By Christopher Zoukis
This past week, a UK transgender woman incarcerated in a men’s prison in Bath, took her life. The warning signs from Vicky Thompson were far from subtle: she had repeatedly told family, friends, and prison officials that she would kill herself were she to find herself in a men’s prison. Yet those warnings went unheeded, and the British prison system once again failed.
And we in the United States are failing just as miserably.
We continue to detail the various accounts of abuse and violation experienced by transgender inmates at both men’s and women’s facilities across this country, yet the number of cases continue to mount. How many deaths will it take before we deal with this issue? How much more rape and torture is needed? You would think in a country that has a higher rate of understanding of transgender issues than ever, with incredible transgender women like Laverne Cox raising visibility and understanding on Orange is the New Black that both the regulators and prison officials alike would “get it.”
To be fair, some institutions do—but they are few and far between when it comes to the American prison landscape. A San Francisco jail announced last month that by the end of 2015 that all transgender individuals would be housed according to their gender identity (on a case-by-case basis). But we needn’t remind you that changing the situation in a county jail is like a drop in the ocean when it comes to the broader scheme of things. While it is an unquestionably positive move, the duration of jail stays are incredibly short, as compared to prison stays.
Perhaps the thing that remains particularly troubling to me, is the lack of uniformity across the country when it comes to these issues—which borders on mind-boggling. How can it be possible for a state like California to begin covering sex reassignment surgery, while at the same time, Georgia refused to transfer Ashley Diamond to a women’s facility, despite repeated sexual assaults and violence. Their solution, not surprisingly, was not to deal with the situation (as they are legally bound to under the Prison Rape Elimination Act), but to stick her in solitary, as so often is the case (she was also denied her hormone treatments, resulting in serious physical and mental distress). How is it that a transgender person’s life is worth less in one state than it is in another?
Yes, states have jurisdiction over prison policy. However, as a nation we have a single Constitution. As a nation, we have signed on to myriad treaties and conventions on human rights, prisoners’ rights, and transgender rights. These things have to matter. They have to be more than just words. If they don’t then we, as a society, are lost.