freelance writer & illustrator

Incarceration Will Always Only Thwart Our Attempts at Being a Civilized Society

March 6, 2019

Earlier today, The Root’s Anne Branigin reported that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) may soon be taking legal action against North Carolina’s Department of Public Safety. Against U.S. federal law, Kanautica Zayre-Brown, who is a trans woman, continues to be held in a men’s prison in Lillington, North Carolina.

 

Now, in a letter to the department’s director, Kenneth Lassiter, the ACLU says that if the department doesn’t move Zayre-Brown to a women’s prison, they will take legal action to compel the move. The ACLU told The Root that, as of Saturday, Zayre-Brown is being held in solitary confinement at Harnett Correctional.

 

Prison officials often place trans people who are incarcerated in solitary confinement under the guise of “protecting” them from the prison’s general population. This is despite the fact that the practice is condemned as cruel, unnecessary, and mental illness-exacerbating by mental health experts throughout North America.

 

(Note: The Root article states that although Kanautica Zayre-Brown has changed her name and “undergone multiple surgeries and medical treatments to affirm her gender identity,” she is being dead-named and classified by the prison system as male. While the author and other editorial staff likely did not intend to imply otherwise, neither the name a person wants to be called by nor their gender identity are determined/validated by legal documents and/or their bodies/genitals.)

 

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In a June 2018 article for Briarpatch Magazine, Daniel Karasik outlines the protocol set forth by Correctional Service Canada (CSC) when it comes to the intake of trans people in federal prison. Per the protocol, “A strip search must be conducted. If you do not cooperate, physical handling, or chemical or inflammatory agents may be used.”

 

According to Karasik, one of the steps “clarifies that the search must be videotaped and that ‘it may be necessary to videotape a naked or partially naked’ inmate who remains ‘non-compliant.’”

 

For a September 2014 Truthout piece, Jean Trounstine describes the videotaped strip searches conducted at the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center in Chicopee, noting that prison officials who champion the practice cite “safety reasons” as justification for it.

 

Trounstine refers to an August 2014 ThinkProgress piece, which details the strip search process incarcerated people in the Chicopee prison system have been forced to undergo while being videotaped by prison officials, seventy percent of whom are male.

 

Per ThinkProgress, people who are incarcerated at Chicopee must “run [their] fingers through [their] hair, remove dentures if [they] wore them, raise both arms, lift…breasts, lift…stomach for visual inspection if [they] had a large mid-section, and remove any tampon or pad if…menstruating. [They were] then required to turn around, bend over, spread [their] buttocks, and cough.”

 

When it comes to Zayre-Brown, the ACLU says that if she isn’t transferred to a women’s prison by April 1, they will sue North Carolina’s prison department for violating the Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA. Under PREA, which is federal law, incarcerated queer and trans people are guaranteed specific protections, such as the right to shower alone if they wish, regardless of where they are incarcerated.

 

According to the ACLU, however, N.C.’s Department of Public Safety has not only not followed the guidelines set forth by federal law, but it has also flagrantly violated them.

 

In their letter to Lassiter, the ACLU noted that, among other violations, Zayre-Brown has been “subjected to intrusive searches by male officers” despite having requested the searches be carried out by female officers, while a prison nurse has “repeatedly threatened to thwart her transfer and medical treatment, citing her religious beliefs.”

 

Branigin spoke with Chase Strangio, staff attorney with the LGBT & HIV Project at ACLU National. In noting the structural issues that account for the makeup of the U.S. prison population, Strangio cited research that shows that “[fifty] percent of [Black] trans women are incarcerated at some point in their lives.” Strangio continued:

 

This is obviously related to systemic discrimination in society. We have people being funneled into prisons and jails because of employment discrimination, housing discrimination, family rejection and other factors that lead people to have criminal legal system involvement.

 

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According to a 2003 govinfo.gov report on the Prison Rape Elimination Act, rape in U.S. prisons in 2003 was rampant, per Congress’s findings. Experts “conservatively estimated” that, at minimum, thirteen percent of people incarcerated in the U.S. had been sexually assaulted in prison and that many of them had been assaulted repeatedly. The report goes on to detail Congress’s findings:

 

(2) …nearly 200,000 inmates now incarcerated have been or will be the victims of prison rape. The total number of inmates who have been sexually assaulted in the past 20 years likely exceeds 1,000,000.

 

(3) Inmates with mental illness are at increased risk of sexual victimization. America’s jails and prisons house more mentally ill individuals than all of the Nation’s psychiatric hospitals combined. As many as 16 percent of inmates in State prisons and jails, and 7 percent of Federal inmates, suffer from mental illness.

 

(4) Young first-time offenders are at increased risk of sexual victimization. Juveniles are 5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted in adult rather than juvenile facilities—often within the first 48 hours of incarceration.

 

Despite the fact that, by the U.S. government’s own admission, rape and mental illness were endemic throughout the prison system in 2003, the report went on to acknowledge the staggering inadequacy of prison staff when it came to their ability to address the aforementioned needs of those incarcerated:

 

(5) Most prison staff are not adequately trained or prepared to prevent, report, or treat inmate sexual assaults.

 

(6) Prison rape often goes unreported, and inmate victims often receive inadequate treatment for the severe physical and psychological effects of sexual assault—if they receive treatment at all.

 

A more recent PREA report released by the Bureau of Justice is shockingly transparent in stating the U.S. prison system’s refusal to address prison rape, despite the jarring increase in accusations that occurred between 2011 and 2015. According to the study, prison officials deemed a mere eight percent of the 67,168 sexual assault allegations reported between 2012 and 2015 “substantiated”:

 

Allegations of staff-on-inmate sexual misconduct increased 191% from 2,800 in 2011 to 8,151 in 2015. The number of allegations in prisons increased from 6,660 in 2011 to 18,666 in 2015 (up 180%). The number of allegations in jails increased from 2,047 in 2011 to 5,809 in 2015 (up 184%)…Of the 67,168 allegations of sexual victimization reported during 2012-15, correctional administrators completed investigations for 61,316 and found 5,187 (8%) to be substantiated.

 

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The increased risk of danger posed to trans women—and especially trans women of color, and most especially Black trans women—when they are housed in men’s prisons is well-documented. Additionally, nonbinary folks, trans men, and even gender nonconforming cis folks are at a much higher risk of encountering harassment and violence than are cis folks who are gender conforming.

 

To be sure, being housed according to one’s gender—and in a manner that will best foster one’s physical safety and mental health—is not inconsequential. “Yes, we have to have gender-responsive strategies in place,” Yasmin Nair, who is co-founder of Against Equality, a radical queer editorial collective, told Briarpatch. “But I’m always really concerned and wary about what I call the ‘switch and bait’ strategy of neoliberalism, which is: ‘We’ll give you this [reform], oh, by the way, whoops, built a few more prisons over there.’”

 

In February, Zayre-Brown told the Raleigh News and Observer, “I understand I’m in prison; I just want fairness.” That Zayre-Brown, like many who are incarcerated, feels the need to (at least publicly) capitulate to the terms of her punishment (nearly a decade of imprisonment for insurance fraud) speaks to the degree to which the (often shame-based) brutality of prison is normalized within U.S. culture.

 

That anyone should be forced to bathe in front of others or be strip searched on camera is, I would hope, unimaginable to most, if not all, of the people reading this. That such occurrences are merely part and parcel of being incarcerated by the U.S. (and Canadian) prison system, whose agents are given unlimited license to be physically cruel to those incarcerated, is absolutely fucking horrifying.

 

That members of our purportedly “civilized” society continue to champion such a system as a method by which to address wrongdoings—whether they are state-designated, -manufactured, or both—such as insurance fraud, child molestation, murder, drug trafficking, and so on, is fucking horrifying.

 

You may read this and feel that an incarcerated person should not have committed the “crime” that landed them in prison; you may feel convicted by your belief that incarcerated people “deserve” to be incarcerated.

 

I would urge you, then, to consider the alarming number of people in the U.S. alone who have been wrongfully convicted, imprisoned, and executed after being charged, arrested, and “lawfully” labeled “criminals” by our justice system (hint: it’s more than zero). I would urge you, with equal fervor, to consider the fact that that number is likely a gross underestimation.

 

According to Time, as of 2016, there were, on average, over three exonerations per week in the U.S. This number is more than double the rate reported by the National Registry of Exonerations in 2011.

 

I would also urge you to consider our country’s nasty habit of criminalizing folks who are pushed to the margins of society—often, critically, economically. As Rene Callahan-St. John, who works with the Montreal-based Prisoner Correspondence Project, notes, numerous factors account for the fact that trans people in North America are disproportionately incarcerated.

 

“Transphobia within families, job discrimination, and inadequate access to trans health care all increase the risk of criminalization,” Callahan-St. John, who is a trans man and advocate for trans rights, tells Briarpatch. “Trans people end up depending on survival crimes like selling drugs, street-based sex work, or petty theft to get by.”

 

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There are folks in the U.S. who love the idea of a person who has made money off of a multi-million-dollar insurance company being physically violated by prison guards. Imagining such a thing excites them—certainly more than the idea of a society wherein we deal with such “wrongdoings” (protect insurance companies?) humanely. They scream, “That’ll teach that person to obey the fucking law!”

 

They read about decarceration, about destroying the U.S. prison system, and they say, “That would never work!” or, “Well, if not prison, then what?

 

People who spend nearly their entire lives imagining a magical place where a giant guy in the sky decides whether we all get to live happily ever after in eternity with him and all our families and friends, or drop down into the fiery pits of damnation forever, can’t access any part of their fetid brains that would allow them to conceive of a way that would allow society to function that didn’t involve forcing people to be graphically assaulted on-camera and herded into mass showers (also to be sexually assaulted). Tell me again, who here has the problem?

 

To those that would ask me how, in the event of decarceration, our society should deal with wrongdoing, I would say, for starters, perhaps via an alternative that doesn’t cultivate mental illness, rape, and on-camera sexual assault—and I would hope that someone in an integral leadership position would consider such a request not only reasonable, but also, addressable.

 

I don’t have the point-by-point plan for decarcerating the U.S. (Then again, do the majority of folks who oppose decarceration know the ins-and-outs of the system they so rabidly support?) That doesn’t mean I can’t envision a means of operating that is far more humane than the one our government has forced into place.

 

Conversely, the fact that our government institutes inhumane treatment doesn’t make it okay—and certainly doesn’t mean I have to cosign such treatment. (Look at me free thinking, etc.)

 

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Since the U.S. prison system has only expanded over the last several decades, those who support its continued expansion must believe that as time marches on and the U.S. population has increased, the government has failed to determine more effectual means by which to address wrongdoing.

 

Moreover, despite the fact that the U.S. civilian population has grown roughly sixty-one percent since 1970, as of 2012, the prison population has increased seven hundred percent since the 1970s. (If you, like me, are horrible at math, I will spell it out for you: the prison population expanded horribly out of proportion to the general population to the tune of roughly eleven and a half times.)

 

From those who have a bizarrely emotional attachment to the “founding fathers” due to what they consider some sort of mythical lineage, to those who consider Silicon Valley the capitalist frontier of the U.S., there is no shortage of Americans who boast the U.S. as the world’s trailblazer.

 

However, how innovative a society are we living in, really, when our governing body has (regardless of its shifts in “ideology”) unfailingly continued a tradition of caging human beings as a form of behavioral rehabilitation? (For those upon whose fingers the word “deterrent” is hot, relax. Recidivism is as bad as ever, and Google is free. Breathe and read.)

 

Where do we live? Not in the fantasy land many of us were regaled with stories about as children—the one in which one is innocent until proven guilty—and that’s for fucking sure. But I am hopeful that through others who do such important work, whether by organizing, writing, or otherwise spreading critical information, we can achieve decarceration in the U.S.

 

And no matter what naysayers argue, I am hopeful for a world where stealing money or food or even killing someone doesn’t mean it’s okay for you to be raped, assaulted, or murdered under the state’s watch, even if the masses cheer from the stands. No matter what they say, I believe in something better.

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