The Shocking, Painful Trauma of Being a Trans Prisoner in Solitary Confinement
Although the UN considers the practice torture, 85 percent of LGBT prisoners say they've been placed in solitary confinement, for months and often years. For inmates like Daisy Meadows, a trans woman incarcerated in a men's prison, isolation is used...
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"I would rather be raped every day than be in the hole," wrote Daisy Meadows, a 27-year-old trans woman, in a letter she penned to Broadly last year. Meadows is incarcerated at Lovelock Correctional Center, a men's prison in Nevada. Like tens of thousands of people locked up across the country, Meadows's time in the box is excruciating. She estimates that, in her seven years behind bars, she has spent about two years in isolation, including one 60-day stint for stuffing her bra with socks.
In 2015, trans voices—and transphobia—received more coverage than ever before. And over the course of the past year, solitary confinement has also taken center stage, with the issue gaining coverage in the New York Times magazine and policy changes being instituted in states and local jurisdictions across the country. Yet the particular experiences of Meadows and other trans women in solitary have often only been explored in passing.
This is despite the sometimes-shocking reasons that trans people end up in the box—and the fact that trans people are especially vulnerable to the emotional and physical torture of isolation. According to Chase Strangio, a staff attorney at the ACLU LBGT & HIV Project, placing trans people in solitary further isolates them in what is already a deeply traumatizing environment—a sex-segregated world that refutes their very existence.
"When in solitary, trans people are often cut off from the only types of support they have to affirm their basic humanity," Strangio told Broadly, "and the core of who they are."
In her cell at Lovelock, about an hour and a half northeast of Reno, Meadows has thousands and thousands of pages of paperwork—write-ups she's received for breaking the rules, grievances she's filed about her treatment, and a lawsuit she recently filed to demand change. But it hasn't always been this way.
"For the first three or four years I was locked up, I didn't really have any problems at all—no write-ups, no bad incidents with staff or inmates," she said over the phone. "As soon as I came out [as trans], everything started going downhill."
Meadows has been locked up since 2008 and living openly as a woman since November 2012. When she first decided to come out, she put in a request to be transferred to Lovelock from her previous facility, Warm Springs Correctional. She wanted to start fresh.
Almost as soon as she arrived at Lovelock, Meadows said, staff started harassing and targeting her. She remembered one guard who told her, "You'll never give a blowjob like a real woman." Corrections officers would mock and humiliate her in front of other inmates, which seemed like blanket permission for prisoners to do the same.
Then there were the constant strip searches and pat-downs, Meadows recalled, and the daily humiliations, like guards watching her when she showered or coming to her door to watch while she used the bathroom. Meadows estimated that she has ended up in involuntary "protective custody" (PC)—a form of solitary confinement—about four or five times since arriving at Lovelock, for periods that range from weeks to months. This is ostensibly to keep her safe from sexual predators, but Meadows believes the correctional staff use PC as a tool of retaliation. In recent months, Meadows says she has written up grievances but decided against filing them after a staff member allegedly told her they would throw her in PC if she continued to complain about her treatment.
This has been a very upsetting, shocking, painful, and frustrating event that haunts and torments, tortures me every day.
According to a study conducted by the Center for Evidence-Based Corrections at the University of California, Irvine, trans people are 13 times more likely than other prisoners to be sexually assaulted, so it is not surprising that spending time in protective custody is a fact of life for many incarcerated trans women. Ashley Diamond, who spent 30 days in protective isolation just before her release from a Georgia prison, told the New York Times that she sang "from dawn to dusk" while in the windowless cell to stay sane.
Balancing and enduring a hostile environment from both prisoners and guards is not easy, and Meadows has sometimes been unable to keep herself out of the hole. In February 2013, Meadows was told she was being given a different cellmate, and it was someone she had heard had been sexually aggressive with a friend.
According to Meadows, she immediately told staff that the match wasn't going to work and that she needed to be bunked with someone else; Meadows alleges the unit caseworker ignored her request. Meadows says she would wake up at night to find her cellie's hands under her covers, touching her. Requests sent to prison staff to be moved went ignored, and she was loath to report the abuse. After about a week there was a sliver of a hope: A different caseworker told Meadows she could request a bed move. But the form required a signature from everyone housed in the cell.
"I went in to get [my cellmate's] signature, and he tripped out on me and grabbed me and started feeling me up and stuff, and then he ran out and told the CO [corrections officer] that I had hit him and threatened to kill him and all kinds of other stuff," Meadows told Broadly.
According to the disciplinary form from the incident, the cellmate told the guard that Meadows "hit him in the mouth with his fist, and threatened him with a razor blade that was allegedly hidden within an alarm clock. The report notes that "no evidence of a hidden razor blade was found."
Meadows and her cellmate were both found guilty for fighting. Although her 15-day sentence in the hole was ultimately suspended—she wouldn't have to serve it as long as she didn't get in trouble again within the next month—Meadows told Broadly she ended up spending about a month in solitary anyway, simply awaiting the disciplinary proceedings. About a year and a half later, after another incident with the same prisoner, Meadows submitted a grievance explaining in detail how the cellmate had sexually assaulted her "on numerous occasions" and why she had been reluctant to ask for help.
"I'm not a snitch so I couldn't say anything—besides... I would be punished as well," she wrote in the July 2014 grievance. "Victims are punished in the [Nevada Department of Corrections]. And there is no discretion."
There is no available data tracking the experiences of transgender people in isolation, but a survey published in October 2015 by the LGBT prison pen-pal group Black & Pink found that an overwhelming 85 percent of nearly 1,200 respondents had spent time in solitary confinement. Of those individuals, just under half had been placed in the box for two years or more.
Solitary confinement is a terrifying and traumatizing experience for most people. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Méndez, isolation can cause "severe mental pain or suffering" and "amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment." He called for an absolute ban on solitary in excess of 15 days.
According to Strangio and other lawyers and advocates for trans people behind bars, trans women's particular vulnerabilities and experiences often make solitary confinement an especially dangerous place. For many trans women, being in the box means enduring sexual advances or assaults from guards.
In a report released in 2015, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 17 percent of transgender inmates had experienced sexual misconduct from staff. Solitary confinement likely only exacerbates vulnerability to staff sexual violence since with no one else around, corrections officers can sometimes act with impunity.
Maintaining the fantasy of a gender binary is vital to the functioning of the prison industrial complex.
And then there is the psychological component of the box. In the general prison population, trans people may be able to talk regularly to people who affirm their gender identity, whether friends and family on the outside or fellow queer and trans prisoners on the inside. Being placed in solitary means losing access to this crucial emotional support, and also giving up the various personal items—like homemade makeup, clothes, or electric razors—that enable trans prisoners to feel a sense of autonomy and control over how they present.
For Meadows, being put in solitary confinement means being separated from basic tools of survival and being left alone to endure the feelings of self-hate that can accompany untreated gender dysphoria. She estimates that she has tried to commit suicide 12 times while in the hole, mostly by trying to hang or strangle herself. (A representative for the Nevada Department of Corrections [DOC] responded to these allegations with the following statement: "Every suicide attempt, or even a comment made by an inmate alluding to a feeling of wanting to harm himself, is dealt with immediately. Those inmates are escorted to Mental Health staff to be evaluated and the incident is then documented. We have no records of this inmate ever attempting suicide.")
In a copy of a July 2014 letter she wrote to advocates, Meadows described her experiences as having included: "[suicidal] attempts or thoughts, also thoughts of self mutilation (mainly self castration), sufferings from severe stress, anxiety, sadness, loneliness, depression and discomfort. As well as a sense of disconnect, and self hatred about my body and a feeling of hopelessness all of which by being held in the hole, isolation, made much worse."
Lynn Hamilton, Meadows's mother, told Broadly that she's afraid every time her daughter gets sentenced to segregation. Being in solitary gives Meadows "really bad depression," Hamilton said. "I thought she was going to commit suicide a few times."
Although scant in-depth attention has been paid to trans women's experiences in solitary, advocates and lawyers told Broadly that they have supported many people in Meadows's situation. In August 2014, I wrote an article exploring the stories of three New York trans women who had spent time in solitary confinement, including one woman, Yvette Gonzales, who was repeatedly assaulted and raped by a guard while in protective custody.
"There's nothing for you to do [in the box]," Gonzales told Solitary Watch, a project that aims to raise awareness about the conditions of solitary confinement. "You sleep, you lose track of time. You start talking to yourself, you start hearing, you start imagining, you start inventing, you start making up stuff."
Sometimes trans women are placed in disciplinary isolation simply for presenting as they are—in short, they are punished for being women in men's facilities. The longest continuous time Meadows has ever spent in solitary confinement all began with a pair of socks and a bra.
Her disciplinary write-up from the May 2014 incident gives a blow-by-blow of what happened. "At approximately 12:15 pm I received information... that an inmate later identified as Meadows... was walking on the unit with unauthorized contraband inside his shirt," the report reads.
Meadows is unable to purchase bras through commissary or access them through medical care, so she has almost always resorted to making bras herself. One of her methods is to take tank tops and cut the bottom off and then sew in an elastic, using sewing kits and razors purchased from commissary. (Altering DOC property in this manner is also a disciplinary offense.)
"I found the inmate inside his cell, where I witnessed unknown objects placed in his shirt on the upper chest area, giving the appearance of female breasts," the write-up continues. "I asked him if he had anything inside his shirt, he advised me yes, at this point he pulled two pairs of socks out of his shirt and handed them to me."
The guard's narration of the incident goes on. "I then asked him why he had these in his shirt [and] he stated, 'I am a transsexual and I am expressing myself.'"
When in solitary, trans people are often cut off from the only types of support they have to affirm their basic humanity and the core of who they are.
Meadows's straightforward and simple explanation of her behavior did little good. When asked for comment, the Nevada DOC told Broadly, "It is important to recognize we do not house women in Lovelock Correctional Center. It is strictly a male prison, and as such, we do not provide nor allow female attire unless deemed medically necessary by our physician." As a result, Meadows was charged with "possession of contraband"—an offense she had faced several times before under similar circumstances. For this May incident, Meadows was sentenced to 60 days in disciplinary segregation. But according to Meadows, the same prisoner (her cellmate) who attacked her in 2013 had since put her on his "enemy list"—often used to manage conflict between warring gang members in prisons—which meant that the two could not be housed together in the general population. As a result, her release from solitary was postponed. In July 2014, Meadows submitted a grievance protesting her treatment.
"This has been a very upsetting, shocking, painful, and frustrating event that haunts and torments, tortures me every day, especially now that I am being held in the hole and punished because of [my attacker's] manipulation, lies, and hatefulness," she wrote.
Eric Stanley is an assistant professor in the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of California, Riverside and co-editor of the groundbreaking anthology, Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex. According to Stanley, Meadows's experiences are not just oversights that need to be fixed—for him, they are proof of just how impossible it is for trans people to survive on the inside. "Daisy's horrid treatment shows how maintaining the fantasy of a gender binary is vital to the functioning of the prison industrial complex," Stanley told Broadly. "The kinds of violent force (like placing people in [segregation]) that are brought down upon those that lean towards its edges illustrates [the gender binary's] centrality [to the prison system]."
Meadows told Broadly that after she was given the write up, she was taken down to the box by two guards whom she had submitted grievances against in the past. As the day progressed, the officers strip-searched her five times. "It just [made] me feel depleted, drained," she said of the strip searches. "In a sense just beaten."
Her charges for the bra stuffing were eventually reduced to a minor infraction, but not before Meadows's sentence in the box was over. She said she tried to commit suicide three times during that two-and-a-half-month period.
Meadows's life before prison was difficult, and the charges that landed her inside are very serious. In May 2008, in the parking lot of a Las Vegas hospital, Meadows pulled out a replica gun and sexually assaulted two women. According to court documents, she was apprehended in Venice Beach five days later, and charged with two additional incidents of sexual violence. Meadows, who freely admits her guilt in the hospital assault but denies the other offenses, says she signed a plea agreement at the behest of her lawyer. She was sentenced to two concurrent life sentences, and says she will be eligible for parole in 2078.
Now on the inside, as an out trans woman, Meadows is a constant victim of sexual violence; she estimates she has been assaulted at least 50 times in the past few years. The experiences have changed how Meadows thinks about her crimes, although she says she tries not to think about it too much. "It's just hard imagining that I put somebody else through what I'm having to go through and that I would inflict that sort of pain onto somebody else."
Meadows may spend the rest of her life in prison. And although she has been diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder, Nevada's DOC still operates under a freeze-frame policy, meaning that that trans people can only receive hormones or other gender-affirming treatment if they had been given a prescription before being incarcerated. Meadows says she has submitted hundreds of grievances protesting the policy—for example one filed in July 2015—only to be told there is nothing that DOC staff can or will do to help.
In a July 2014 letter sent to advocates, Meadows said it felt like she was "serving time in two separate prisons"—that she was not only locked up within DOC custody, but also in a body that she hates.
Last spring, the federal government issued a statement specifying that freeze-frame policies are unconstitutional, a move that came amidst evolving case law and precedence on the district and circuit level, but in Nevada things have yet to change. Dr. Randi Ettner is a psychologist who specializes in treating transgender patients, and a former board member of World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), which sets the standard of care for people seeking transition.
She told Broadly that the freeze-frame policy is antiquated and unscientific—akin to refusing to provide a diabetic with insulin if he wasn't prescribed it before entering prison. "People don't understand the nature and the potentially life-threating complications of untreated gender dysphoria," Ettner said.
"We see this all the time in prison," she added when she heard Meadows's story, "where people attempt to hurt themselves or to perform their own surgeries because they can't get access to appropriate medical care."
The story of trans women in prison, though, isn't just a story of sexual violence, isolation, and denial of medical care—it's also a story of resilience. Denied access to makeup, bras, underwear, shoes, and feminine hair removal or other hygiene products, Meadows and many other trans women behind bars find creative ways to make do. Packages of Kool-Aid become lipstick and eye shadow, compression tights from medical become stockings. People risk sexual violence and stints in solitary to openly express who they are.
Human rights advocates have long argued that guards are capricious and callous in their decisions to throw someone in the box. The ACLU's list of "ridiculous reasons for being sent to solitary" include: sewing belt loops on state issued pants, cheering too loudly during the Super Bowl, having too many stamps, and banging one's head against a wall.
But according to some advocates, it is ultimately a refusal to submit that explains the harsh punishment vetted out to trans people behind bars. In that sense, Meadows's experience behind bars is a lens through which to understand the way that prisons operate. Instead of seeing Meadows's time in the box as an aberrance, Strangio told Broadly, we might see it as exemplification of how solitary confinement operates, a practice that, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, confines more than 80,000 Americans to isolation at any given time.
"The reality is that [these] types of behaviors [from prison staff]—the insistence on taking away basic survival mechanisms and cutting off basic support systems when they become known to the system—[are] central to the operation of the prison system itself," he said.
"The second [people] develop a tool, that tool is taken away," he added. "That's very deliberate, and it happens to everyone."