Inside: Trans Women Tell Stories From a California Prison - Truly CA (2023)

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Monica Lamm

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Updated January 14, 2021
It's January 1st, 2021Senate bill 132enacted in California: The Transgender Respect, Agency, and Dignity Act, authored by State Senator Scott Wiener, allows inmates "to be placed in a designated male or female correctional facility based on individual preference."

I arrived at a state penitentiary in Vacaville, California, with a van full of video equipment and two other KQED reporters. We came to meet with a group of transgender inmates and learn about their experiences behind bars.

The prison is a challenging environment by any measure, but for the roughly two dozen transgender women who live here along with nearly 2,500 men, there are unique challenges, not just for the women, but also for the prison staff responsible for security everyone is responsible.

California's prison system (like most) has long been organized along traditional gender lines: there are prisons for men and others for women, with currently 35 facilities in all regions of the state. But in recent years, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has had to deal with an increasing number of offenders who don't fit into a binary gender classification system.

Take Jazzie Paradize Scott, for example, who said she's been taking hormones since she was 16.

"I always had my mother's and father's approval that I was a trans woman," she said. "It was always about getting my life in order and not making so many careless mistakes anymore. That's why they end up in jail.

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CDCR has designated certain prisons as centers for transgender inmates, where services and support resources can be combined. The prison I visited, California Medical Facility (CMF), is one such facility and is also a prison that houses inmates with medical and mental health needs for greater access to medical care.

Scott is on his third sentence and wants to use the remaining time in prison wisely. She was selected to represent other transgender inmates on the inmate advisory board and campaigned to start a weekly fitness club for transgender women, with a prison employee serving as a fitness instructor.

"It's been a long journey with a long fight, but I was able to work with the team to speak to the right people to make this happen," Scott said.

Today's workout started with an easy, brisk walk around the gym, followed by two women in their wheelchairs. While one group pedaled stationary bikes, another group played a high-energy half-court basketball game that left them drenched in sweat. Scott then led the group through a series of cool-downs.

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The goal of the fitness club, Scott said, is "to let our hair down and wear our makeup and our gym shorts in a safe environment." In fact, women at the gym could strip out of their prison uniform and wear sports bras, tank tops, and leggings. After they finished their workout, they had to put their prison pants and baggy blue shirts back on before leaving the gym.

"I never saw myself as a boy"

Gender identity and expression in prison is about more than being able to dress how you want to. Transgender people face harassment, hatred and violence inside and outside of prison.

"Ever since I was a kid, I've felt like a kid," Yekaterina Wesa told Patience as we sat down to talk. "No matter what they told me, I never saw myself as a man."

His family, he said, could not accept that.

"My dad would literally hit me, sometimes every day, just to make me act like a kid to make me stronger," she said.

At 14, Patience said she ran away from home and soon ended up in prison. She has been jailed since 1996 for first-degree murder, a crime she committed when she was 18.

Violence continued in prison. Patience said other inmates raped her twice. In response, he tried to hide his identity.

"I immediately cut off all my hair, grew my facial hair, and never let it grow back," she said. "I had to act like the toughest person I could find."

He still searches his memory for what he could have done differently to avoid the attacks.

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There are many stories ofTransgender prisoners are assaulted, beaten, raped or killed behind barsūüáßūüá∑ While violence and sexual assault is a common problem in prison, a 2007 study by researchers at UC Irvine found that transgender inmates are 13 times more likely to experience sexual assault than their cisgender peers. This statistic is all the more impressive given that transgender inmates make up only about 1% of all prison inmates in California.

Under pressure from federal law and numerous lawsuits from inmates, the California prison system has made changes to provide greater security for all of its inmates and also to meet the needs of transgender people.

In 2015, after resolving a lawsuit filed by transgender inmate Shiloh Quine, the department began allowing access to clothing previously reserved for inmates in women's prisons, items such as bras, clothing, makeup and jewelry. Similar policies have been introduced for transgender men in women's prisons.

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At one of the weekly meetings of a transgender support group, which meets in a bright room with blue sofas, I asked about makeup. To me, makeup seemed like one of life's niceties that I didn't expect to find on a prison canteen's wish list.

"I love my roses," said Cary CJay Smith, showing me some tubes of lip gloss. Her eyelids were also a soft shade of pink. "This is for my eyes to add volume," she said, holding up a tube of light yellow mascara.

With a wink, she showed me what else she uses mascara for.

"I cover my gray with this," he said, stroking her hair with the bristles of his wand. "Just a little to the side."

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Many of the prisoners who have been inside for a long time said that access to makeup is a big problem.

"Before, we didn't have real makeup and had to improvise," said David Bella Birrell. "How to get Chinese eyebrow markers".

Or mix Koolaid and Chapstick to make lipstick, added Birrell, who has been in prison since 1983 on first-degree murder.

Smith also shared one of his tricks.

"I use a box of toothpaste, Colgate, and I take a cotton swab and rub baby oil on the red part of the box," she said. "I can do some eyeshadow, some pink eyeshadow."

More serious issues are also discussed in the self-help group. A lively discussion ensued as to whether an inmate was appropriately dressed on one of the recent hot days.

“I was in my cell and it was almost 90 [degrees]. I'm sitting in my bra and shorts and I'm looking at the wall," said Rachael Goosen. When a passing correctional officer scolded her for inappropriate clothing, Goosen balked. "When I'm in my bed area, that's my area and I can dress how I feel," he said.

But Smith disagreed, arguing that trans women should err on the side of modesty.

"As a woman, you should want to be insured," Smith said. "I'll stay with my mom. I mean I don't care how hot it is.

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Women in men's prisons

California prisons do not have special housing units for transgender inmates. Instead, they are often housed in the same type of cells as other males, and in some cases share dormitories with upwards of a hundred people.

The manner in which an inmate is assigned to a particular cell in a particular prison is based on a complex calculation that takes into account their offense, personal profile, past behavior within the prison, desires or preferences, and the types and availability of programs in individual prisons.

"We have a triage process for our offenders that allows for an individual review," said Amy Miller, CDCR associate director of women offender programs.

During the support group, we engage in discussions to solicit input from members: Should transgender women be held in a women's prison?

The reactions were mixed.

Patience said that housing transgender and cisgender women together would allay her safety concerns. "If you identify as a woman, I think you should be with women," she said. "I think that would eliminate a lot of the problems associated with sexual assault or rape being pressured."

Ava Marie Fey, who started taking hormones last year, said she hopes to eventually have gender confirmation surgery and be transferred to a women's prison.

"I'd like to go to the women's facility instead," Fey said.

But Mark Peaches Cates said he's happy where he is.

"I wouldn't because I love men," Cates said. "I'd rather be here with a group of men than with a group of women."

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Last year, Democratic Senator Scott Wiener, representing San Francisco, introduced progressive legislation allowing transgender inmates to be housed in a prison of their choice. It stalled in the fall, but Wiener said he plans to submit an amendment this year.

Several members of the transgender advocacy group questioned how such a law would be enforced. How would prison officials know if someone was telling the truth about being identified and being a woman? What if there are men playing the system just to get into a women-only facility?

CDCR's Miller said the department is working to update its home classification guidelines but could not comment on the changes it is considering.

More of our reports

Transition of transgender prisoners in prison
Could changing the way transgender inmates are housed make prison safer for them?

A long journey

California's prison system is one of the largest in the country, with an estimated 114,000 inmates. As the department evolves and adapts to an increasingly diverse prison population, it will be watched by other states, attorneys and, of course, inmates.

Ongoing court cases continue to urge further reforms, from improving access to health care to strengthening inmate safety, as authorities annually review whether prisons have done enough to prevent sexual assaults.

Every prisoner I spoke to said it could be better. But they also agreed that the lives of transgender prisoners have come a long way and that they feel particularly safe in the CMF.

Prison officials said their centralized system for grouping transgender prisoners is working, along with changes in prison policies and culture.

"This is the first prison I've been to that actually had a transgender community," Patience said.

She said she started growing her hair out after joining CMF, as well as wearing jewelry and makeup.

"Actually, it was probably the biggest weight I took off my shoulders when I stopped saying that I would be what everyone wanted me to be," Patience said.

As the weekly support group dwindled, people split into smaller groups and began face-to-face conversations. Goosen and another woman compared rock and roll to hip hop. Patience had to take a computer course. Scott was getting ready to start his shift as janitor.

"It's been a long journey, but I'm comfortable with myself," Scott said. "I'm happy to be where I am now."

production credits

Directed and Produced by Monica Lam
Publisher: Dina Maria Munsch
Kamera und Ton: Sruti Mamidanna, Monica Lam
Co-Reporter: Miranda Leitsinger
Executive Producer: Annelise Wunderlich
Post Production: Roger Chiang, Tony Cox, Simon Hui, Kim McCalla, Amy Miller, Vivian Morales
Digital Editor-in-Chief: Julia B. Chan
News Editor-in-Chief: Vinnee Tong
Senior News Editor: Ethan Toven-Lindsey

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