Transgender Women in New York State Prisons Face Solitary Confinement and Sexual Assault8/08/2014
by Aviva Stahl It was Gay Pride weekend in New York City, but the event’s celebratory spirit was absent from Michelle Scott’s tidy second...
by Aviva Stahl
It was Gay Pride weekend in New York City, but the event’s celebratory spirit was absent from Michelle Scott’s tidy second-floor apartment on a leafy street near Brooklyn College. Her child, Carey Smith, is a transgender woman currently locked up in solitary confinement in Upstate Correctional Facility, a men’s supermax prison located in the Adirondacks.
“Sometimes I’m on my bed, I’m crying,” she told Solitary Watch. “I wake up at five o’clock in the morning thinking about it, and I say, ‘God my son is stuck in a cell for 23 hours a day,” said Scott, who seems to accept Smith’s transition but still uses male pronouns. “And I pray and ask God, ‘Please give him the grace to do it.’” Smith is in disciplinary segregation, known as the Special Housing Unit, or SHU.
In an era of unprecedented victories for LGBT rights, especially in liberal New York, people like Carey Smith are still paying a high price simply for being who they are.
Over the past several months, Solitary Watch has been in contact with seven transgender women currently or formerly incarcerated in New York’s men’s correctional facilities. They each described enduring long-term solitary confinement as a result of identifying or being perceived as female/feminine instead of male, the sex they were assigned at birth. And about half of the transwomen interviewed by Solitary Watch specifically disclosed being sexually assaulted by guards in isolation, and described the psychological distress of enduring such brutality while locked up alone.
Here are the stories of three of those women, and the continuing efforts of their families, lawyers, and activists to obtain justice for transwomen behind bars.
Solitary as “protection,” solitary as punishment
Carey Smith, 32, was born in Jamaica and followed her mom to Brooklyn at the age of twelve. After many years struggling with addiction, in 2010 she landed in prison on a seven-year sentence for two robbery charges. Although she had come out as transgender in high school, it was not until she arrived at Coxsackie Correctional Facility–a prison just south of Albany where Smith was incarcerated before Upstate–that she requested and received regular access to hormone therapy. As Smith’s body changed, she began experiencing numerous sexual threats and violence from both inmates and staff.
One night last winter, Smith became overwhelmed with the constant harassment and told the Correctional Officers (COs) she felt unsafe, according to a letter sent to Solitary Watch. But when a sergeant and lieutenant arrived they dismissed her concerns, informing her that she needed to pursue transfer requests through the available bureaucraticchannels. “I then told the Lt., ‘What if I flood my toilet,” and he said, ‘You would be doing a lot of SHU time.’” Then she explained, “Right then and there I took the bait I’ve been locked up since.”
On any given day, about 3,800 people in New York’s prisons are in the SHU. That means spending 23 of 24 hours in a cell the size of a parking space, with no telephone privileges, few personal possessions, and no access to activities, programs, or classes. Meals are served through a slot in cell door. Even the one-hour of recreation permitted each day is spent alone.
Solitary confinement can be a harrowing experience for anyone. But as Smith’s journey story underlines, for many transwomen there are multiple and contradictory meanings attached to isolation: Although it is sometimes perceived as a place of safety, it is also frequently experienced as a form of punishment.
Her story also illustrates the very limited options available to transwomen to push back against the cruelty and indifference exhibited by staff. Mik Kinkead is an attorney for Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, which provides representation to indigent prisoners on issues associated with their conditions of confinement. “I’ve had several clients who have tried to stand up for themselves when DOCCS staff refer to them as “it” or “thing” or use the wrong pronoun even after my clients have explained what pronoun to use and why not doing so is hurtful and emotionally cruel,” he said in a recent phone interview. “However standing up for yourself in prison often results in a Misbehavior Report and being placed in solitary.”
Sometimes, the “crime” that lands transwomen in isolation is simply appearing feminine, and therefore more vulnerable to physical or sexual violence in the general prison population. In New York and across the country, transgender people are often sent into involuntary protective custody (IPC) – another form of isolation–against their will, along with other prisoners perceived to be at risk. Other trans people elect to sign into voluntary protective custody (often referred to as ‘PC’) in order to escape a dangerous environment in general population.
According to New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (NY-DOCCS) Directive 4948, prisoners in PC and IPC are supposed to spend a minimum of three hours per day outside of their cells, participate daily in at least two group meals, and have regular access to library and counseling services, telephone calls, visits and their personal property–in other words, conditions are not supposed to mirror the SHU.
But according to women on the inside and advocates on the outside, few facilities make such distinctions. And because the vulnerable populations that end up in PC/IPC necessarily come under increased institutional surveillance, what begins as a protective measure may end as a punitive one.
Geri, 48, a German-born transwoman who asked that her last name be withheld, is twenty years into a twenty-five year sentence for second-degree manslaughter. In series of letters to Solitary Watch, she described how she spent the first 17 years of her sentence in the closet–until one day, when three gang members assaulted her. She wrote:
“[W]hile I fought, I was quickly beaten to shower floor. Cold, hard, wet–slippery. Kicked and incapacitated. So fast, with kaleidoscope of images and thought swirl in my overwhelmed mind.” She goes on to describe the rape in detail.
Geri explained that after her assailants left, she cleaned herself up and scrubbed the floor, all the while hoping she could get back to her cell without COs noting the incident. But as she crossed the recreation yard, a guard noticed she was bleeding; she taken to the facility hospital, where she was swabbed and her boxers confiscated. After being given minimal treatment, she was escorted to IPC wearing only a small towel tied around her waist.
But Geri’s difficulties did not end there. Instead of receiving additional medical care, she was issued two disciplinary tickets: one for not reporting an injury, and the second for a positive marijuana test. After a hearing on the charges before other prison staff, she was sentenced to six months in the SHU, which she served primarily at Upstate prison. Like many, once in “the box” Geri received additional tickets, and she ended up spending four years there.
Sexual assaults by prison staff
As Geri’s story suggests, the most significant factor that lands transwomen in protective custody is actual or perceived risk of sexual violence. However, isolation is oftentimes an equally or even more dangerous place. In fact, it was during Geri’s transfer to the SHU at Upstate that she experienced her most recent episode of prison sexual violence.
“At layover stop [to Upstate],” she wrote, “I am escorted by staff member, and cuffed behind my back. I was directed into small room and to sit on bench. Staff member closed door, made some reference to rape incident, exposed semi-erect penis and standing in front of me told me to: ‘polish his knob.’”
She continued: “I was absolutely shocked, but recovered enough to bluff. I told him he’d better just ‘pull the pin’ (personal alarm). He backed off, rezipping pants, tried to play off as he was just ‘joking’ with me. No sane, rational person would believe these actions as mere ‘joke’.”
Although no data exists tracking transgender experiences of assault New York prisons, accounts like Geri’s, as well as data from other studies, suggests that it is an commonplace ordeal for transwomen locked up. In a 2007 study of California prisons, for example, 59% of transwomen polled reported experiencing sexual assault while on the inside–a rate nearly 13 times higher than average amongst the state’s prison population.
According to recent Bureau of Justice Statistics data, nearly half of the alleged instances of sexual violence in prisons and jails across America are actually committed by facility staff. In short, placing transwomen in “protective” custody may actually increase their vulnerability to predatory staff members, while simultaneously closing down potential avenues to report assaults.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock