Transgender Incarcerated People in Crisis
Donisha McShan
I Believe in Me: Fighting for Trans Rights in Prison

“When I was paroled to The H Group, a halfway house in Marion, Illinois, to receive substance abuse treatment, I was excited about the opportunity to focus on my rehabilitation.

“But I was told by the staff members that I was a man, and that if I didn’t stop acting like a woman, I would be sent back to jail. They addressed me with male pronouns and titles, forced me to sleep in a room with four men, even though I didn’t feel safe, and periodically raided my belongings and confiscated anything they viewed as remotely feminine. They took my makeup, clothing, pedicure kit, magazines and curlers. They even took my pink shower cap.

“I filed a formal grievance with The H Group about the way I was being treated, and then Lambda Legal sent a letter. Four days later, I received a formal apology from the director of the facility. I felt proud and grateful. My personal items were returned and staff started treating me as a woman. I found for the first time that I was able to concentrate on treating my substance abuse and preparing for my release.”

Transgender Incarcerated People in Crisis

Nearly one in six transgender Americans—and one in two black transgender people—has been to prison. Once behind bars, discriminatory policies and the constant threat of sexual assault can make prison a living hell for this already mistreated group. Lambda Legal documented the unique dangers faced by transgender prisoners through a 2012 survey called Protected and Served?, now available here.

To read our FAQ about transgender people who are incarcerated, click here.

The transgender prison crisis is part of a larger pattern of violence and discrimination in U.S. society that disproportionately affects people of color, poor people and transgender and gendernonconforming (TGNC) people. “Over-policing and profiling of low-income people and of trans and gender-nonconforming people intersect,” as the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP) describes it, “producing a far higher risk than average of imprisonment, police harassment and violence for low-income trans people.”

Violence against TGNC people tends to be worse in places that are separated by sex such as county jails, immigration facilities and prisons. In the United States, transgender incarcerated people are still usually housed according to the sex assigned at birth, instead of by gender identity—one’s inner sense of being male, female or something else. This policy makes transgender people more vulnerable to harassment or attack by staff or fellow incarcerated people: A California study found that transgender people were 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than non-transgender people in prison.

U.S. prison officials also commonly block the access of incarcerated people to transition-related health care such as hormone therapy or sex reassignment surgery (SRS), even when it’s prescribed as medically necessary by a doctor.

The TGNC prison crisis has been attracting public concern thanks to the continued efforts of organizations such as SRLP and Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice (TGIJP). The result has been a series of major policy shifts and important legal precedents.

Among these is the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), passed unani­mously in 2003, which in 2012 established long-demanded national standards for preventing, detecting and reporting prison rape. A new federal policy on transgender health care is now in effect as well. In the courts, incarcerated people have repeatedly found recourse since the 1994 Supreme Court decision Farmer v. Brennan, which provides precedent for transgender people to argue that the failure to protect them from sexual abuse and other violence, and the failure to provide transition-related health care is cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

These promising legal developments don’t change the fact that conditions for TGNC people behind bars remain discriminatory and dangerous. While PREA carries potential financial penalties for prison systems that do not comply, it does allow incarcerated people to file a lawsuit in court for violations of its provisions. Enforcement and education are an uphill climb.

If you or someone you know has experienced assault, discrimination, forced isolation or denial of health care while in detention of any kind, contact Lambda Legal’s Help Desk at 866-542-8336 or