Survey: Advancing Transgender Justice – Illuminating Trans Lives Behind and Beyond Bars

By Shriya Kali Chittapuram

NEW YORK, NY – From 2019 to 2022, the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) with Black and Pink National conducted an extensive survey focusing on the experiences of transgender individuals currently incarcerated in state prisons.

Vera’s survey gathered insights from 280 participants to shed light on the challenges faced by this demographic behind bars.

The project stemmed from Black and Pink National’s landmark 2015 survey, “Coming Out of Concrete Closets,” which focused on more than one thousand LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer/questioning) individuals in incarceration, according to the report.

This latest survey, however, specifically delved into the unique experiences of transgender individuals within the prison system. Participants in the survey, many of whom were transgender women (73 percent), shared candidly about their circumstances, highlighting various issues such as housing preferences, access to healthcare, and interactions with prison staff, the report noted.

The survey, conducted primarily through regular mail due to COVID-19 restrictions on in-person access, captured the voices of those directly affected by the system, per the report.

The Vera Report also noted that their respondents highlighted the need for clear, flexible housing policies to enhance safety. While 65 percent of those in men’s facilities expressed a desire to transfer to women’s facilities, 35 percent preferred staying, according to the report.

Additionally, the report also states that 21 percent had lived in LGBTQ+ units, with 78 percent favoring transgender-specific units, underscoring the importance of choice and safety in housing decisions.

According to the Vera Report, transgender individuals also faced many challenges with staff interactions, with 72 percent feeling that prison staff did not support their success. This included verbal discrimination by staff, which was reported by 28 percent of respondents, while three percent experienced physical harm.

In response to these findings, the survey participants from the Vera Institute offered clear policy recommendations across six key areas. These areas emphasized the importance of policies developed with input from transgender individuals in prison and community advocates, the report asserted. Flexibility in policy implementation was also noted in the report, recognizing the diverse needs of transgender individuals behind bars.

Drawing directly from participants’ responses, the Vera report outlined six policy areas for improvement.

First, the report highlights housing with tailored options, including transgender-specific units and transfer opportunities.

Second, the report recognizes supportive relationships including recognition of emotional support from friendships and partnerships within and outside prisons.

Third, the report writes about gender-affirming practices including permissible appearance items across facilities and respect for chosen names/pronouns.

Fourth, the report emphasizes Health Care including increased access to gender-affirming care, clearer eligibility criteria, and trained professionals.

Fifth, the report notes the prison rape elimination Act (PREA) with aims to improve implementation to protect transgender individuals from sexual assault and retaliation.

Finally, the report suggested staff training and accountability as an area of improvement aiming to overhaul staff training, with penalties for discrimination and misconduct.

The Vera report concluded with a call for policy changes that incorporate input from transgender prisoners and advocates, emphasizing flexibility to cater to diverse needs, underscoring the “urgent need for meaningful reforms to create safer, more supportive environments for incarcerated transgender individuals.”

The report, said the Vera Institute, aimed to provide policymakers and those working with incarcerated individuals with updated insights, and calls for improvements in correctional policy and practices for better supporting transgender individuals within the U.S. prison system, contributing to a broader national discussion on incarceration and decarceration.

“The Vera Institute and Black and Pink National express profound gratitude to the incarcerated individuals who participated in our survey, offering thoughtful insights into their often sensitive and traumatic experiences,” stated the report.

About The Author

Shriya, known as Kali, Chittapuram is in her final year at UC Riverside majoring in Psychology with a minor in Law & Society. Kali has had a huge passion for law since high school, and aspires to attend law school in the near future to study Film & Entertainment law. In her free time, Kali loves to write, draw, and even act in films and theater.

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