What Transgender Women Experience in Prison

What Transgender Women Experience in Prison

You might love watching Laverne Cox on “Orange is the New Black,” but what do transgender women really feel when incarcerated?


Transgender women face a series of challenges in prison. As of 2012, 21 percent of transgender women reported spending time behind bars at some point in their lives. Authorities may place them in a facility that doesn’t align with their gender identity, leading to heightened discrimination. Even if they come to a facility that matches their gender identity, there’s no guarantee that the inmates will be receptive. There are inconsistent policies between prisons that could affect someone transitioning. As a result, transgender women are at higher risk for self-harm and suicide while incarcerated.

The 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey reported that transgender people of color seem to be incarcerated at a higher rate than white people are. When it comes to jail time, 41 percent of black and 21 percent of Latino people reported feeling like they were being held in cells simply for their gender identity compared to seven percent of the whole sample. Transgender women of color face a higher rate of sexual assault in prison than white transgender women, according to the same survey.

Anecdotes shared by transgender women in prison support the facts. In a lawsuit filed by Ashley Diamond, a transgender woman suing the Georgia Department of Corrections for denying her hormone treatment during her time in prison, she noted some of the discrimination she faced while incarcerated. She had “been mocked by prison officials as a ‘he-she thing’ and thrown into solitary confinement for ‘pretending to be a woman,’” the New York Times reported in 2015.

Advocates are working to change the issues that Diamond and others have faced. The American Civil Liberties Union put together a “know your rights” fact sheet that encompasses sexual violence, medical care and inmate housing issues. The sheet reveals additional problems that transgender inmates experience. For example, it states that “transgender prisoners are frequently targeted for excessive, harassing, or public strip searches.”

The Department of Justice continues to issue guidelines about housing transgender inmates and their medical care, but unfortunately, that’s simply all it is—guidelines, not requirements. States and cities have been taking their own steps to approach the problems transgender people face when incarcerated, such as ensuring protection when integrating transgender women into a cisgender population. A strong, national policy on some of the problems occurring in jails and prisons has yet to appear.

Activists hope that shows like “Orange is the New Black” and stories shared by formerly imprisoned transgender women will have a strong effect on changing prison practices. While their experiences aren’t all-encompassing, it could be just what the United States needs to jumpstart prison reform.


Cover image courtesy of Getty Images.