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Anti-LGBTQ Censorship Is Endangering Trans People Behind Bars

“Trans Bodies, Trans Selves,” a basic trans health resource, is explicitly banned from prisons in eight states.

The rampant banning of texts about queer and transgender people has been in the news a lot recently, but nowhere is book banning more of an issue than in prison. Trans people, in particular, suffer from prisons’ arbitrary restrictions. Sophia Alexsandra Brett Laferriere, a trans woman living in a Washington state prison, told Truthout via the prison’s online messaging system, “Most of the information we ask for doesn’t get to us, or staff steal it or write over it. They block it from us.”

Laferriere is far from alone. People in prison have extremely limited information in general, with little to no access to the internet, very broad-based censorship, and restrictions that PEN America calls “content-neutral” censorship, like rules in most states mandating that people in prison can only receive books from certain approved vendors.

These restrictions impact trans people more specifically because they often face additional censorship, more frequent transfers, and spend disproportionate time in solitary confinement. With community support from both inside and outside the walls, however, trans people are doing the best they can with the little information available to them.

Prison Censorship Disproportionately Impacts Trans People

Censorship and limited access to information impact everyone in prison, but trans and queer people, especially trans and queer people of color, inside are impacted in different and significant ways. For example, trans people in prison are often transferred and held in solitary confinement more frequently. Katherine Charek Briggs an organizer with LGBT Books to Prisoners, a volunteer-run organization in Madison, Wisconsin, that sends books to queer and trans people in prison across the United States, calls this the “logistical access” barrier to information, because being more frequently put on some kind of restriction and moved around, something that happens because “people want to police queer and trans behavior,” can severely limit access. “If you’re moved, then your stuff gets lost or wrecked, or you don’t get to bring it with, or you get told in the middle of the night that you’re moving,” said Charek Briggs.

It is difficult to understand the full scale of how trans people are specifically impacted, because the systems that prisons use to reject books are opaque, decentralized and capricious. With little oversight, “some seriously shady stuff” can happen, says Michelle Dillon, a volunteer with Books to Prisoners Seattle. Trans people in prison who communicated with Truthout confirmed that further reduced access to information is an important aspect of the discrimination and danger they face inside prison.

As prison systems are forced to increase legal access to gender-affirming practices for trans people as a result of successful lawsuits, trans people still lack access to basic information that is necessary for making informed choices.

Although data is not easily available, there are clues that indicate the severity of these impacts. For example, Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, a textbook-like educational resource for trans people, is banned in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin for “obscene material,” and being “sexually explicit,” among other related reasons. In Washington State, prisons keep a copy stocked in the library after legal intervention from the American Civil Liberties Union, but individuals are still not allowed to have a copy, says Dillon.

What’s more, these are the bans that can be tracked; according to the PEN report, about half the states do not keep a publicly available list of what books are banned, and many states do not require local prison officials to report up the chain of command what books have been refused. Due to the power of staff in the mailrooms to reject material and the lack of transparency on these procedures, people in prison and advocates alike also report widespread informal banning that does not get reported or tracked in official documents.

Organizers with LGBT Books to Prisoners say that it may actually be easier to get abolitionist or other political material into the prison than to send in books written for queer or trans audiences. Echoing this point, Ladi Da, a person in a Michigan prison who identifies as androgyne, told Truthout via the prison’s online communication system, “I don’t think most subject matters receive the heightened amount of scrutiny that gender nonconformity does in here. This is one subject that most staff do not care to be familiar with and therefore censor much more readily and unjustifiably.”

It is safe to assume that the current political context of book banning and trans panic isn’t helping, but because of the murkiness of the prison system in general, it’s not clear how book banning is impacting prisons specifically. What is clear is that it would be easy for staff, including the mailroom staff, to feel more emboldened to restrict certain kinds of information in an environment where limiting public access to information, especially information about sexuality, has become a normal part of the discourse and is further legitimized by right-wing politicians.

Parallel to such politically motivated bans are dramatic increases in censorship by limiting people’s ability to send and receive physical mail or even receive physical books. Advocates who spoke with Truthout for this story cited the move to sending scanned mail instead of original copies as a major problem, and A.B.O. Comix, an organization of queer and trans folks inside and outside prison who make and distribute art in the service of collective liberation, is actively involved in a lawsuit contesting one such policy in San Mateo County, California.

Mail scanning cruelly limits people’s ability to touch their loved ones’ handwriting, and it contributes to increased surveillance of correspondence by creating another layer of data that can be stored longer term. Mail scanning also makes it much more difficult for books-to-prisoners groups to do their support work, as letters must be sent to separate addresses than books, and this process creates many more rules to get material to people in prison.

LGBT Books to Prisoners organizer Sandy Olson says that, “It’s made our work a lot harder, and a lot more complicated.” Previously, Olson says, it was possible to train a new volunteer in 10-15 minutes, but “now it’s like the training is a lot more. And the organization load is a lot more, and that’s how oppression works, is just to make it increasingly difficult.”

Critical Health Info Is Severely Limited

Whether because of overt anti-LGBTQ sentiment or for other reasons, it seems that people in prison do not have access to most of the information they need. As prison systems are forced to increase legal access to hormone replacement therapy, surgery, and other gender-affirming practices for trans people as a result of successful lawsuits, trans people still lack access to even very basic information that is necessary for making informed choices.

Jasmine LaRene Roden, a woman living in a prison in Michigan, shared that, “I have tried getting information on what would be considered a normal estrogen and testosterone level for a woman. I cannot get information regarding surgery, either to have my testicles removed or full-blown reassignment,” nor can she get information on what kind of breast growth she can expect and for how long. This is despite the fact that Roden describes herself as “suffer[ing] gender dysphoria to the extent that I have attempted suicide more than once,” and much of this information is clearly critical to her well-being.

Even basic information that pertains directly to prison regulations is often difficult or impossible to find for those on the inside. Johanna Danielle Allish, another woman in prison in Michigan, said that although she was “already fully up to date” as a result of living while trans before imprisonment, she and others she knows struggle to find the answers to questions like how to change your name from the inside and how to buy women’s clothing. According to Allish, although the Michigan Department of Corrections rules have provisions to allow people to wear uniformed clothing that conforms with their gender identity (with medical approval), “No one told the catalog companies. I have tried to order bras and shoes for a few times now and keep getting refunded my entire order. It is a frustrating affair.” Because Allish is making the order from a men’s prison, the catalog company is apparently not setup to send her women’s clothing.

Oliver Mills, associate director of A.B.O. Comix, told Truthout that, like Allish, a lot of the questions related to medical or social transition that the organization hears about are related to understanding prison regulations and people’s rights inside. The most common of these are related to accessing health care and housing transfers, but members of A.B.O. Comix also share how they find inventive ways to grow hair to the desired length, create makeup, alter clothing, and other ways to self-identify and affirm their own identities as they struggle to navigate gender-regulating prison rules.

It is not just about health information either. Cutting off access to different ways of thinking about gender and the social world severely limits imprisoned trans people’s ability to understand themselves as human beings with thoughts, feelings and desires. “Overall, there is a massive dearth of information around trans issues, trans identity, trans history, culture and theory,” says Mills. This lack makes it hard for people to name their own experiences, let alone form supportive communities.

Queer and Trans People Organize Through Bars

Despite dramatic limitations to information inside prisons, many trans people do find ways to live life as their fullest selves. “Trans people are resilient. Trans people will do what they need to do to affirm themselves,” says Mills. “If there’s something to be found out, we [trans people] will figure it out. We’ll make it work.” Laferriere, in Washington State, agrees: “I think if we want to get information, we need the determination to get it.”

Of course, it is not always that easy. Allish in Michigan writes, “While they provide a legal library, they do not tell us how to use it properly. I spent many hours fumbling for answers with little to show for it.”

The most common way that people get information on the inside is talking to each other. Roden in Michigan writes, “I have basically had to rely on other girls for most of my info. It was through conversation with another trans girl that I first even learned what transgender meant.” Some trans women are also able to get some information, like makeup tips or understanding bra size, from prison staff. In this case, they must be careful, in Roden’s words, that the staff member is not accused of “overfamiliarity,” which can be considered a violation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).

Resource sheets distributed by organizations like LGBT Books to Prisoners, including one for trans people in prison, are another important way that people are able to find information. These sheets often include basic information about rights in prison, trans identity, and a list of other potential sources of support with research, book requests or advocacy. Through these resource sheets and word of mouth, people get connected to organizations like LGBT Books to Prisoners; A.B.O. Comix; Black and Pink, a pen pal and advocacy organization for LGBTQIA2S+ people and people living with HIV/AIDS impacted by the prison system; Prison Library Support Network, a group of volunteers that answers information requests from people in prison; and more. These under-resourced organizations and others like them do critical, life-saving work.

Getting information to trans people in prison is a community effort, and includes some advocates who generously risk their access as volunteers or lawyers by bringing in information every way they can. For them, creating this community, even in the face of risk, is the point.

“Barring that [letting everyone out of prison], we sort of work in this harm reduction model. Can we make people’s lives a little bit easier, give them access to information, have a little bit of access to the ideas of liberation? The idea is that yeah, it’s actually great being queer and/or trans,” says Olson with LGBT Books to Prisoners.

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