CeCe McDonald and the Safety Paradox of Transgender Prison Inmates

CeCe McDonald is currently living with the general population of a men's prison in Minnesota. The question remains of whether she can ever really be safe as long as she's incarcerated.
Publish date:
June 12, 2012
social justice, prison, transgender

CeCe McDonald, whose adult gender identity matters less to prison officials than her sex at birth. (Image via supportcece.wordpress.com)

The case of CeCe McDonald -- the transgender woman I wrote about last month, who plead guilty to manslaughter following an incident that many believe was fully justified self-defense -- continues to shed light on current legal issues affecting the lives of trans folks. This weekend Melissa Harris-Perry took the opportunity on her MSNBC show to bring more attention to the issue of CeCe’s confinement, and discussed the subject with Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.

CeCe’s story is already a collection of injustices, but her plea deal was barely the beginning of what is sure to be an uphill climb for the duration of her incarcertion. US prisons are divided by binary gender, and these institutions are only required to place inmates by their sex at birth -- that is, they are free to ignore the gender identity of an inmate and to privilege her genitalia regardless of how the inmate herself feels about it.

As a result, CeCe has spent her time since her sentencing last week in a men’s prison facility in St. Cloud, MN, spending most of it in “administrative segregation,” known more colloquially as solitary confinement, ostensibly for her own protection. Acoording to Keisling, McDonald has more recently joined the general men’s population.

My kneejerk reaction to this is stark horror: A California study found that transgender women prisoners housed in all-male facilities are 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted. But as in most things in life, the reality is far more complicated. According to Katie Burgess of the Trans Youth Support Network, quoted in Colorlines:

“People tend to think about how CeCe identifies as a woman and say she should be able to go to a women’s facility. But there’s really no history of transgender people being placed according to their gender identity. So once CeCe is placed in a permanent facility, she’ll look around and decide if she feels safe there. If she doesn’t, she’ll move forward with a civil suit against the Department of Corrections to be relocated to a safer place. That may or may not be a women’s prison.”

Keisling adds:

“...There are a lot of trans women who think they would prefer to be in a male cell, or male population, where they know that the other transgender women have traditionally been, where they may understand the culture a little bit better, where they’re not worried about how they’ll fit into a women’s prison.”

The unfortunate truth is that a women’s facility may not be any safer for CeCe than the men’s option. And continued solitary confinement is not really a healthy and equitable alternative. Burgess notes that CeCe herself has asserted that “there is really no safe place for her within the Department of Corrections,” nor for the nine other transgender inmates currently incarcerated in the Minnesota prison system.

In accordance with the recently-enacted Prison Rape Elimination Act (which places special emphasis on improving the treatment and protection of LGBT inmates, who face markedly greater incidences of rape and abuse in correctional facilities), CeCe may get some input into where she winds up, but ultimately she will have to face the state evaluation process. The evaluation committee typically has no training in sensitivity to trans issues, and according to Burgess, relies on genitalia and “orientation” to make the call, and usually treats trans individuals as de facto sexual predators, even though statistically this group is far more like to be predated upon.

More distressingly, CeCe could hypothetically be denied her hormone treatments, depending on the details of the final decision.

Of course, the core issue in this story is the horrifying circumstances of the US prison system and its culture of violence, rape and abuse, perpetrated both by inmates and by prison staff as well. These horrors are only amplified for women in CeCe’s position, who cannot even rely on the relative (and nebulous) safety of gender exclusivity that many of us take for granted every time we go into a restroom with a figure on the door that matches our sex at birth.

While some may argue that prisons are not supposed to be pleasant, there needs to be a clearly defined line between what is reasonable punishment and what is dangerously cruel. CeCe is not the only trans woman facing this conflict, although she may be at present the one with the most identifiable face, and we can hope that her situation will continue to bring attention to an issue too often left in the dark.