New Jersey Rolls Back Protections for Trans Prisoners

After a wave of tabloid coverage about pregnancies involving a trans prisoner at a women’s facility, officials gave themselves more power to deny housing placements consistent with gender identity.

New Jersey Rolls Back Protections for Trans Prisoners

After a wave of tabloid coverage about pregnancies involving a trans prisoner at a women’s facility, officials gave themselves more power to deny housing placements consistent with gender identity.

New Jersey prison officials have quietly rolled back a policy that made it easier for transgender people to be housed in facilities that align with their gender identity, following a media firestorm over a trans woman who impregnated two other prisoners at the state’s only women’s prison.

Under an amended policy issued by the New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC) in October and provided to The Appeal in December, incarcerated people are given a “rebuttable presumption” to be housed according to their gender identity—meaning prison officials can override their preference. The policy outlines specific factors the agency may use to justify placing trans prisoners in facilities that do not match their gender identity, which now include “reproductive considerations.”

The changes came months after an uproar sparked by news in April that two women at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women were impregnated following sexual relationships with Demi Minor, a 27-year-old trans woman who was also housed at the facility. NJDOC has maintained that the relationships were “consensual,” though the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) defines all sexual contact between prisoners—including consensual acts—as misconduct.

Much of the coverage of the pregnancies was highly sensational, if not blatantly transphobic. The New York Post wrote in August that Minor was “either a martyr to the transgender cause — or a cold-blooded killer who got involved in a messy love triangle behind bars.” Minor is serving a 30-year prison sentence for killing her foster father, who she “wrongly blamed at the time for the sexual abuse she suffered while under his care,” according to Minor’s Justice For Demi blog.

Black Enterprise, an online news website, referred to Minor as a “Transgender Woman Inmate With Manparts.” The Daily Mail, an enthusiastic cog in the United Kingdom’s virulently transphobic media machine, used Minor’s case to make outlandish and unsupported claims that trans women were driving sexual assaults in U.S. prisons.

In a phone interview with The Appeal, Minor characterized her punishment as discriminatory and accused officials of retaliating against her for broader security failures at the prison.

“In any prison setting, any correctional officer will tell you that inmates are engaged in relationships,” Minor said. “They’re trying to make it seem like transgender people are predators, like I was running around raping people. And that’s what touched me because I’m actually a victim of [past] sexual abuse.”

In June, officials transferred Minor to the Garden State Youth Correctional Facility, a state prison for men ages 18 to 30. Weeks after her transfer, Minor mutilated herself by attempting to remove one of her testicles with a razor. She said the incident was sparked by abuse she faced at the facility, as well as unreasonable delays she had experienced in receiving gender-affirming surgery.

In September, Minor wrote that she had been sanctioned to 275 days in “solitary” after prison officials said they found pills and a flash drive in a word processing device she owned. Although she was placed in a so-called “restorative housing unit,” advocates say the units—established to replace solitary confinement following the passage of a 2019 state law limiting the practice—are solitary by another name.

“It has been pure hell back here in solitary: lack of food, being sexually harassed and housed around men who flash their genitals and refer to me as ‘he-she bitch,’” Minor wrote. “I doubt that I will survive all of this.”

Minor is now housed in a “vulnerable population unit,” designated for at-risk populations in the prison, she told The Appeal. But she still fears for her safety.

“When I arrived, the unit was kinda empty and all the officers were saying that the unit was going to change because of me, and it did,” Minor said in an email. “Today the unit has men, mostly sex offenders and others who should never be around a woman.”

Minor has sued the state over the transfer. Her suit asks the court for emergency relief to remove her from the men’s prison and to order the state to provide her with gender-affirming surgery. She told The Appeal that she had been approved for top surgery as part of her medical transition.

NJDOC officials would not comment on Minor’s most recent housing assignment. In an email to The Appeal, they confirmed that she was housed at Garden State Youth Correctional Facility. They denied that any of the housing changes were solely due to Minor’s gender identity.

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The October NJDOC policy change came more than a year after the state settled a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of New Jersey over the agency’s treatment of transgender people in custody. The plaintiff in that case, a trans woman, had accused NJDOC of intentionally misgendering her and treating her “like a man,” by housing her in male facilities and denying her gender-appropriate commissary items. A June 2021 agreement stipulated that NJDOC would maintain a policy for at least a year giving trans prisoners the “presumption” to be housed according to their gender identity.

The new policy seems likely to further exacerbate the high levels of verbal, physical and sexual violence that incarcerated trans people face from fellow incarcerated people and prison officials alike. Trans people in prisons and jails are over five times more likely than the general population to be sexually assaulted by facility staff and over nine times more likely to be assaulted by other prisoners, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, the most recent iteration for which we have results. Almost 1 in 4 respondents reported being physically assaulted by staff or other prisoners; 1 in 5 reported being sexually assaulted.

Under federal PREA regulations adopted in 2012, prison officials are required to conduct intake interviews of transgender people to ask about topics including housing preferences, with follow-up interviews mandated every six months after. Officials must take those preferences into account when deciding where to incarcerate trans prisoners. Although the law gives prison officials leeway to override a prisoner’s preferred housing placement, the guidelines were seen as a landmark moment in the fight for the rights of transgender people in prison.

But reporting suggests the PREA has done little to improve conditions for trans prisoners. A 2020 NBC News investigation revealed that trans people are almost never placed in facilities that align with their gender identities, a trend that puts them at significant risk of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse.

A separate NBC News investigation found that incarcerated trans men also face disproportionate rates of assault, denials of gender-affirming care, and solitary confinement, while attracting far less visibility than trans women in prison.

The pregnancies at Edna Mahan stoked a long-standing debate that has often framed the humane treatment of transgender prisoners as a threat to the security of the rest of the population, especially in the case of trans women.

Officials wasted no time using the incident to justify rolling back statewide protections. In May, NJDOC’s acting commissioner Victoria Kuhn told reporters that the agency would be amending the policy on placing trans prisoners in facilities that align with their gender identity. Minor was transferred to the men’s facility less than two months later.

For Minor, the fight for safety and dignity is as much about her as it is about other trans people who are incarcerated.

“I think everybody agrees that no one deserves to be sexually abused in prison, and I don’t think that we should be throwing our most vulnerable population to the wolves,” Minor told The Appeal.

Demi Minor

In June 2022, Demi Minor was transferred from the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women to the Garden State Youth Correctional Facility, a state prison for young men.
Photo courtesy of Demi Minor.

For trans women like Minor, however, simply being housed in a women’s prison is not enough to guarantee safety. Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, in particular, has faced significant allegations of abuse. In 2021, prison guards carried out a night of violence disguised as cell extractions. Victims reported broken bones, bruises, and at least one sexual assault. More than 30 staffers were suspended and prosecutors have charged at least 14 officers for their roles in the beatings. Weeks later, a trans woman was treated for a concussion after officers shoved her into a wall and maced her, following an assault weeks earlier that impaired her mobility.

The high-profile reports of wanton physical and sexual abuse at Edna Mahan prompted the ouster of the previous NJDOC commissioner, and ultimately sparked a U.S. Department of Justice investigation that laid bare a broader pattern of misconduct carried out by state prison officials.

Against that backdrop, Minor says she fears NJDOC’s trans policy change will cause serious harm to transgender prisoners. And unlike her, she says most will be forced to suffer in silence.

“I’m able to articulate what’s going on, but other inmates are not and what they end up doing is cutting themselves or some commit suicide,” Minor said. “It’s a sad reality in here.”

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