Why Is A 16-Year-Old Trans Teen Being Held Without Charges In An Adult Women's Prison?

After years of abuse, torment, and neglect, after years of having adults ignore her needs, Jane was tossed into a lockbox in the ultimate punishment for daring to exist, and daring to assert her own humanity.
Publish date:
May 23, 2014
prison, transgender, women in prison, juvenile detention

Survivors beware: sometimes your very existence and adapted tactics for living in a world that wants you to die are criminal. All eyes are on Connecticut this month as people, including the state's own Governor, ask why a 16-year-old trans girl has been remanded to an adult women's prison without charges. Protestors wonder when being a traumatized trans teenager became a crime, while Connecticut's Department of Children and Families maintains that prison is the only safe place to put her.

Jane Doe's life has been nothing short of horrific, as detailed in a New York Times opinion editorial on her case (trigger warning). Since the age of five, family members passed her through a series of abusive and awful situations before she was finally taken into custody. After surviving the abuse of her family, she endured even more in a series of foster and group home placements. While dealing with endless physical and emotional trauma, Jane grappled with her gender identity, coming to the realization that she was a girl and struggling to make her voice heard within the foster care system.

Like many survivors, she started fighting back. It's a natural response to being assaulted. Yet, instead of punishing the people who were abusing her, the state chose to single Jane out, tagging her as aggressive and violence. On 8 April, she was remanded to custody on a mental health ward and put in solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement is widely regarded as a form of torture. More than that, it has direct and well-known effects on mental health. Putting a mentally unstable, struggling teen in solitary confinement is akin to lighting a stick of dynamite and being surprised when it explodes. After years of abuse, torment, and neglect, after years of having adults ignore her needs, Jane was tossed into a lockbox in the ultimate punishment for daring to exist, and daring to assert her own humanity.

"I know that I need to work on my issues and I want to, but this is not the place. I am afraid of the women here. I don't want to be around them. They yell comments to me and make fun of me when they see me," Jane wrote for the "Hartford Courant" in an impassioned plea for justice.

"I want people to understand who I am, what my life has been like and how I ended up here. What I have survived would have destroyed most people. I'm not going to let it destroy me. I can't change what has happened, but I can build a future just like every other 16-year-old."

After substantial public attention, Jane was moved out of the mental health ward and onto a "cottage" on York Prison's grounds, ostensibly allowing her to transition to a safer environment. The fact remains, though, that Jane is in prison not because she committed a crime, went to court, had a trial, and was sentenced, but because the DCF decided that was the best place to stick her. Prison is not an appropriate placement for a troubled teen, period.

The DCF claims that Jane was violent and hard to work with, endangering herself and others. Jane and her supporters dispute that, challenging the evidence provided by the DCF that she attacked people. While Jane may have fought back when assaulted, she says, her behavior was markedly different than reported by the agency. She was defending herself, and behaving in ways that are very predictable, common, and expected among victims of trauma -- you don't approach a trauma victim from behind and try to hug her without expecting her to react physically if you're well-trained in handling trauma victims, yet that's exactly what happened in one "incident" reported by DCF where she was blamed for being "aggressive."

Her case illustrates the growing criminalization of trans youth, who often find themselves running afoul of the law, particularly in the case of trans youth of color. Trans youth are profiled by police and the justice system and forced into the prison system, where they don't receive access to the physical and mental health care they may need, and are often housed with people of the opposite gender. Jane's case is particularly unjust because she was imprisoned without even being given a chance to defend herself in a court of law.

Trans children and teens are more likely to be homeless and turned out of their families, living without support networks and in potentially dangerous situations. They're also less able to access social support and help, thanks to the stigma surrounding transgender people in the United States. Jane's case is a stark illustration of the end consequences of regarding trans people as lesser and, in some cases, suspect, simply because they exist.

The United States is facing a growing mental health crisis, and it's especially difficult for young women like Jane to access care. For foster kids, it can be tough to get to stable, reliable treatment, especially if you're being shuffled between different locations and forced to rely on the limited treatment options the state will pay for. When children are experiencing severe emotional trauma, they require intense mental health services, not imprisonment -- yet, imprisonmnent and contact with the justice system is often exactly what they get. Is prison the right solution for foster kids labeled as violent? It doesn't seem like a good environment for addressing mental health problems to me.

Jane's not the only person who has been effectively imprisoned for having a mental health crisis, and having issues she needs to work on a structured, safe environment. The mental health and foster care systems in the US are such that such environments are extremely difficult to find. Jane would have no reason to trust the DCF, which repeatedly put her in placements where she was raped, molested, and assaulted, and then dumped her in prison when it decided it didn't want to deal with her anymore. Many other children and teens are facing similar situations.

Several foster families with the experience and skills to provide Jane with the support, safety, and mentoring she needs have stepped up. Yet, the state still seems to think that prison is the best placement for her, effectively saying that because she has a history of violence, she's worthless, and should be thrown into the depths of the prison system without resources or a reasonable hope of recovery.

Jane's case is being cast as a complicated one that's testing the resources of the DCF and Connecticut's policies regarding foster children, but is it? She's a young woman who needs help, not ostracization, and the longer she stays in a prison environment, the worse off she will be. While she may be accustomed to fighting to survive, the state shouldn't be putting her in the position of having to do so. Jane deserves justice, and a loving, supportive home, just like all the other trans teens out there currently struggling to live.