Over 3,000 Trans Inmates Await Clemency
After hearing from thousands of supporters, President Barack Obama commuted Private Chelsea Manning’s sentence on Tuesday, with a scheduled release date in May.
It was one among a flurry of last-minute commutations from a president who granted a historic number of requests for clemency. But while people celebrate Chelsea Manning’s victory, they should consider the thousands of transgender prisoners she’s leaving behind.
Data on the number of trans people in federal custody is tricky. The information comes from surveys distributed by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and they’re often imperfect. For instance, some trans people don’t know how to declare their gender or are afraid of doing so.
There are over 3,000 confirmed trans prisoners in the federal system, but the real number is likely much higher. Many more are serving terms in state prisons, immigration detention facilities and local jails. While trans individuals don’t make up a huge percentage of the prison population, they are still numerous.
Like Manning, many trans prisoners experience horrific, dehumanizing abuses. Women are often housed with men, sometimes deliberately, even though this violates the Prison Rape Elimination Act. When they’re physically and sexually assaulted, prisoners may be sent to solitary for lack of “safe” housing, and almost a third of trans inmates have experienced sexual assault.
When trans women are housed with men, they are typically denied access to hormones, women’s clothing, cosmetics, gender-appropriate haircuts, and other gender confirmation needs. Gender dysphoria and mental distress are common, but mental health services in prisons are usually substandard, leaving inmates in psychiatric danger.
These abuses were one reason advocates pushed so hard to get Manning out of prison. After two suicide attempts, there was a concern that she would die there.
But those same issues are still present for thousands of transgender prisoners who aren’t as well-known as Manning. Many of them are women of color,who are often profiled by law enforcement and the justice system, and lack the resources to defend themselves in court.
Many prisoners have convictions that don’t strike a chord in the way Manning’s does. Some individuals think of Manning as a hero, while others consider her a traitor. Either way, when she leaked government documents, she did so as a whistleblower with the hope of calling attention to injustice. Her cohort, however, is in prison for offenses related to sex work, drugs and petty crimes, some of which reflect a desperation to survive.
The federal government has actually established guidelines and standards for the treatment of transgender prisoners, but they’re often ignored. Women like Manning are supposed to be housed with women and provided with reasonable gender confirmation supplies and therapy.
In fact, one state prisoner in California, Shiloh Quine, managed to sue for the right to access gender confirmation surgery. Several years later, she finally had the first gender confirmation surgery in a U.S. prison.
People rallied around Manning for a variety of reasons, though her gender was certainly a factor for many. Now, they need to take the skills and lessons learned from the experience of this successful clemency bid to fight for protections that will help trans women who remain incarcerated. Serving time, no matter the crime, shouldn’t be a death sentence.
Photo credit: torbakhopper