Staying safe in prison is a daily challenge for Native-American transgender inmates, after the Trump administration rolled back 2012 guidelines issued by Barack Obama. Several provided tales of abuse and discrimination in a “Native America Calling” program Tuesday.
Each time Cathy Kapua, a transgender Native Hawaiian inmate who was serving time in a men’s prison for an offense committed when she was male, was transferred to a new facility in Hawaii’s correctional system, she found herself in an isolation cell.
“The (staff and warden) felt I couldn’t be put in the general population,” she said on Native America Calling Tuesday. “But they were discriminating against me…under the guise that they were protecting me.”
Prison officials claimed that Kapua would be at a greater risk of assault or rape if placed among the male inmates with whom she was housed. But Hawaii state law, which classifies prisoners based on biological sex regardless of how they present or identify, barred her from being transferred to a women’s facility.
Kapua’s predicament was precisely the kind of situation that the Obama administration hoped to address with regulations established in 2012 to protect transgender inmates from violence under the Prison Rape Elimination Act. A guidance memo was issued days before Obama left office on how to handle transgender inmates, noting that transgender prisoners face an “increased risk of suicide, mental health issues and victimization.”
But those protections were rolled back by the Trump administration in May, in response to a complaint from four Christian Evangelical women in a Texas prison. The Bureau of Prison’s Transgender Offender Manual now requires transgender inmates to be housed according to their biological sex, rather than the gender with which they identify, and restricts access to hormone treatments and other gender transition therapies.
The special problems posed to Native American trans inmates by the policy shift were explored in “Native America Calling,” a live call-in program dedicated to issues specific to Native communities, and heard on nearly 70 public, community and tribal radio stations in the United States and in Canada.
Hayley Domingo, a formerly incarcerated student and member of the Navajo tribe, described facing difficulties similar to those experienced by Kapua, adding that during her sentence, she and other trans prisoners had trouble procuring their hormone treatments and other medications.
“They told us we were not allowed to have it because it was cosmetic medicine or something,” she said. “And when we tried to order bras and underwear that we felt comfortable in, we were not allowed to.”
Both women reported abuse at the hands of other prisoners and correctional officers (COs).
On Christmas one year, Kapua described being punched in the face by another inmate while on the phone with her family.
“He said voices were telling him I was the Devil, that I didn’t belong here, that he needed to exterminate me,” she said.
Renee Gray, a Navajo consultant on LGBTQ issues, said she was repeatedly directed to undress in front of guards during her sentence, which she served in a men’s prison.
The day she was first brought to the facility, “I was told to get naked…and really just stand there and have all the men stand there and look at me as well as the COs.”
“When I went to prison I had breasts…the whole prison system had known about it, and COs would pull me aside and want me to strip down to my boxers.”
“Every single day that I worked, I had to get searched,” she said. “Or when I’m walking to the library or something, I would be told to go into a room and strip down.”
“I couldn’t ask why, or say, ‘No, I won’t do that,’ because if I did, it would be insubordination on myself and I would be sent to segregation.”
Max Lucky, an organizer with the Trans Pride Initiative and a member of the Northern Cheyenne and Choctaw tribes, said that prisoners face a tough decision when choosing whether or not to report abuses.
“On the one hand, if you advocate for yourself you could get labeled a snitch,” they said. “But on the other hand, you need to advocate for yourself in order to stay safe.”
The Trans Pride Initiative, which seeks to be a support system “on the outside” for incarcerated trans individuals, is currently challenging a statute in the Texas Family Code that bars those convicted of felonies from changing their names or their gender markers until two years after completing all terms of their sentences.
Though the state claims the statute prevents the formerly incarcerated from changing their identities to evade the law, Lucky said this concern is misguided, as the changes, once processed, are reflected in all legal documents.
Instead, Lucky said the law is a form of discrimination “that extends the sentence for trans people.”
“We can’t get jobs, we can’t access healthcare, we’re made more vulnerable when our gender identity doesn’t match our gender on our IDs or our names, so it places those barriers up,” they said. “And for someone in a lifelong sentence, they’ll never be able to change their name at all.”
Kapua, Gray and Lucky agreed that respecting the dignity of trans individuals is the first step in improving their experiences behind bars. This requires better equipping prison staff to interact with LGBTQ inmates.
“Treat me as a human person, not someone who is less than anyone else,” Gray said.
“COs need to be trained,” she continued, “because they don’t know how to talk to me or even how to refer to me. It was always ‘he, he, he, he.’”
Lucky echoed Gray’s concerns, saying, “There needs to be more accountability and transparency for prison officials and administration to protect trans people from sexual assault and rape, and that starts with giving them basic human dignity: calling them by their correct gender pronouns, calling them by their affirming name.”
Kapua believed that the voices of formerly incarcerated trans individuals could be instrumental in sparking these changes.
She first found her “calling” in advocacy when the Oklahoma facility where she was housed requested that she and other trans Hawaiian inmates teach staff members about the Native Hawaiian culture surrounding mahu (the Native term for LGBTQ) identities.
“That’s when I realized I’m not just standing up for myself,” she said. “I have an opportunity to stand up for other people so protections can be made for them as well. They don’t have to fall into the same pothole that I did.”
Today, Kapua advocates on behalf of transgender individuals like her so that others can be spared the trials she underwent.
“We’re working very hard to make sure…there’s not a double punishment just because of who you identify as,” she said.
Elena Schwartz is a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcomed.