By Anonymous (not verified) on June 29, 2009

Prison officials need to do more to protect inmates from sexual assault. And there is one group of inmates whose vulnerability has gone all but unnoticed — and that’s people who are transgender.

The majority of U.S. corrections systems house inmates based on their birth gender, disregarding other factors, such as physical appearance that may be entirely feminine (including breasts) or government identity documents that categorize these individuals as female.

Not surprisingly, while in men’s detention facilities, most transgender women are sexually assaulted.

A recent academic study of the experiences of hundreds of transgender women in California’s men’s prisons — a survey that was commissioned by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation — revealed that 59 percent of male-to-female transgender prisoners had been sexually assaulted while incarcerated. A shocking 0 percent of these inmates considered prison officials to be allies in protecting their physical safety.

These statistics, alas, tell only one part of the story. Transgender women who have been raped behind bars speak about the additional abuse they suffer once they file a sexual assault report or request medical and mental health treatment. Rather than receiving assistance, many are met by cynical corrections officials who blame the survivors for the abuse, faulting them for being provocative or “asking for it.” In the worst cases, transgender women who report a rape are themselves punished — for having engaged in prohibited sexual activity.

Fortunately, as a result of litigation, new policies, and the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) of 2003, several corrections systems have begun efforts to protect the safety of transgender prisoners. Some are heavy-handed and of little help, like placing all transgender women in protective custody — a punitive, isolating measure that deprives them of access to services, programs, and the chance to leave their cells. Others are taking a more nuanced approach. The Washington, D.C., Corrections Department created a new policy earlier this year that takes into account the gender identity of inmates, as well as their own perception of vulnerability.

At the national level, the plight of transgender women and other vulnerable inmates was addressed on June 23, when the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission released the first-ever binding national standards aimed at preventing and addressing sexual abuse in U.S. prisons, jails and other detention facilities.

Mandated by PREA, and created with input from corrections officials, prisoner rape survivors, advocates and other experts, these standards will require prison staff who make housing decisions to consider whether an inmate belongs to a known vulnerable population (such as being transgender). The standards will also spell out requirements for staff training, inmate education, and sexual assault investigations. In addition, they will require facilities to provide prisoner rape survivors with access to medical and mental health services, even if they are too afraid to testify against their attackers.

When the government takes away someone’s liberty, it takes on an absolute responsibility to protect that person’s safety. Prisoner rape is a perversion of justice and an affront to our society’s most essential values.

The new national standards finally have the potential to end this type of violence.

Lovisa Stannow is the executive director of Just Detention International, an international human rights organization whose mission is to end sexual violence in all forms of detention. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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