When I first heard that Crishaun "CeCe" McDonald–the 24-year-old black transwoman prosecuted for surviving a white supremacist and transphobic assault–would be housed as a man at the Minnesota state prison at St. Cloud, I felt panicked and pissed.
I wasn’t alone. On Twitter, The View’s Sherri Shepherd declared it "cruel punishment." A Shepherd follower responded, "No no now, this is AWFUL! Seems like a definite death sentence for CeCe." And the poet Ursula Rucker shouted (virtually), "There’s alot going on here…racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia…all equals one big fat INJUSTICE!!!"
While the "big fat INJUSTICE!!!" part remains a give-in among people with common sense, progressive observers and advocates, I was surprised to learn that McDonald’s local supporters are in wait-and-see mode regarding her placement.
"So far, CeCe is doing pretty [well]. She has a relatively positive attitude and she’s been excited to see the support around her remaining throughout the process," says Katie Burgess, the executive director of the Minneapolis-based Trans Youth Support Network. Burgess maintains constant contact with McDonald and she serves as a key strategist in what has become an international support campaign.
"People tend to think about how CeCe identifies as a woman and say she should be able to go to a women’s facility. But there’s really no history of transgender people being placed according to their gender identity. So once CeCe is placed in a permanent facility, she’ll look around and decide if she feels safe there. If she doesn’t, she’ll move forward with a civil suit against the Department of Corrections to be relocated to a safer place. That may or may not be a women’s prison."
At the moment, the larger issue for McDonald is the state’s evaluation process. Over the next month, says Burgess, an ad hoc committee of prison health officials and wardens will form to determine McDonald’s gender (you read that right), whether or not she’ll continue to receive the hormones she’s been prescribed in the past and if she’ll be placed in administrative segregation, which is really just a glorified version of solitary confinement.
"In my experience, the committee process is remarkably abusive and just disgusting," says Burgess. "Generally, they’re made up of all non-transgender people with absolutely no cultural sensitivity. They look at three things: physiology–meaning your genitals–sex orientation and prior placement. Rather than protecting transgender people, who are easily the most vulnerable group when it comes to sexual violence in prison, the underlying idea is that transgender people are sexual predators."
It’s hard to imagine that the fashion student, who did nothing more than defend herself against a white female who sliced her in the cheek with a cocktail glass and a Swastika-tattooed Dean Schmitz, would be deemed a sexual aggressor. But Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, says this idea lies at the foundation of transwomen’s experience in prisons and jails.
"From a detention point of view, the assumption is that transwomen are men and transmen are women. The basic idea is that if you have a penis, you will commit sexual assault. You may have fully developed breasts, hips and long hair, but that’s still the assumption," says Keisling. "Sexual assault in these situations is pretty rampant; most of it comes from staff rather than transgender inmates."
In late May, the Department of Justice issued long-awaited policies in connection to the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). The new PREA policies, which are voluntary, include additional avenues for reporting sexual assault by staff members, a call to end targeting transgender people for genital inspection for the sole purpose of determining gender, and limits on solitary confinement in the name of safety. The advocates I spoke with aren’t very optimistic about how these rules will affect McDonald and other transgender women of color.
"The message that CeCe’s been really clear about is that there is really no safe place for her within the Department of Corrections," says Burgess. "The wording around whether or not transfolks should have some say in where they’re placed is weak. We may be able to use PREA rules to give individuals more voice in the process, but it’s too early to tell."
Clearly this is a complex issue. In followups, I’ll explore PREA rules in depth and keep an eye on the fate of CeCe McDonald.