Incarcerated Transgender Women’s Lives Must Matter
As Kamala Harris begins her presidential run, her move to block gender affirming surgery for an incarcerated transgender woman deserves scrutiny, especially as new cases highlighting the struggle for the rights of imprisoned trans women emerge.
When Kamala Harris announced her run for president on Jan. 21, a reporter asked her about the 2015 case of Michelle-Lael Norsworthy, a trans woman incarcerated in California’s prison system who petitioned prison officials to grant her request for gender affirming surgery. In 2015, Harris was California’s attorney general and her office filed a request in federal court to halt a court ruling that ordered Norsworthy’s surgery, arguing that “there is no evidence that irreversible treatment is immediately necessary before this appeal can be heard.” Nearly four years later, Harris didn’t answer the question about Norsworthy. In response to the reporter, Harris replied “it was an office with a lot of people … and do I wish that sometimes they would have personally consulted me before they wrote the things that they wrote? Yes, I do.” Harris then added that she “worked behind the scenes to ensure that the Department of Corrections would allow transitioning inmates to receive the medical attention that they required, they needed and deserved.”
Harris’s move to block the surgery was unsuccessful: Norsworthy was the first incarcerated trans person in California (and the second in the U.S.) to win a court ruling that granted a request for surgery. But Harris’s motion to stay a judge’s mandatory preliminary injunction ordering prison officials to provide her with “sex reassignment surgery as promptly as possible” is representative of the way in which the carceral system acts as a site of gendered and sexual control. Prison officials frequently deny access to gender-affirming care including hormone therapy and gender surgeries in addition to gender-affirming clothing, cosmetics, and speech therapy. Transition-related medical care is often not understood as health-affirming and necessary despite demonstrable improvements to the quality of life of many trans people who desire it. As medical groups and government agencies—including the American Psychiatric Association and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs—acknowledge the necessity of transition-related medical care, arguments made by the likes of Harris limiting access to it become even less defensible.
When not confronted with threats to their health in prisons and jails, trans, nonbinary and gender nonconforming individuals face the prospect of life-threatening violence: A study of California prisons found that trans women housed in male facilities are more than 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other prisoners. Too often, the response to such threats by prison and jail officials is to house LGBTQ people in solitary confinement “for their own safety.” But according to international human rights organizations, mental health professionals, and incarcerated people themselves, solitary confinement is torture and is often used as a means of retaliation by the state.
“I am not alone in this struggle”
On Jan. 7, a 33-year-old Black trans woman named Candice Crowder filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court alleging that she spent nine months in solitary confinement after she reported that she was raped by a cellmate while in the custody of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). The lawsuit amends an August 2017 complaint filed by Crowder alleging that while in CDCR custody, she “endured extreme abuse, trauma, discrimination, and retaliation,” which included sexual assault, death threats, and “being deliberately placed in harm’s way by correctional staff.”
Crowder’s ordeal began in August 2015 when she was housed in California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility at Corcoran State Prison with a man who she said harassed her and forced her to perform sex acts on him. On Sept. 13, 2015, according to the lawsuit, Crowder’s cellmate raped her. After reporting the assaults, Crowder was placed in solitary confinement for approximately nine months. Crowder sought to press charges against the cellmate and when she demanded medical attention, she was reportedly told that it “was unnecessary because the incident had occurred four months prior.” Years later, Crowder was informed by prison officials that her rape case had been closed just days after it was opened.
On Sept. 15, 2016, Crowder was transferred to the California Medical Facility where she encountered a former boyfriend who she said threatened to kill her and later slashed her in a dining hall with a box cutter. After the attack, Crowder was placed in isolation again and began experiencing seizures. In her lawsuit, Crowder describes how correctional staff blamed her for her assault and said “it was her fault for choosing to live a transgender ‘lifestyle’” and that she was “asking for it.” When Crowder was finally able to access medical care, she received 63 stitches and 14 staples in her head; the brutality of the attack caused significant hearing loss in her right ear and chronic pain.
“I am not alone in this struggle,” Crowder said in a statement released by her attorneys. “I refuse to be silenced while correctional staff harm me and my community. Unfortunately, my resilience has come at a great cost. I hope that CDCR finally realizes it has a problem and takes meaningful action to address its anti-LGBTQ culture so that no more transgender prisoners have to endure what I have survived.”
Recently, the #MeToo movement promised a much more expansive fight against sexual violence. But Crowder and Norsworthy—who was serving a sentence for second-degree murder—remind us that we cannot abandon so-called “difficult victims” like incarcerated people, particularly incarcerated women and particularly incarcerated trans women.