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‘Reborn Into A Strange New World’: A Trans Woman Prepares For Release After 18 Years In Men’s Prison

An incarcerated writer reflects on what her “going home” story will look like when home no longer exists.

Open prison gate
Sayan Moongklang/iStock

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

My name is Jessica Phoenix Sylvia, and I am a trans woman who has been living in a men’s prison for the past 18 years.

After being incarcerated for nearly two decades on domestic violence charges, I am finally being released. I wish I had some wonderful “going home” story, but I don’t. I can never go home because home no longer exists.

The only world I know anymore is prison. For me, where I go after I leave here has more to do with where I won’t be than where I will.

The real world, as I remember it, is stuck in 2004. There was no Facebook, and I had a phone with a black-and-white screen. My official documents reflected my dead name, and I was living in bad faith, usually hiding my gender identity as a survival strategy even though I had come out as trans when I was 17. I am now 46.

Now it’s 2022, and I know nothing about the world outside these walls. I am an absurd time traveler from an alternative world with an incongruous history. My life skills are underdeveloped, and I have little understanding of routine activities.

My finely sharpened prison survival skills are useless in the real world. I know what to do if I am confronted by a violent person in the prison yard, yet the thought of learning to navigate Microsoft Word or Google Docs with a deadline looming makes me want to cry. Prison has disabled me. And as a trans woman who has spent so many years in a men’s prison, I have complex PTSD.

After several failed suicide attempts, I finally got the chance to access transition-related health care in 2017 and came out very publicly again that same year, vowing to live in good faith for the rest of my life as a proud trans woman. Despite having come out as a teenager, I frequently hid my gender identity as a coping strategy: I prioritized my safety over living in good faith.

Since transitioning, I have experienced a great deal of harassment and discrimination, which is why I decided to dedicate my life to speaking up and fighting back. I have been very active with the Trans in Prison Justice Project, a nonprofit working to end human rights abuses of incarcerated trans women, and other initiatives focused on a range of issues, from youth restorative justice to the intersection of incarceration and homelessness. In 2021, I led a campaign to bring awareness to the Washington State Department of Corrections’ refusal to respect trans identities, after being forced to use my dead name within the system.

I have put in a lot of work to become a better person. I like to think I have made a positive impact over the last several years.

Still, I am not sure I have the support I need. The last six months have been very difficult for me. In September 2021, I was sent to the Intensive Management Unit (IMU) for 71 days for allegations of inciting a group demonstration. While in IMU, my transition-related health care was interrupted.

The lack of necessary, gender-affirming health care has destroyed me. I feel disconnected and dissociate often. I have trouble focusing. I have not been myself, and I have trouble writing.

I also recently tested positive for COVID-19, which landed me in a medical isolation unit for two weeks. My inability to communicate with my typical support network took a heavy toll. Many of the folks who had been present in my life seem to have disappeared at my time of greatest need: just before my release.

As my release date approached, I had hoped to be connected to services that could provide me with essential resources—like food, clothing, and hygiene products—so I could be better prepared for life after prison. But instead, the system simply continued having its retributive way with me: Once it’s done chewing me up, it will spit me out.

I plan to make up for lost time with my elderly mother once I am released. She tells me about the computer desk she bought for me and how she will welcome me into her house with a room of my own. I will look out for her while I take time to rebuild my life skills and deal with the medical procedures I have scheduled. I also hope to write two books once I am released: one about name-change ceremonies for trans folks and a memoir. I intend to earn my bachelor’s degree, too.

With my release date approaching, I am excited but anxious. I wonder if my community custody officer will be understanding of my lived experience. I ask myself whether I will find the community and care I desperately need. After being surrounded by men for 18 years, I need mothering, daughtering, and sisterhood. I need to be touched by someone who loves me. I want someone to tell me that everything is going to be OK.

I remember being in the county jail as a 28-year-old and realizing that I was leaving the real world, not to return for years. I was scared and asked questions as I prepared myself for the harsh realities of prison life. Now, years later, I feel like I am doing the reverse: I am in prison, asking questions and preparing myself for life on the outside.

I know that the existence I have become familiar with is about to end, and I am about to be reborn into a strange new world. It is the one I left 18 years ago, but it is not the same world, and I am not the same person. 

I am an absurd time traveler from a strange, alternative world with an incongruous history, but here I go.