Friday, August 14, 2009

Trans Women In Male Prisons: Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Trans women constitute a very vulnerable section of penal populations.  Despite the fact that gender is not determined by genitalia, the state has been insistent upon housing pre-op trans women in male prisons.  This can and does lead to violence and rape.  Using the presence of a penis as a determinate of gender status, denies the right of trans women to decide on the configuration of their bodies and further denies their femininity.  

image After being subject to rape on several occasions and being cut,  Katherine Anne Johnson is demanding that corrections Canada pay for SRS surgery.  She has already had her testicles removed and has made repeated attempts to remove her penis using razors etc.,  She has also reported having suicidal thoughts. 

If Ms. Johnson can have her penis removed, she will be able to be housed in a women's prison.  As a resident of a male penitentiary, Ms. Johnson reports isolating herself in her cell, missing meals and showers.  This cannot possibly be good for her mental health.

The article regarding her plight, made a point of emphasizing why she has been imprisoned and while I feel for the victims of Ms. Johnson’s actions; it has nothing to do with the fact that Ms. Johnson is now herself a victim, living in what can be understood to be an untenable situation. 

"I have been forced to go along with having sex with men in prison for protection to avoid being killed or raped by other men. I am terrified of being around men," she says.

Corrections Canada has a responsibility to keep this woman safe.  If we hold to the concept that we are not a barbarous society, then what Ms. Johnson has been forced to live with is completely unacceptable.  I fully comprehend that part of the reason prisons exist is to punish those that have offended society in some manner, however; withholding necessary medical treatment is not humane.

Trans people in prison that sue to have their surgeries completed are often constructed as “pulling a fast one”, or deserving of being forced to live in a body that does not represent their gender,  however; this attitude completely displays a false understanding of the ways in which oppositional sexism creates the trans community as marginalized bodies and further promotes the idea of genitalia as a determinant of identity.

Ms. Johnson has lived as a woman since the late seventies and to house her with men is cruel and unusual punishment.  Once someone becomes imprisoned we have a tendency to believe that their crime constitutes the totality of their being and therefore we are quick to disregard their human rights.  This is especially true when a person has an identity that we have almost universally decided to “other”.  No one is their worst act and often times we are socially culpable of creating the conditions under which people break the law. 

Punishment should never mean rape, or a denial of medical services.  We have separated criminals from general society because we believe that we stand in a position of moral superiority, however this notion is severely degraded if we in turn treat them as disposable bodies with no regard to their humanity.  It is my hope that Ms.Johnson receive the care that she needs and that no other trans woman be subjected to such clearly dangerous and alienating conditions. 

H/T Jen via e-mail