It may not be what you think.
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 email@example.com.