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What the Survey of Prison Inmates tells us about trans people in state prison

We look at the experiences of 29 incarcerated transgender people before and during their incarceration.

by Tiana Herring and Emily Widra, March 31, 2022

Nearly 5,000 transgender people are incarcerated in state prisons, but we know very little about their lives before prison or their experiences during incarceration. To add to this limited body of research, we’ve analyzed the Survey of Prison Inmates, 2016 data, released in late 2020, which provides a glimpse into this overrepresented but understudied population. The small number of trans respondents to the Survey of Prison Inmates — only 29 trans people — limits our ability to generalize the data; however, the results from this study are worth exploring given the lack of information about trans people in prisons. Our findings help give greater visibility and understanding about the respondents’ lives, experiences, and challenges before and during their incarceration.

Because of the small sample of 29 trans respondents, we elected to avoid presenting percentages that could lead to misleading generalizations and instead focused on the raw data we could access from the Survey of Prison Inmates.

Here’s a glimpse into what we were able to learn from these 29 individuals:

  • Most of the trans people surveyed were people of color, lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB), and relatively young.
  • The trans people surveyed reported experiencing a variety of adverse experiences before turning 18, such as homelessness, foster care placements, arrest, and incarceration in juvenile facilities.
  • Many of the trans people surveyed participated in job training and educational programming, likely to make up for missed opportunities before incarceration (such as educational exclusion and higher risk for unemployment).

We know trans people in prison exist at the intersection of a number of oppressed identities. But beyond that, before this data was released, what we knew about the trans population in prison was limited to the reports published by the National Center for Transgender Equality.1 The Survey of Prison Inmates data adds to this previous work to provide a clearer picture of the actual lived experiences of incarcerated trans people, giving us a window in which to observe — and subsequently address — what trans people face behind bars and what factors may contribute to the likelihood trans people will come into contact with the criminal legal system.

 

Demographics of the 29 incarcerated trans people surveyed

The LGBTQ+ population is overrepresented at every stage of the criminal legal system. To look more specifically at the transgender population — which is often not distinguished from the LGB population in available data — we need to look at the demographics and see just how the trans population compares to the general prison population. From what we can tell from this small sample, the trans people surveyed tend to be more diverse in terms of their race/ethnicity and sexual orientation, and skewed younger in age.

Race and ethnicity. The vast majority (23) of the trans people surveyed were people of color. Eight were Hispanic, eight were Black, and seven identified with two or more races. Meanwhile, the overall prison population is about 32% white, 34% Black, 21% Hispanic, and 11% two or more races. This is generally in line with other studies which have found that trans people of color have especially high lifetime rates of incarceration.

chart showing most of the 29 trans survey respondents are not white

Sexual orientation. Additionally, more than half (17) of the incarcerated trans respondents identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or something else other than straight. By contrast, 96% of the entire state prison population identifies as straight, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ analysis of the same data.

chart showing most of the 29 trans survey respondents are not straight

Age. Most (15) of the incarcerated trans people surveyed were under the age of 34, younger than the average age of 39 of all people held in state prisons nationwide. Evidence suggests that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans youth — and especially trans youth of color — are at especially high risk for contact with the criminal legal system compared to the general U.S. population.

 

Even before incarceration, these trans people were at a disadvantage

In general, people in prison have experienced multiple hardships, such as repeated arrests and low educational attainment, and this remains particularly true for the 29 trans respondents.

Housing and poverty. About a quarter (8) of the trans respondents reported homelessness before age 18 and 13 trans respondents lived in foster care or an institution (like a group home) before age 18. Additionally, 12 of these trans people’s families received welfare/public assistance before they were 18, adding another layer of disadvantage, as children who grow up in poverty are at greater risk for behavioral problems, chronic health issues, and poor academic achievement.

chart showing many of the 29 trans respondents were homeless, lived in foster care, or received public assistance as youth

Arrests and juvenile facilities. Most (16) trans people surveyed reported being arrested for the first time when they were 18 or younger, and many (12) spent time in a juvenile facility. Involvement in the criminal legal system at a young age is a fairly common experience for LGBTQ+ youth who are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system. Juvenile detention can be especially dangerous for trans youth who overwhelmingly report feeling unsafe in these facilities, and can be subject to solitary confinement ”for their protection.”

chart showing 16 trans respondents were first arrested under 18 years old and 12 spent time in a juvenile facility

Education. The majority (19) of the trans people surveyed did not finish high school. Other studies have shown that outside of prison, trans students are more likely to report that they may not complete high school. Over 84% of trans students surveyed in 2019 reported feeling unsafe in school because of their gender, and a similar portion of trans students said they had been victimized in school because of their gender and gender expression. Interestingly, three of the trans people who responded to the Survey of Prison Inmates reported graduating from college. While we advise against generalizing this finding too broadly, this is a notable share of the trans respondents (12%). In comparison, only 4% of the entire surveyed state prison population reported earning a college degree.

Employment. Given that so many of the trans respondents were excluded from educational opportunities, it’s unsurprising that they also report low rates of pre-prison employment:2 less than half (13) of the trans people surveyed were employed in the month before their arrest.

Past criminal justice history. When asked about past involvement with the criminal legal system, the vast majority of trans people surveyed (23) reported having been on probation before, and over a third (11) had served time in jail at least twice before. Even short stays in jail can have detrimental effects on an individual’s employment, housing, financial stability, and family wellbeing. And previous research has shown that trans people are at an elevated risk of unemployment, unstable housing, and being disconnected from their families even without the added layer of criminal justice involvement.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that many of the trans people surveyed reported prior interactions with the criminal legal system given that trans people are criminalized and discriminated against for simply being trans. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, found that trans people — especially trans people of color — are disproportionately harassed by police and experience high rates of unequal treatment and harassment interacting with government agencies/officials, judges or courts, and legal services clinics.

 

Experiences while in prison

Trans people outside of prison are less likely to have access to necessary health care and services, and more likely to have negative interactions with police and experience unemployment. The trans respondents to the Survey of Prison Inmates suggest these experiences happen behind bars, too.

Substance use treatment. Previous studies of incarcerated trans people have found that trans people were frequently denied routine healthcare in prison. Data from the Survey of Prison Inmates suggests this may also be true of drug treatment. While there was no direct question about a substance use disorder diagnosis in the survey, a possible proxy measure is whether someone had ever received drug treatment in their lifetime.3 Of the trans people surveyed, about one-third (9) reported ever receiving such treatment. But of those individuals, only 2 had received treatment since admission to prison.

Discipline. Many of the trans people surveyed had received a rule violation in the previous 12 months (12), and half of those individuals (6) had received multiple rule violations over the same time period.4 Of those who reported receiving disciplinary action, five reported being confined to their cell, and three were sent to solitary confinement.

Unfortunately, the survey does not ask the important questions about being violated or harassed in prisons. This is of particular concern for trans incarcerated people, given that 35% percent of previously incarcerated trans people surveyed by the National Center for Transgender Equality reported harassment by other incarcerated people and 37% reported being harassed by correctional officers or staff.

Work assignments. Unemployment outside of prison among trans people is a serious concern. Given the reality that trans people are frequently discriminated against by employers, it’s important that they have equal access to employment opportunities when they are incarcerated. At the time of the survey, 18 trans respondents had work assignments. Three trans people surveyed reported that they worked in goods production/correctional industries which tend to pay more than jobs supporting the prison itself (though all prison wages are exceptionally low). Other common jobs for trans people in prisons were hospital/medical duties, working in libraries, barber and beauty shops, and food service, which may be preferred jobs in prisons because of their relevance to post-release job prospects.

Programming. Nearly half of the trans survey respondents reported participating in job training or educational programming opportunities since admission. Given that trans people are often excluded from or pushed out of educational and job opportunities before incarceration, they may be trying to make up for lost opportunities while confined. Incarceration shouldn’t be trans people’s only opportunity to access job training and education, though; they would be better served by having more support at earlier intervention points, and through the rest of their lives.

 

Transgender people in prisons have multiple, intersecting marginalized identities that make them more vulnerable to traumatic experiences throughout their lives. Although this survey included only 29 trans people, it provides some valuable insights about their needs and will hopefully be the foundation of more in-depth research by government agencies, scholars, and advocacy groups. But the existing research makes it clear that there is an urgent need for trans people to be provided with more support during incarceration, more support after incarceration, and more help avoiding contact with the criminal legal system in the first place.

 
 

Footnotes

  1. The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey report provides a breadth of information about trans people’s life experiences, including a section that is particularly useful for understanding the prevalence of assaults and access to hormone therapy for people incarcerated in jails, prisons, and juvenile facilities, which is not available in any Bureau of Justice dataset. We hope this analysis of the Survey of Prison Inmates’ 2016 data provides additional context about the experiences of trans people incarcerated in state prisons specifically.  ↩

  2. Unemployment rates consistently decrease as educational attainment increases, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  ↩

  3. Of course, past treatment is not evidence of an ongoing or current disorder, but this is the closest measure available with the Survey of Prison Inmates data we analyzed.  ↩

  4. In our analysis, we did not analyze types of rule violations by gender, but people could be “written up” for everything from minor offenses such as failing to follow sanitary regulations, to major offenses like work slowdowns. Of note, the individuals reporting a rule violation in the past 12 months were limited to respondents who had been in prison for at least 1 year and had reported at least one rule violation since admission (instead of the sample of 29 used throughout this briefing, the number of respondents to this survey question was limited to 16 trans people).  ↩

Tiana Herring is a Research Associate at the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact) Emily Widra is a Senior Research Analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact)



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