Prison is Still Prison

by George

SB 132, california’s Transgender Respect, Agency, and Dignity Act became effective on January 1. The new law requires the california department of corrections and rehabilitation (cdcr) to ask newly incarcerated people about their gender identity and preferred gender pronouns. Incarcerated people will also have the right to apply for gender appropriate housing in prisons and to state a preference for the gender of guard who will perform body searches.

As UV readers are well aware, transgender and queer people are continually endangered in most prisons. The statistics are grim. Depending on the study, transwomen in men’s prisons have a risk of sexual assault or rape up to 13 times that of cis male prisoners. Almost 60 percent of transwomen reported being sexually abused. Many UV subscribers are part of formal and informal groups of incarcerated people who have banded together for safety and support.

The federal Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 was intended to reduce sexual violence but the federal government didn’t adopt implementing regulations until 2012. In 2014, cdcr started tracking sexual assaults and harassment of incarcerated people by either staff or other inmates. Not surprisingly less than 4 percent in any year of staff on inmate attacks were considered “substantiated,” and the numbers are not much better for assaults and harassment by inmates, while the majority of attacks still go unreported. According to cdcr, there are currently four employees statewide whose job is to track PREA compliance and prepare the annual audits affecting a prison population that as of October 1, 2020 was almost 98,000 in adult prisons. This number is reduced from the previous 115,000-125,000 in 2019 due to efforts to contain the enormous outbreak of COVID 19, which as of March 13, has now infected a total of over 49,000 state prisoners. Some of the state’s apparent reduction in the adult prison population is due to delaying transfers from county jails.  

cdcr started tracking gender identity in 2014, when there were 131 incarcerated people who cdcr had identified as transgender. In 2019, there were 1,178. Trans prisoners are often placed in solitary (“administrative segregation” or “ad-seg”), either for their “safety” or because they have stood up to being addressed by the wrong name or pronoun, or have resisted attacks. 

Although the bill is in effect now, there is no structure for implementation yet. cdcr has requested additional money to implement the bill for the state fiscal year that starts in July, and would add five full time positions and two temporary positions in the headquarters units of the division of adult institutions. california correctional health care services (cchcs) would create a new permanent half-time physician position and two temporary positions. cdcr is planning to do a one-hour training for most of the guards and other employees on transgender issues, and two hours for supervisors, paid for in large part by a federal grant.

If the budget increases are approved, then cdcr will create a gender questionnaire to be used at intake, and to be used when an incarcerated person requests changes in their housing or searching. cdcr will set up a process to review requests, which involves several layers of review and approval. If cdcr denies the request, there will be an appeals process that will likely be as effective as other cdcr administrative appeals processes. The bill doesn’t specifically address youth facilities and the budget proposal doesn’t address them either.

The bill, sponsored by scott weiner, was first introduced in 2019, and, after passing the senate and being partially acted on in the assembly, was put on inactive status in September 2019. It was reactivated in August 2020, passed by the legislature, and signed by governor newsom. Oregon, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York City, Massachusetts, Washington DC, and some counties including Harris county in texas, and los angeles and san francisco, have policies or laws providing some protection for trans people in jails or prisons. Thanks in part to Chelsea Manning, the federal bureau of prisons also has some policies regarding transpeople. SB 132 doesn’t cover county jails.

As Cece McDonald, a Black transwoman who was incarcerated for over three years for self-defense, commented to Truthout in the article California Law Is Step Forward But Fails to Guarantee Safety for Trans Prisoners , “Prison is prison. Who’s to say that trans women wouldn’t be raped in a women’s prison? We know that rape culture is thriving. In prison, everyone is a target.” She also challenged “the idea that being in a women’s prison would have kept her safer. ‘The idea that cisgender and cis-het [cisgender-heterosexual] women are less racist is a very toxic and debilitating notion…’”.

cdcr is not noted for implementing programs that protect incarcerated people, from sexual assault and other forms of violence, or from unlivable housing and working conditions. LAGAI was with many other activists outside California’s prisons over 30 years ago demanding appropriate treatment for HIV+ people, who were too often left to die — suffering and alone. The cdcr administrative review processes have failed in almost every instance, and any progress, such as in prison health care, has required not only lawsuits, but constant monitoring by the courts. The deplorable actions by cdcr that have spread COVID-19 throughout the prison population are another indication of how seriously we can expect them to take SB 132.

Still, we must insist that cdcr live up to the promise of SB 132, and protect incarcerated trans and queer people, and all people caught up in this wretched prison-industrial complex.

Free Them All — No More Cages!

Author: lagai

LAGAI-Queer Insurrection is one of the oldest radical queer liberation groups in the U.S. We publish UltraViolet, a more or less bimonthly newspaper, which is mailed free of charge to over 1500 people, including over 800 prisoners. Our website is

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