My experience as a trans woman forced to live in a men’s prison in Washington State is barbaric and dehumanizing. Imagine living in an environment where you are surrounded by men and never seem to fit in. Trans women are a particularly vulnerable population who are at higher risk of physical and sexual violence, as well as suicide. Being placed in segregation for an extended period of time is another thing altogether; it is torturous.
In 2015, international standards were changed: The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules) declared more than 15 days of segregation to be a human rights violation.
Washington State prison officials have been working on restrictive housing reforms for years. Leadership appears to be making a good faith effort to follow the science by making research-informed decisions. Evidence shows that use of segregation causes serious physical and mental harm to prisoners. This includes increased risk of self-harm and suicide. Segregation may also be harmful to staff working there. Studies show that disciplinary segregation doesn’t work to change behavior. Some studies even suggest it could increase misconduct.
As part of recent reforms, the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) announced the elimination of disciplinary segregation in September 2021. This means that the DOC no longer places prisoners in segregation for the express purpose of punishment. Some media outlets inaccurately reported that the DOC ended the use of segregation altogether, prompting the DOC to respond by issuing a press release stating, “The department continues to utilize segregation for non-disciplinary purposes such as investigations, safety, protective custody, and classifications.”
All of the prisoners I talked to agree with me that disciplinary segregation is the least harmful brand of segregation used. This means that its elimination feels like insignificant incremental change. The two types of segregation that prisoners agree are more harmful — administrative segregation and max custody — are still used.
Administrative segregation is a designation used by prison officials for reasons such as investigations, safety and security concerns, and reclassification and transfer to another facility. Administrative segregation time is measured in days, but may last for several months.
Max custody is a long-term classification designation that lasts several months or even years before prisoners have the opportunity to be housed in the general population.
Whatever time spent in segregation or the language used to describe it, the practices are eerily similar and all occur in the same place: the Intensive Management Unit (IMU), where prisoners occupy austere and indestructible cells which appear to be prepared for violence. The prisoners are forced to spend at least 22 hours a day in their cells with very few, if any allowables.
Whenever transported from the cell, prisoners are placed in metal restraints or shackles and are escorted by two or more guards. Individualized decisions are not made for restraints except in cases where even greater security measures and more guards are used.
I was a minimum-custody classified trans woman preparing to be released in May 2022, who was being housed in a higher-security men’s unit due to prison consolidation efforts. I don’t bother anyone. I am a vulnerable trans woman in this environment who mostly keeps to herself. When not in the cell by myself, I am usually in the big yard in the company of another trans woman.
One day, a staff member accused me of telling others in the yard that they don’t need to wear a mask. The man claimed access to my body, ordering me to stand as guards were instructed to restrain and transport me.
I don’t have the right to refuse orders. Any hesitation to submit may result in greater punishment. Staff may even use violent force if they feel it is necessary. I can’t describe how scary that feels for a trans woman on her own with no idea what strangers in uniforms are thinking.
I was placed in administrative segregation for the “safety and security” of the institution.
As a part of DOC efforts to reform restrictive housing, or segregation, it formed a partnership with the Vera Institute of Justice for the initiative “Safe Prisons, Safe Communities: From Isolation to Dignity and Wellness Behind Bars.” Impacts of the partnership include a 57 percent reduction of staff assaults and a 45 percent reduction in prisoner self-harm and suicide, according to the Vera Institute report. Progress includes updates to policy limiting what administrative segregation can be used for, as well as length of time it is used. Administrative segregation can now only be used for those who “pose a significant threat.” One goal of the partnership is to eliminate the use of administrative segregation for “particularly vulnerable populations.” Particularly vulnerable populations are commonly defined as those with serious mental illness, trans identified, or pregnant women.
While in administrative segregation, I received an infraction for engaging in or inciting a group demonstration. I had a hearing. Even though none of the officers present for the incident provided a witness statement to support the claims against me, which is highly unusual, I was found guilty. According to attorney Danny Waxwing, who later listened to the audio of the hearing, there was no evidence. It was one man’s unsupported word against mine.
For argument’s sake, let’s say the claims against me are true. You’ve got a nonviolent incident that amounts to a woman talking. There was no demonstration or harmful incident. I have tried to communicate with several staff members to explain that I have no previous infractions for not masking, am fully vaccinated and support masking. I’m not a significant threat. The high-level staff who placed me in administrative segregation have not responded to my pro-social attempts to communicate.
Recent DOC administrative segregation reforms limit its use to no longer than 30 days. Prisoners may remain in administrative segregation if it is necessary to transfer them to a more secure facility. This “classification” process can take much longer than 30 days.
I was classified minimum-custody while in a men’s medium-security unit. That means I was a low-security-level prisoner housed in a unit for those considered more dangerous prisoners. Now, even though I still qualify for minimum custody after the infraction, staff used administrative authority to demote me to medium custody, choosing to classify me as a more dangerous prisoner, which ironically makes me the appropriate custody level to return to the unit I was housed in. Even so, I remained in administrative segregation and was not allowed to return to the general population.
I am not a “significant threat” and it is not necessary to transfer me to a more secure facility. As I sat writing this story, I had been in segregation for more than 30 days. It was 71 days before I finally transferred into a population at another prison.
While in the IMU, a trans woman housed two cells away told me she had been there since April 2021. After over six months in administrative segregation, her mental and emotional condition appeared to be deteriorating. She admitted to me that she sometimes wears a headband around her eyes so officers can’t tell she is crying. Her attempts to conceal her crying remind me of my own strategy to bite down on my pillow as I sob so others don’t hear me.
It is called “safety” or “classification” and not “discipline,” but the use of segregation for extended periods of time is a violation of international standards amounting to torture, according to the UN Nelson Mandela rules.
A DOC document titled “Elimination of Disciplinary Segregation Frequently Asked Questions” stresses that administrative segregation is not to be used as de facto disciplinary segregation. It is for individuals who pose a significant risk and that, “If people commit non-violent infractions, or even if they commit a more serious infraction but have calmed down and no longer pose a threat, they should not be sent to [administrative segregation].” According to this document, I should not be in segregation, yet I was.
According to the Vera Institute initiative, long-term goals include ending restrictive housing of more than 15 days, which would get Washington State prisons within international standards. They want to end restrictive housing entirely at women’s prisons while implementing gender-responsive reforms.
In place of segregation, the DOC wants to use “meaningful sanctions” that are more effective at discouraging negative behavior, with an emphasis on limiting what may be harmful, such as sanctions that restrict contact with family, including visits or phone calls. Contact with family and increased community bonds reduce risk of recidivism, so taking away these things could actually work against safety objectives. The DOC also expresses a desire to increase incentives and privileges, which is shown to be more effective at changing behavior than sanctions.
All of these policy changes and goals sound good, but my objective experience shows that prison officials don’t always carry out policy reforms the way they are intended. As a trans woman in a men’s prison, I don’t get a gender-responsive approach. Even though I am a vulnerable, nonviolent person, I am seen as too dangerous to be in the general prison population.
Speaking of “meaningful sanctions,” I was sanctioned for 30 days of loss of yard time at my hearing. Since the incident happened in the yard, which I frequent, that is a textbook example of a “meaningful sanction.” The punishment involves loss of valued yard privileges as a result of negative behavior that occurred in the yard. That didn’t happen. Instead, I was kept in administrative segregation for 71 days and transferred to another prison.
I am being released in May after more than 18 years in prison for a domestic violence-related crime. Being in administrative segregation impacts my health, disrupts my ability for release planning, and raises my risk of recidivism by reducing access to phone calls and visits, working against safety.
Besides the austerity and lack of judgement prison officials used in my case, it seems incredibly obtuse and short-sighted to do this to a well-educated journalist. I can conduct my own ethnography and amplify my voice.
A simple conversation could have resolved this issue. Since I can’t get that, I’ll try an exposé. I call it long-distance communication on speaker phone. I’m bringing others into the conversation and putting administrative bullies on blast.
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