I am a woman. Some would like to me clarify I am a “trans” woman, but to me I am simply a woman. Also, I am incarcerated. I used to be an angry person who inflicted violence on others in several ways. I am no longer that person. I know what it means to hurt someone else and I don’t like that feeling, I’ll not allow myself to go through that again. Furthermore, I don’t like making anyone feel afraid or hurt or intimidated or unwelcome, I also know what it feels like to feel that way, and, I don’t like that either. So I won’t put others through that, because that doesn’t feel good either.
When I came to prison I lost rights. I would argue I gave up rights as soon as I committed my crime. I accept that, radically. As someone who committed a sex offense this is especially true given the sex offender registry. The right to privacy is of particular interest here. I am in prison where I have been largely invisible to the public at-large but in prison I am something like a celebrity. Everywhere I go I am watched because I am trans, have breasts and long hair. Because I am a woman. I am a different kind of woman than the female officers because I am accessible. It’s not so wrong to objectify me, after all, who would come out as trans unless they wanted to be noticed…publicized? Right? As soon as I put on the trans label I lost my right to privacy even further. I am made aware every day, every where I go, that some believe I chose that as well. And that makes it okay to display and publicly ridicule me.
Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) is a piece of federal legislation that was geared toward forcing prisons to act on reports of sexual violence. To protect victims and bring perpetrators to justice. That was one sides intent. It is also used to criminalize homosexuality and to villainize trans and gender nonconforming people. State prison employees mostly hide behind PREA standards to justify gender and sexuality intolerance and bigotry. As soon as I walk out these prison gates I can hold someone’s hand when I feel love or insecurity, but under PREA both are acts of violence that somehow make you, the public, unsafe. Though how, I still have yet to understand. While PREA does mean that if I am sexually assaulted- raped- it will be taken seriously it also means that my “transness” will be factored into whether or not I invited the assault- rape- because I CHOSE to be trans, a woman. Thus, the nature of prison.
Prison houses people who have been convicted of socially unacceptable acts. Many are truly guilty of these acts, some are wrongfully convicted. Like most things in life, justice is on a spectrum, it’s not so black and white. Prison is a direct reflection of that turmoil. American prisons (an important distinction because American prisons are the only structures designed to house and exploit slave labor and to manage one demographic of people, those with less or no inherent rights…the slave) were born from slavery and were converted to systems of justice. Just think about this for a second- a place to inflict and practice ‘justice’ was built on the foundation of ‘injustice’. Just think about that…
Media coverage of prisons and transgenders is rarely mentioned. It hardly exists. Most prisoners are mentioned when they die, then they are memorialized not by who they left behind but by what they did. The media never bothers to mention that if an inmate dies in prison custody that inmate served a sentence of death for their crimes. Whatever their debt to society, it’s paid in blood. The truth is I have come to learn the media doesn’t understand how to cover prisoners because of the turmoil prisons create in the minds of Americans. Many Americans, in my experience, prefer not to address tumultuous and complex topics. Thus, the media rarely covers the truly uncomfortable because it taps into a soul wrenching space of the American soul, the space that must reconcile empathy with justice moving me, the monster, into their hearts as a human, a sister or daughter or friend. This kind of confusion promotes inner reflection and inner reflection reduces the influence of media.
Let’s Tie It All Together, Shall We?
Some trans inmates in Washington State prisons have recently been moved to gender congruent facilities. Meaning, if someone is trans-feminine (born male, transitioning to female) they can be transferred to a women’s prison if they meet certain criteria and trans-masculine is the same. This has been done already, for years. Typically reserved for those whom are deemed passable. Meaning, if someone sticks out like a sore thumb in one space but blends in at another, they get moved. Nobody knows their genitals don’t match up. This keeps them safe. At their original prison, them sticking out like a sore thumb makes them, us, unsafe but if the word gets out that a man in a men’s prison has a vagina and not a penis…I am hard pressed to believe safety is possible. Most men are just fine sticking their genitals into a sock, do you seriously think they’ll have a problem with a trans man?
It has been brought to my attention that our PREA files are subject to public disclosure and some transgender prisoners have been targeted by certain media outlets. When those documents are released, those individuals will face down the barrel of their most private information being exploited. Things like being raped are now going to be publicized. Now that we know this is happening, and possible at all, most of us are afraid to come forward if we have been assaulted- raped- because we know that anyone can see that info. Like a book.
If this is happening to someone you know, or could happen to someone you know, let them know you love and support them.
Ruth Anne Utnage
To help support or share in my release, please visit my gofundme at: