My experience as a trans woman forced to live in a men’s prison in Washington State is barbaric and dehumanizing. Imagine living in a place where men surround you and you never feel at home. Trans women are at risk of being sexually and physically assaulted, as well as suicidal thoughts. It is a different thing to be in segregation for a prolonged period of time. It is painful.
2015 saw international standards being changed. The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules of Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules), defined segregation of more that 15 days as a violation of human right.
Washington State prison officials have been working for years on restrictive housing reforms. Leadership seems to be making good faith efforts to follow science by making research-informed choices. Evidence suggests that segregation causes severe mental and physical harm to inmates. This increases the risk of suicide and self-harm. Staff members may also be affected by segregation. Studies show that disciplinary segregation doesn’t work to change behavior. Some studies suggest that it might. increase misconduct.
The Washington State Department of Corrections announced in recent reforms that disciplinary segregation will be abolished in September 2021. This means that the DOC will no longer place prisoners in segregation to punish them. Inaccurate reporting by media outlets claimed that the DOC had stopped using segregation. This prompted the DOC to issue a response. press release stating, “The department continues to utilize segregation for non-disciplinary purposes such as investigations, safety, protective custody, and classifications.”
All the prisoners I spoke to agreed with me that disciplinary separation is the most harmful form of segregation. It is therefore felt like an insignificant incremental change. The two types of segregation that prisoners agree are more harmful — administrative segregation and max custody — are still used.
For safety and security reasons, administrative segregation is used by prison officials to identify prisoners and allow them to reclassify or transfer to another facility. Administrative segregation can be measured in days or may last for several weeks.
Max custody is a long term classification that lasts several months to even years before prisoners can be housed in general population.
Regardless of how long they are in segregation, or what language is used to describe them, the practices are eerily the same and all take place in the same place: The Intensive Management Unit (IMU). Here prisoners occupy indestructible cells that appear to be ready for violence. Prisoners are required to spend at most 22 hours per day in their cells, with very few, if any, allowables.
Prisoners are placed in metal restraints, or shackles, when they are taken from the cell. They are then escorted by two to three guards. Restraints are not subject to individualized decisions, except in extreme cases of increased security and more guards.
I was a minimum-custody classified trans woman preparing to be released in May 2022, who was being housed in a higher-security men’s unit due to prison consolidation efforts. I don’t bother anyone. I am a vulnerable, trans woman who prefers to be alone in this environment. I’m usually with another transwoman in the big yard when I’m not in my cell.
One day, a staff member accused me of telling others in the yard that they don’t need to wear a mask. The man demanded to see my body and ordered me stand while the guards were instructed how to transport me.
I don’t have the right to refuse orders. Refusing to submit could result in a harsher punishment. Staff may resort to using force if necessary. I can’t describe how scary that feels for a trans woman on her own with no idea what strangers in uniforms are thinking.
I was placed in administrative segregation for the “safety and security” of the institution.
As a part of DOC efforts to reform restrictive housing, or segregation, it formed a partnership with the Vera Institute of Justice for the initiative “Safe Prisons, Safe Communities: From Isolation to Dignity and Wellness Behind Bars.” Impacts of the partnership include a 57 percent reduction of staff assaults and a 45 percent reduction in prisoner self-harm and suicide, according to the Vera Institute report. The Vera Institute report reveals that there have been updates to the policy that limits administrative segregation’s use and the length of its duration. Administrative segregation can now only be used for those who “pose a significant threat.” One goal of the partnership is to eliminate the use of administrative segregation for “particularly vulnerable populations.” Particularly vulnerable populations are commonly defined as those with serious mental illness, trans identified, or pregnant women.
I was in administrative segregation when I was given an infraction for inciting or engaging in a group demonstration. I had a hearing. I was found guilty despite the fact that none of the officers involved in the incident gave a witness statement, which is very unusual, Attorney Danny Waxwing later heard the audio of the hearing and stated that there was no evidence. It was one man’s unsupported word against mine.
For argument’s sake, let’s say the claims against me are true. You’ve got a nonviolent incident that amounts to a woman talking. There was no demonstration. I tried to communicate with staff to explain that I have never been indicted for not masking, have been fully vaccinated, and support masking. I’m not a significant threat. I have not been able to communicate with the high-ranking staff that placed me in administrative segregation.
Recent DOC administrative segregation reforms limit it to no more than 30 days. Administrative segregation is where prisoners can remain if it is necessary for them to be transferred to a secure facility. This “classification” process can take much longer than 30 days.
I was classified minimum-custody while in a men’s medium-security unit. This means that I was a low-security prisoner who was kept in a unit for dangerous prisoners. Even though I am still eligible for minimum custody, staff used administrative power to degrade me to medium custody. They classified me as a more hazardous prisoner and made me eligible to return to the unit where I was previously housed. I was kept in administrative segregation and not allowed to return home to the general population.
I am not a “significant threat” and it is not necessary to transfer me to a more secure facility. I was in segregation for 30 days when I began writing this story. It took me 71 days to finally be transferred to a population in another prison.
A trans woman, who was being held in the IMU, told me that she had been there since April 2021. Her mental and emotional state appeared to be worsening after being in administrative segregation for six months. She admitted to me that she sometimes wears a headband around her eyes so officers can’t tell she is crying. Her attempts to conceal her crying remind me of my own strategy to bite down on my pillow as I sob so others don’t hear me.
It is called “safety” or “classification” and not “discipline,” but the use of segregation for extended periods of time is a violation of international standards amounting to torture, according to the UN Nelson Mandela rules.
A DOC document titled “Elimination of Disciplinary Segregation Frequently Asked Questions” stresses that administrative segregation is not to be used as de facto disciplinary segregation. It is only for those who pose a danger to others. Important risk and that, “If people commit non-violent infractions, or even if they commit a more serious infraction but have calmed down and no longer pose a threat, they should NotSend it to [administrative segregation].” According to this document, I should not be in segregation, yet I was.
According to the Vera Institute initiativeLong-term goals include the elimination of restrictive housing for more than 15 days. This would place Washington State prisons in line with international standards. They want to end restrictive housing entirely at women’s prisons while implementing gender-responsive reforms.
In place of segregation, the DOC wants to use “meaningful sanctions” that are more effective at discouraging negative behavior, with an emphasis on limiting what may be harmful, such as sanctions that restrict contact with family, including visits or phone calls. The risk of recidivism is reduced when there is more contact with family and community. Therefore, removing these things could be counterproductive to safety goals. The DOC also expressed a desire to increase incentives and privilegesThe effectiveness of, which has been proven to be more effective at changing behavior that sanctions.
All of these policy changes and goals sound good, but my objective experience shows that prison officials don’t always carry out policy reforms the way they are intended. As a trans woman in a men’s prison, I don’t get a gender-responsive approach. Even though I am a nonviolent and vulnerable person, I’m considered too dangerous to be part of the general prison population.
Speaking of “meaningful sanctions,” I was sanctioned for 30 days of loss of yard time at my hearing. Since the incident happened in the yard, which I frequent, that is a textbook example of a “meaningful sanction.” The punishment involves loss of valued yard privileges as a result of negative behavior that occurred in the yard. That didn’t happen. Instead, I was placed in administrative segregation for 71 consecutive days before being transferred to another prison.
After spending 18 years in prison for a domestic abuse-related crime, I am due to be released in May. Administrative segregation affects my health, interferes with my ability to release planning, and increases my risk of recidivism. It also reduces access to phone calls, visits, and other safety-related activities.
In addition to the lack of judgement by prison officials used in my instance, it seems extremely obtuse to do this for a well-educated journalist. I can conduct my ethnography and amplify my voice.
This could have been solved by a simple conversation. Since I can’t get that, I’ll try an exposé. It’s long distance communication via speakerphone. I’m bringing others into the conversation and putting administrative bullies on blast.