Prisoners usually enjoy sharing their pictures, reliving their lives before everything went south, showing that they inhabited a robust, colorful existence beyond the current beige soup of the day.
Faith, a transgender inmate, liked showing her photographs, and I didn’t blame her. She and her friends from before prison were glamorous, beautiful people in designer clothes, amidst posh surroundings. Back then, Faith resembled Josephine Baker and wore fierce outfits.
But when she was showing her photos, I noticed that Faith looked expectantly at her viewer. How did they respond to Faith’s makeup and outfit, or her friends and their beaus? Would their eyes betray a longing for the bodacious bodies? Would they ask if that was a transgender person?
As any transgender woman, Faith wanted to “pass” — to be accepted by the world as the woman she knew she was. The opposite of passing, “getting spooked” is the trans person’s greatest fear. It entails walking towards someone at a distance, then being discovered up close and personal by the mortified admirer. Getting spooked has resulted in trans women being bludgeoned to death.
Now obviously, in prison it’s different. Even the most feminine, curvaceous trans woman can’t pass as a female in a men’s prison. She’s spooked off the rip … if you’re here, you were born a dude. The empress has no clothes, and she knows we know. So you’d think a maximum security men’s prison might not be the friendliest atmosphere for trans women. And that is probably true, in general terms.
Since 2010, I’ve worked as a peer counselor, most recently in the six-week reentry program for those soon to be released. We cover such topics as job interview skills, resumes, county-specific reentry resources, family reintegration, money management, and the like. My supervisor, a civilian counselor with about a hundred inmates on her regular caseload, doesn’t have time to directly supervise us. It’s just my coworker, Jose, and me inhabiting roles of informal authority.
I’m anxious before a new reentry cycle begins. Will I be up to the task of helping parolees remain at liberty? Will I be able to manage the young, gang-related, self-medicated rowdies who consider coming back to prison a foregone conclusion, a repetitive rite of passage, and dismiss most everything I have to say?
When I learned Faith was to begin our next cycle, I had an added concern. How would the group respond when I used a female pronoun to refer to her? In the previous cycle, several young men had openly mocked a middle-aged white guy for nothing more than his annoying nasal tone of voice. They were like jackals on prey every time he opened his mouth, so he learned to keep quiet.
In years past, I’d had much younger transgender women in the weeklong orientation group I ran, but reentry is a longer program, requiring interaction between group members. Also, the trans women in orientation were much younger so shared frames of references with many of their peers. Faith was fifty-three years old, going grey at the temples and old enough to be their mother. Her petite breasts would not go unnoticed, but they weren’t the heavy jugs that I’d seen lull young men (including yours truly) into an ogling silence.
As I’d feared, the reentry class of fourteen contained four wild boys – gang members in their twenties who sat together and seemed to suffer from collective ADHD. Halfway through the first day, Faith raised her hand. Come what may, I thought. She made a level remark that wasn’t shouted down. Expanding on Faith’s remark, Steve-O referred to Faith as “her,” and the rowdies didn’t give him guff. There was no teeth-sucking or snickering. Perhaps they didn’t hear, or they let it pass because Steve-O was respected. He was young and hip, a bona fide recording artist who, sadly, was in my reentry group eight months prior, and had done a hot five months on the street before his parole officer returned him to prison for seven months as punishment for curfew violations and crossing state lines without permission.
At the end of the day, we played People Bingo, an ice breaker that differs from regular Bingo in that each of the squares describes a person who the Bingo player must find. For example, one square reads “someone who can name five members of the Wu-Tang Clan” – and so that player has to go around the room and find someone who meets that requirement. I made fifteen different game boards. We offer candy to the first person who fills up the entire board, so the guys get into it.
Five minutes into the game, Ghost, one of the four rowdies, came up to me looking forlorn: “I only got one square left to find.” And the blank square read: someone who has a gay friend or family member.
“Dude,” I said, “that’s a no-brainer. Go ask Faith.”
“But, I don’t want to disrespect her,” Ghost said.
I was floored. He didn’t want to disrespect … her. I didn’t know which word to be happier about. Chortling like Scrooge having been given a new lease on life, I said, “Go, man, she won’t feel disrespected.”
Ghost went to Faith, and won the game (he didn’t know that I gave him more candy than usual). If that were network television, the camera would’ve shot from above as a syrupy song played and the credits rolled.
A guard came to the door and told us it was time to leave. I followed the group out, feeling relieved, nay, joyous and proud of these young men, who, despite their myriad faults, were tolerant and respectful.
But that nice fellow feeling lasted all of thirty seconds, until we all reached the metal detectors as a group. Every time we leave the building we are subjected to a TSA-grade screening, and the contents of our pockets go on long tables for inspection. One guard picked up Faith’s ID card, and showed it to his coworkers with a sneer, “Look at Miss Thing.” On the whole, they are as tolerant of trans people as your average Internet troll.
I intentionally brushed the side of the metal detector, setting it off, pulling their attention away from Faith.
The group listened when Faith later offered savvy, hard-won advice on how to turn a parole officer from an adversary into something of an ally. It felt like I was witnessing societal change, acceptance of trans people. Granted, this is social commentary from a 39-year-old, but the younger generation certainly appears more accepting.
So I was surprised when Faith said to me in private, “These young men scare me.” She and I were walking back one afternoon when she said this. What, I asked, wasn’t I seeing? It wasn’t her group mates, she said, but changes in the prison demographic.
Yes, there does seem greater acceptance of gays and trans girls. But inmates are now coming in as teenagers with decades-long sentences, and those young men are often gang-affiliated, have the attention span of gnats, need constant stimulation (thanks Internet!), use heavier drugs (see bath salts, K2, and synthetic cannabinoids), and are prone to nonsensical violence. When I went away in 1999, a beef rarely escalated beyond a fistfight, but when it did, the knives came out, and guys swung to kill. Today, these kids are the pits: they manage to get surgical scalpels (titanium and ceramic blades are undetectable by the prison’s ubiquitous metal detectors), and use them so frequently that guards and cons alike refer to the behavior as Razor Tag.
One such lowlife was housed on Faith’s tier, pending a move to Protective Custody for not paying his drug bills. Going to PC is a permanent mark of shame for prisoners, and his former mates were harassing this gang-affiliated youngster. To get to PC quicker, he “picked a Herb” (someone appearing to be defenseless) and splashed Faith as she walked past his cell. The boiling liquid, whatever it was, left burn splatters on her face and arms. It also traumatized her, since any one of the hundreds of cells she’s forced to walk by each day could contain another attacker. She was spooked, but in the conventional sense of the word.
It is my outside observer’s luxury to ponder social trends. However, all politics is local, and if you’re the one victimized, it’s hard to feel warm and cozy about the big picture.
In fact, the reason Faith was moved to the tier where she got burned was because she was being tormented by guards in 3-Block: they confiscated her bra during an unauthorized cell search, and minced around with it over their uniforms. “It’s not like the old days,” she told me. “Guards can’t just intimidate me and my sisters, baby.” She wrote to an administrator, and was moved to a safer cellblock, but even there she didn’t feel safe. Given the burning incident, I didn’t blame her. The day after a particularly ugly fight in the yard, Faith said to me, “I want to be transferred. I have no business being in a maximum security prison.”
She put in a lawsuit against the Department, seeking damages for the burn she sustained – should a judge agree that she had no business in a max, her settlement will be that much greater.
It turned out that Faith got in trouble in a medium security prison; she worked in an office, and was found to be improperly using a networked computer. Normally that would result in being fired, confined to one’s cube (like an office cubicle, but with a bed and foot locker), and losing commissary and phone privileges, but she was sent to solitary, and transferred to this max.
The move would make sense later, when a counselor candidly told her that, unofficially, the Department finds it easier to house trans people in a max. It accompanied changes in the system. Time was, one had to be taking Hormone Replacement Therapy on the street for it to be continued in prison. Now, one can start HRT after going away – pending an exhaustive six-hour interview with a psychologist. These accommodations and sensitivity training for staff has led to pushback from the powerful guards’ union.
Faith admitted that guards in the medium [security] had to keep closer watch over her, especially at night, when suitors pitched woo. Tier cube was nearest to the guards’ post. She had to be provided special shower time in the dorm’s bathroom, when none of the other inmates were allowed in. It’s not surprising that the Department wants trans women in maxes [maximum-security prisons] where there are single-occupancy cells, less communal situations, and closer supervision. Yet that also brings the restrictions and negative atmosphere of a max. The trans women here are afforded showers (alone) in the cellblock as opposed to the communal bathhouse with the rest of us schnooks. That’s where the upside ends.
Prison is hard enough for me as a straight, white male who doesn’t (normally) have to deal with unwanted advances, being ostracized, discrimination in terms of job assignments and housing location, the pain of being separated from a partner.
What I take for granted, they have to devote time and energy to. Take, for instance, my trans friend Johanna, whom I stumbled upon one night in the yard. She was sitting cross-legged at the table, practically bouncing, needing to pee. This was around the time that North Carolina made news for its transphobic law regarding bathroom usage. The bathroom in the yard has a row of toilets and a bank of shower heads with no privacy, only a Plexiglas frontage, like a diorama.
“What are you going to do?” I said to Johanna.
“I’m gonna pee,” she said. Yet she didn’t jump up. Johanna and Paris, who’s openly gay, agreed that it was optimal to pee before leaving the cell, so no one accused them of cruising.
In that moment, I wanted to be Johanna’s designated pisser. Leaving her and Paris to their strategizing, I thought about Faith, and wondered if the bathroom was one of the reasons she rarely came to the yard. Whatever the reason, she wouldn’t be subjected to it much longer. By the time you read this, she’ll have been released.
As exotic as Faith was in here, her hopes mirrored those of the rest of the group, wildboys included: reconnect with loved ones, eat a good meal, land a decent job, get laid, stay safe, complete parole. How happily-ever-after Faith’s story ends is anyone’s guess. On top of being a fifty-something ex-con (three bids for check fraud), she returns to a heteronormative society where it can be downright deadly to live as a trans woman. Try walking a mile in those pumps.