This year the Central California Women’s Facility has grown to include transgender women who have not had their gender reassignment surgery as a result of a new California law, SB 132, which requires the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to house inmates according to their own stated gender identities.
Technically, that means that although they identify as women, these inmates have the physical features of men. Alongside them in the prison are traditional female prisoners and female-to-male transgender men who have not yet had their surgery.
When we are all put together, it presents special challenges to a prison population that may already be conflicted about gender issues.
For starters, many female prisoners have been victimized by men, sometimes violently. Many were unprepared for suddenly being around masculine people and have had panic attacks around the new women who still have deep masculine voices and masculine features. When an already-traumatized woman is assigned to live in a cell with a person who has distinct masculine features and a deep voice, she can suffer nightmares, rage and other emotional responses. Women who are triggered by the masculine quality of their new neighbors or cellmates can be accused of being homephobic even if their problem is more personal than that.
Women in prison pride themselves on being inclusive, but the way in with which transgender policies are carried out in prison can be hard to manage.
The earliest trans prisoners had already undergone surgery and were living as women prior to their arrests. Many struggled to be accepted by fellow inmates and staff.
In the mid 2010s, CDCR began to approve male inmates’ gender reassignment surgery. After surgery, transitioned prisoners were transferred to a women’s prison. Because their reassignment surgery came later in life, their features were more masculine and their voices deeper.
The population was acutely aware of their transitions. CDCR numbers identified them as being from a men’s prison. Some of the women already in the prison were intimidated by the size of these new inmates, and some who preferred masculine partners were more drawn to the new women. Some fights broke out between transgender women and pre-surgery transgender men who viewed them as competition in an environment where many inmates identify as LGBTQ.
Now, there is a belief that transgender prisoners benefit from stronger advocacy, more clothing selections and better access to medical and mental health care, so jealousy can be an issue.
These “perks” have led many female inmates to choose on paper to be classified as transgender even if they’re not. The number of female prisoners who requested the hormone therapy and began identifying themselves as transgender have grown dramatically since the mid 2010s, when post-surgical transgender women began living in women’s prisons.
Women who are uncomfortable are not protected by law or public opinion. The new law passed in the fall of 2020, states that a transgender person may select the prison where they feel most comfortable. (Connecticut passed a similar law in 2018. Rhode Island, New York City and Massachusetts have also housed inmates based on their gender identity.)
Since the law took effect in January 202, 261 transgender women in male prisons have requested a transfer to a women’s prison, according to CDCR.
Proponents of the law have said that male prisoners would not falsify their gender just to be in a better environment, and they also note that the law allows the state to refuse to transfer a trans prisoner if there are management or security concerns.
But how that is implemented is far from clear. Where do the rights of protection for victimized women and the rights for a transgender person meet in harmony?
So far CDCR and the inmates have not been able to answer that question.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.