability to establish healthy lives and break the cycle of incarceration when they return to their communities. Helping to protect trans people from harm in prison and ensuring that they can thrive when they go home is an investment in true public safety.

Jennifer Love Williams is a transgender woman who survived six years of incarceration in men’s prison facilities. Shortly after her arrival, she suffered an assault so brutal she could not speak for weeks. The physical and psychological effects of this assault and others she suffered while behind bars changed her forever. “I don’t know if I will ever get 100 percent of me back,” she said.

After Williams’s release from prison, she became an advocate for incarcerated people, particularly those who are also transgender. She founded the Jen Love Project, which supports formerly incarcerated LGBTQ+ community members. “There are so many women like me,” she said. “Somebody has to let them know that they are loved, and they are human.”

Trimble and Williams stress that it is critical to ensure safety and gender-affirming medical and mental health care for trans people who are incarcerated, including providing them with all medications that are necessary for their health. Incarcerated trans people should also have a variety of safe housing options. But keeping someone safe should never mean trapping them alone in a cinderblock cell the size of a bathroom for 23 hours a day. “Without access to programs and counseling, our community is doomed, thought of as nothing more than acceptable casualties,” said Trimble.

Jennifer Love Williams is a transgender woman who survived six years of incarceration in men’s prison facilities. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Love Williams.

Next year, Vera and Black & Pink will publish a report with findings from a survey of trans people in prisons across the United States about their experiences with the criminal legal system and incarceration as well as their perspectives on policies that purport to benefit trans people in prison. The report will shed light on aspects of prison that disproportionately affect trans people—like the overreliance on solitary confinement for “safety” and difficulties accessing gender-affirming health care. It will also share strategies and suggestions from incarcerated trans people themselves to help mitigate some of the harms of prison through changes to policy and culture.

Black & Pink Advocacy Coordinator Kenna Barnes says that people on the outside have more power than they might think when it comes to improving conditions for people behind bars. Complaints to departments of corrections that come from people in the community often carry more weight than complaints from incarcerated people. “When they know outside people are aware of what they are doing, they adjust,” they said.

Williams credits her mother with getting prison officers to better ensure her safety. “My mother was fighting for me,” Williams said. “She was camped out in Trenton [where the New Jersey Department of Corrections is headquartered]. She was there literally every day saying, ‘my child is being abused in there.’”

As a result of her mother’s advocacy, Williams said corrections officers were more respectful to her, allowing her private showers and enacting other measures to provide some privacy and safety. She now advocates for people who are incarcerated, trying to provide the same support her mother provided her when she was experiencing violence. “A lot of people who are in my shoes don’t get the help they need,” she said. “Every person, in prison or not, deserves the basic respect of being human.”

Black & Pink runs a pen-pal program to establish relationships between incarcerated people and those on the outside and provide those who are incarcerated with needed support. “The thing that is the most helpful is just talking to people on the inside,” said Barnes. “Prison is so isolating and dehumanizing. If people can remind them that people are humans and they are loved, that is so impactful.”