Trans people in prison: The need for liberation and community care
By: Witt Gorrie
Content warning: This interview discusses the criminalisation of trans people, the prison system, transphobia and transmisogynistic violence.
*Names have been changed to protect identity
From activists Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson in New York, to Phillis McGuiness and Vicki Harris in Sydney, we as a community have a long history of fighting back against the carceral State while also caring for each other.
After all, we have had to.
This is the legacy that Beyond Bricks & Bars: Trans and Gender Diverse Decarceration Project and the Incarcerated Trans and Gender Diverse (ITGD) Community Fund are built on. Beyond Bricks & Bars (BBB) is a specialist trans-led support project that provides social work and advocacy assistance to trans and gender-diverse people inside prisons, and those returning home to their community based in Victoria. The project aims to prevent trans and gender-diverse people from going into or returning to prison, while keeping our community still inside alive.
The ITGD Community Fund is an Australia-wide mutual-aid fund that provides direct financial and material assistance to trans and gender-diverse people currently incarcerated and recently released from prison.
The following is a conversation between Katie*, a trans woman who survived seven years inside a men’s prison in so-called Australia, and who is supported by BBB, and Witt Gorrie, a trans, non-binary abolitionist social worker who works in BBB and as a committee member of the ITGD Community Fund.
Images by: Joey George
Witt: So where to begin… I think we met about four years ago?
Katie: Five years actually! I had to count [laughs].
W: Omg wow, that’s right! Okay that brings us to the first question: how did you get connected to BBB?
K: Well! I was in men’s prison at the time and I had been for a few years. I was having a really, really hard time, I was in a very dark place. There was no support whatsoever. I kept asking and asking for support, but nothing ever changed. Then finally someone got a message through to an organisation that you happened to be working at then.
One day I got called up and told I had an appointment with someone whose name was Witt. So we sat down together and starting talking. That was the start of me getting better. It opened up a plethora of support that just would not have been available if you didn’t put up your hand, because it honestly seemed like no-one else wanted to.
W: And that was five years ago! I am so grateful that we met. For me that was literally the day this project started, with you and that first conversation. I met so many other trans people inside, particularly trans women, through you and those connections.
K: And I might add that you volunteered your time and did it on a voluntary basis for many years.
W: Yep and it was absolutely worth it! So you mentioned that before getting linked into BBB there was no support. Can you tell me what it looked like in practice to get that support?
K: It was like being thrown a lifeline because there are no lifelines in prison. Because if you ask to see someone you might see a prison health worker who does their tick and flicks to make sure you’re not going to hurt yourself or someone else. That’s all the support there is.
But after connecting with BBB I was able to achieve gender-affirming treatment, counselling, support – someone else to talk to who understood what my situation was. Even personally, which still continues to this day, and I’m out now.
It was my lifeline to keep going and I don’t say that lightly, it really was.
W: Do you think it was important for that support to come from another trans person?
K: Incredibly important because you have someone who understands the struggles of being trans, understands the challenges – but also someone who had experience dealing with the prison system beforehand, understood the complexities of how hard it is to get anything done when you’re incarcerated.
Having support from other trans people makes you feel comfortable. You don’t feel judged, you don’t feel oppressed like you do by this entity that is supposed to be looking after you but is actually just trying to keep you locked up.
It’s a safe space to just talk about what’s going on for you. Whether that’s your gender dysphoria or what you had for lunch, it’s someone to share that with who is like-minded, who is going to understand your experience.
W: Over the time I have known you, I have witnessed you do an amazing amount of self-advocacy. Alongside other trans people, in particular women, inside, you have created so much change in the prison system. What are some of the biggest issues you have seen, and you and other trans people have experienced?
K: There’s a lot and there still is, but I think for me, the biggest challenge was accessing gender-affirming healthcare. That is, and was, for me the hardest challenge. But also the violence, the sexual assaults, the harassment, the stigma, the deadnaming, the misgendering, and just general transphobic bullshit from staff and other people inside. Different prisons also come with their own risks and challenges.
I guess some of the advocacy that was done, not just by me, was fighting to change the Commissioner’s Requirements for the treatment of trans people, which is the main policy that oversees our placement inside. It hadn’t been updated in 16 years. It was called the “Management of Prisoners with Intersex Conditions or Transsexualism” at the time, so you can tell how outdated that was. Under this policy, you couldn’t access doctors, hormones, female underwear or makeup, and there were no safety regulations about sharing cells or placement decisions… So yeah, got that changed.
W: Yeah you did!
K: So in 2017, after a lot of advocacy, the Commissioner’s Requirements and the Justice Health policy changed to allow access to gender-affirming health care, makeup and underwear, and they also finally allowed trans people to have a single cell so we didn’t have to share with someone else, which is still a ‘grey rule’ because in my experience it still isn’t followed half the time. They generally just place you where they want to. Policy and practice are often two different things in prisons, so there is still a lot of fighting to do.
W: You fought so hard for those changes and there was often a lot of risk to you personally
K: Yeah heaps, the system can always make it harder for you especially if you rock the boat.
W: I can remember the day you finally got access to hormone replacement therapy very clearly. For you that was a huge fight with the prison system for many years. What was that moment like?
K: There were so many false starts along the way, when I thought it was happening and then there would be another roadblock or hurdle. So, when it finally happened, I didn’t believe it until I had the pills in my hand. When I did, I was basically cartwheeling back to my unit. It was the best day. It was the first day of spring, the sun was shining, I will never forget it. It was incredibly special.
I went back and I showed my partner. Then I went to the phone and called my mum, and I took my first dose of hormone blocker and oestrogen on the phone with her. I immediately got Mum to text you to tell you what had just happened. I was actually seeing you a few days later and I wanted to wait to take them with you, but I couldn’t wait any longer, I had to take them immediately.
W: Of course! I am so glad you didn’t wait any longer after all those years, omg!
K: The weight that lifted off my shoulders in that moment – I hadn’t realised how heavy it was until it lifted. Everything from that day forward improved like a hundred-fold: my mental health, my happiness, just everything. It was incredible. It changed my life.
W: We have had a lot of chats over the years about the ways trans and gender-diverse people get pipelined into the prison system, and the conditions that create that. What part can access to gender-affirming care and support play in preventing our community from becoming criminalised?
K: The trans community are already a marginalised community. When you’re a trans person who is criminalised, you are minority in a minority. It’s already hard enough to get employment as a trans person without people judging you or having to deal with transphobic views.
So if you’re already disadvantaged in life, you can’t get a job and you’re isolated and being treated like shit, it’s easy to start using drugs to self-medicate or steal to survive or end up doing work that is heavily persecuted by police, like sex work. Unfortunately, we end up in prison a lot of the time because of the way we are treated by society.
Having access to support and care that was gender-affirming would have a huge effect. I can draw from my own experience because I know it so well. If I had support and access to it early on, it would have changed my whole outlook. You’re your own worst enemy, especially when you’re trying to repress who you are or trying to hide it, and just feeling absolutely miserable in your own skin because you know you are not the person you’re looking at in the mirror.
Having access to gender-affirming care is literally life-changing. It’s not just gender-affirming, it’s life-affirming. If people are happy with themselves, they are less likely to do destructive things to themselves or to others. I think giving people opportunities will only see them benefit from it. You wouldn’t withhold life-saving medication for any other condition, why would you withhold gender-affirming care from someone who has gender dysphoria and is suffering?
W: Yes absolutely!
You also spent your whole time in prison inside the men’s system. You came out in that system. What was coming out in that environment like for you?
K: Incredibly scary! It was incredibly un-affirming at the start because you’re not believed by the prison, or people don’t understand – you’re judged. I had to make a decision: it was either come out or kill myself. They were my two options; they were the two options on the table and each one looked as good as the other. So, I had to make a choice.
I am so glad I made the decision to live my authentic, true self. Being in such a binary environment – probably the most binary environment in the world, literally – really helped to reaffirm who I was. Being a woman in a men’s prison, I knew clearly I wasn’t one of them. I am not a man; I never was and I never will be. And I thought, I’ll be damned if I spend the next seven years of my life sitting in a men’s prison pretending to be someone I’m not.
I knew the risks. Well, I thought I knew the risks. I suppose I thought in the back of my mind I can just kill myself. So I just took the leap, and I did it, and I never looked back. Best decision I ever made – as fucked up as that sounds.
W: God I am so glad you made that decision, as hard as it has been. I am so glad you are here. The amount of fucking courage it took to do that, because you’re absolutely right, there isn’t a more binary institution.
K: There isn’t! And you know what gets me is Corrections segregates “men” and “women”, but then they twist those rules when it comes to trans people, and they place trans women in protective custody because they claim it is safer, but it is actually much more unsafe.
Protective custody usually consists of people who have particularly violent charges, especially in the men’s system where there are a lot of guys who have been known to be violent towards women. The detrimental effects of placing trans women in men’s prisons increases the daily risk of rape, sexual assault and violence. It just doesn’t make sense in terms of safety at all, but it somehow makes sense to Corrections.
W: It seems there is a complete double standard when it comes to risk and safety for trans women when it comes to placement. It’s an acceptable risk to place women in the men’s system where there is a very real risk of harm, but trans women are rarely allowed to go to the women’s prison. If trans women are allowed, it is usually straight into solitary confinement where suddenly risk is considered only in the context of trans women being a presumed threat to cis women. So, it makes total sense in the context of transmisogyny right?
K: Yes exactly!
W: As you are someone who has accessed support from the Incarcerated Trans and Gender Diverse (ITGD) Community Fund, I wanted to know your thoughts on the fund and why you think it is necessary for our community inside and coming out.
K: I see the ITGD fund as an absolute lifeline of community generosity for trans people inside. It has overwhelmed me beyond belief, it still overwhelms me, to know how many people care enough to donate their money to trans and gender-diverse people affected by incarceration. It has helped me like you couldn’t believe. It gave me a kickstart, it gave me a leg up when I got out and had nothing. I will be forever thankful for the support being able to access the fund has meant for me and for other people I know who have accessed that fund.
Sometimes for those who are inside, it’s the difference between being able to access your underwear, because while the prison rules say you have access to them, you have to be able to fund it. Or the fund helps you just buy things to get you by, whether that’s your favourite chocolate, or makeup to help manage gender dysphoria or make you feel better about yourself. It helps people access rental accommodation or a fridge, or gender-affirming treatment when they get out. Just basic resources, things that you can’t access unless we have this fund.
The community support with this fund has been unbelievable, it still blows my mind how generous everyone has been and continues to be.
W: Our community is beautiful.
K: I looked on the page the other day and someone had donated $1000 anonymously. It’s incredible!
W: Yes, there are so many people that really fucking care and you and all our community inside and coming out deserve that support. As much as I have had to convince you of this.
K: Hmm. I am learning [laughs].
W: Yes we have had many talks! In thinking about community, can you tell me what it means to you?
K: Community is acceptance. Community is allies. Belonging. Being able to connect with your community, access support – it is everything. To be able to draw on each other as community to support each other, for resources, for help – it is life-changing. It is the reason why we are sitting here talking today.
Community is us. Everyone who is going to read this, is community. You and me are community. We are the ones as community who have made change in the past and we are the ones who can make change in the future. Hopefully anyone reading this is inspired to make change by continuing to build our community by supporting each other. Because everyone is capable of doing good in the world, but we all need help sometimes. We have to back each other.
W: That was so beautifully said, Katie.
Okay, I’ve got a big question to end on. If you could imagine a world where prison and police didn’t exist, what would that world look like?
K: A lot fucking happier [laughs].
I dream of the day when communities sort out their own problems together. When we don’t need people sitting in offices somewhere making decisions about how other people should be treated when they have no idea what it is like to be those other people, nor if they were in that position would they want that to happen to them.
I think a world without prisons would be a safer world and a happier world. The amount of the money that is spent on corrections, prisons and policing is just wild.
If you have people in poverty who can’t access good healthcare, who are doing it tough, who are addicted to substances or are impacted by trauma, you have to address the actual issues, not just punish them when they do something wrong. You can’t expect those issues to be addressed when you remove someone from society for extended periods of time, traumatise them and then expect someone to be in a better space than before… it doesn’t make sense. You have to fix problems from the root cause.
The Beyond Bricks & Bars: Trans and Gender Diverse Decarceration Project is sustained by community donations and can only continue to provide trans-led support to trans and gender-diverse people in prison, at risk of incarceration, and returning to their communities from prison with your assistance. To support this crucial life-affirming and life-saving work, you can donate here.
This article first appeared in Archer Magazine #18, the INCARCERATION issue.
Witt Gorrie (he/they) is a white trans social worker and Dad based in Naarm. They have worked for over a decade supporting communities impacted by criminalisation. Witt began developing Beyond Bricks & Bars: Trans and Gender Diverse Decarceration Project five years ago alongside trans and gender diverse people incarcerated in Victorian prisons. They are also a committed member of the Incarcerated Trans and Gender Diverse Community Fund, a mutual aid project that provides financial and material aid to community inside and out.
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