Transphobia Within the US Prison System: Recent California Law Requires the State’s Prisons to House Inmates by Gender Identity

by: Georgia Pettygrove

On Saturday, September 26, 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a law requiring California prisons to house transgender inmates in prisons based on their gender identity. Over the last few years, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York City, and Massachusetts have passed similar laws, which take the much-needed steps to reform the United States’ prison system’s institutional transphobia. 

The law requires officers to ask inmates privately if they identify as transgender, nonbinary, or intersex, and to address them by the pronouns of their choice. Those inmates can then request to be placed in a facility that houses either men or women. Further, those requests can’t be denied solely because of an inmate’s physical anatomy or sexual orientation. Before the law was signed into action, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation housed incarcerated individuals based on the sex assigned to them at birth, which has proved to be exceptionally dangerous for transgender individuals. A study conducted by UC Irvine’s Center for Evidence-Based Corrections found: “[s]exual assault is 13 times more prevalent among transgender inmates [than cisgender inmates], with 59% [of the surveyed transgender inmates] reporting being sexually assaulted while in a California correctional facility.”

In Angela Davis’ 2013 speech, “Feminism and Abolition: Theories and Practices for the 21st Century” published in the collection Freedom is a Constant Struggle, she outlines that “[t]rans women [, particularly those of color,] end up primarily in male prisons–especially if they have not undergone gender reassignment surgery… [a]nd sometimes even if they have undergone the surgery, they end up being placed in men’s prisons” (99). To make matters worse, “[t]rans women are often denied their hormonal treatments, even if they have valid prescription” (99). Davis’ essay–along with the statistics provided by the aforementioned study–draws attention to the transphobia embedded in the prison system, and how such discrimination is due in part to the protocols and housing decisions enforced by the prison system itself. 

This new California legislation takes steps essential to the reformation of the United States’ inherently transphobic prison system and combats the narrative that transgender individuals are somehow not the gender they identify to be or that they are not “real” women or “real” men. This law is an example of the legislative action needed to support and enforce LGBTQIA+ rights, and much more of it is needed in order to create a world that is safe for an inclusive of LGBTQIA+ people.

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