Sisterhood Can Bring Us Together
Prison keeps us isolated. But sometimes, sisterhood can bring us together
Prisons function by isolating those of us who are incarcerated from any means of support other than those charged with keeping us imprisoned: first, they physically isolate us from the outside world and those in it who love us; then they work to divide prisoners from one another by inculcating our distrust in one another.
The insecurity that comes from being behind bars with, at best, imperfect oversight makes us all feel responsible only for ourselves. We end up either docile, apathetic and unwilling to engage with each other, or hostile, angry, violent and resentful. When we don’t play by the written or unwritten rules—or, sometimes, because we do—we become targets. It’s easy enough to make us go away; it’s easy enough to make us “someone else’s problem.”
The unique problem for transgender women in prison is that our health and welfare are also the responsibility of those charged with overseeing us. We live in an environment in which the same staff given the job of keeping us in prison for lengthy periods of time and occasionally “teaching us a lesson” are the same ones given the job of ensuring our transitions, when we’re allowed to transition at all. The first job always takes precedent over the other, seemingly more annoying one.
The day I first arrived at the United States Disciplinary Barracks in Leavenworth, Kansas on August 22, 2013, I announced my status as a trans woman intent on transitioning as soon as possible. At the time, the idea of a trans woman in a U.S. military prison was considered unprecedented and even outlandish to the military brass and the outside world. However, when I arrived at the prison—and for nearly a year afterward—I was not the only trans woman at the facility, nor was I the first one to make such requests for treatment.
In 2009, another trans woman (who I’ll call Alice) had arrived at the same prison. She was not the first openly trans woman to arrive at the prison either, but she was the first woman to have documented a request for hormones and other treatments. Unsurprisingly, her requests were ignored and even mocked by the very same staff members who today oversee the decisions about the conditions of my transition.
Though Alice had multiple diagnoses of “gender identity disorder”—which was changed to gender dysphoria in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)—the medical and mental health providers at the prison acknowledged and denied her request. They told her what they told me four years later: the Army and the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks do not provide hormone treatments or other gender-confirming healthcare.
Without any financial resources, personal support inside or outside, any knowledge of the legal complexities of making such a complaint and “exhausting” all administrative hurdles before doing so, any access to lawyers with knowledge of trans issues in prisons, or even knowledge that such resources existed, Alice stopped trying to get the medical treatment she deserved.
That was, of course, until I made my announcement. After seeing an outpouring of support for me and my request, Alice restarted her battle.
After spending about 40 days in a “reception” status in a self-contained portion of the prison, I finally met Alice in October 2013. She hurriedly and excitedly approached me in the prison dining area and described at machine-gun speed her own battle to receive healthcare, and how her enthusiasm to continue was re-ignited by my own efforts.
Alice told me the rest of her story, about her diagnosis and about how she had been ignored for all these years. I felt sick hearing her speak about being forced to live so many years without medical care; I tried to keep the tears, the concern, the anxiety, and the anger from boiling out of me.
I told Alice that I would do everything that I could to help her out. She smiled, and then she frowned and said, “I don’t want a lot of attention.” I told her that I understood, but that I could help not by shining a media spotlight on her, but by showing her how to make another formal request, how to appeal the expected denial—an arcane and required bureaucratic process that many prisoners don’t understand—and how to petition for a change of name.
I didn’t tell her then, but Alice was one of the few trans women with whom I had actually interacted with for more than a few fleeting moments. And then, even though we were housed in different parts of the prison, she instantly became my closest friend and confidante.
Over the next six months, we bonded more and more. As promised, we started Alice’s paperwork and, by the beginning of 2014, she finally started seeing a psychologist in the prison regularly.
She then began the same evaluation process that I had gone through earlier in late 2013. Because she was without any money or meaningful way of earning it, I also showed her how she could file for recognition of her indigence before a state court as part of her name change petition.
Though Alice had years of frustration and despondency behind her, she was starting to feel better. She became more outgoing and vocal as a person. Before, she told me, she had just given up and “stayed quiet.” From what I saw, though, she was clearly not going to be doing that anymore.
Unfortunately, our friendship and the assistance I gave her created a problem for prison management. Instead of only having to deal with one legal challenge over gender-confirming healthcare, the prison and the military had to deal with two. And, to make matters worse for administrators, Alice’s documented request dated back over four years earlier.
Fearing the possibility of potential liability and providing healthcare for which they had no existing expertise, the military prison sought to transfer me to a civilian prison in April through July 2014. At the same time—unbeknownst to either of us—Alice was considered for a similar transfer.
Still, we moved ahead with our requests and, in July 2014 after exhausting all of my administrative appeals, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) began representing me and submitted a demand letter to the senior prison and military officials.
A few weeks later, my best friend and ally at the prison was suddenly approached by prison officials on her way to work one morning. They pulled Alice aside and told her that she was going back to her cell to gather her belongings and “pack out.” She was being transferred to a federal prison.
I happened to be walking by as a guard led Alice to the same area for people being processed in and out from the prison. She was pushing a large cart filled with what few belongings she had, looking scared but confident. I asked her what was going on and she explained the transfer. I stalled her, trying to say a longer goodbye, but the guard escorting her told her to start moving again. I wanted to hug her, but the best I was allowed was a quick high five, a sad head-nod and a little wave.
In my cell during lunch break, the reality that Alice was gone and that I would probably never see her again sunk in. I broke down and cried behind my closed door for at least an hour: I wanted her to get the treatment that we both need to survive, but I also wanted us to be able to be friends.
I often still think about Alice and wonder how she is doing in a civilian prison. The times we spent together make me smile; the thought of seeing her with an uncertain look on her face pushing that big cart makes me sad.
While we came from different backgrounds and had different access to resources, we faced the same system. Alice started to become more confident and empowered once she became connected with more support and resources on the outside; that power she found from our friendship and from the hope that she might finally get the medical treatment she needed made prison administrators nervous, and they took it away from both of us.
But even though helping Alice ended up limiting my time with her, I have but a single regret: I wish I’d told her that I love her as a sister. I wish I could tell her that I still do.
—The Guardian, February 8, 2016