New Research Details Transgender Inmate Prison Stories

Report details the challenges faced by gender non conforming inmates in Pennsylvania's prisons.

By Asraa Mustufa Jun 03, 2011

A Philadelphia-based collective released a report called "This is Prison, No Glitter Allowed" on the experiences of transgender and gender variant people in Pennsylvania’s prison system. The research, in which 68 percent of respondents identified as black, adds to a growing body of work that looks at how transgender inmates fare when incarcerated. 

Drawing inspiration from similar research carried out in New York and Washington DC, the group Hearts on a Wire surveyed 59 transgender and gender variant recently or currently incarcerated individuals in Pennsylvania, most of which were placed in men’s correctional facilities.

Transgender and gender variant inmates find themselves in a complicated and vulnerable position when they enter the jail system, especially given that assignments to men’s or women’s facilities are based on perceived gender. The report found high levels of abuse and assault among the inmates profiled in the report. Ninety-three percent of respondents experienced verbal abuse in jail, 61 percent experienced physical assault, 78 percent experienced sexual harassment, and 52.5 percent experienced sexual assault by other inmates or staff. 

Bathroom and shower facilities are often the sites of harassment and abuse since public or multi-user bathrooms and showers are commonly used. Of the 15 respondents who did not report any problems related to bathroom and shower facilities, 10 had access to private, single occupancy bathrooms and showers.

Another unique issue for transgender and gender variant inmates is their ability to use hormones once in jail. Like elsewhere in the country, the report found that there seems to be no specific policy or protocol for administering hormones in Pennsylvania’s jail system. There were mixed results amongst inmates who were on hormone therapy prior to being incarcerated — and even those who had a prescription. This poses a serious health concern since intermittent or drastic fluctuations in hormone levels cause a range of harmful physical, psychological and emotional symptoms.

"I would like to see the [Department of Corrections] respect each person’s identity and legal name changes, said one transgender woman who’s currently being housed in a men’s facility. "An individual who lives as a woman getting stripped of their legal name, clothing, having their head shaved…was truly shocking and harmful for me, not just for coming into prison but also for re-entry into society."