Black Queer Woman's Play Reveals Global Biases In Criminal Justice

Black woman in handcuffs
Black woman in handcuffs

In 2009, Maisha Yearwood an African American writer and gender non-conforming lesbian was imprisoned abroad. Arrested on trumped up drug charges, her experience in Turkey's Bakırköy prison is now the subject of a transmedia project, which includes a book, the forthcoming documentary, 9 GRAMS, and a one-woman play premiering in New York City on July 16th directed by S. Epatha Merkerson. Yearwood's tale spotlights the ways that intersectional race, gender, and sexual biases occur globally in criminal justice at the same time that it helps to highlight inequitable treatment of gender non-conforming prisoners at home.

While much exists about the overrepresentation of African American women in the US prison system, largely stemming from misguided, draconian drug laws, less is readily available about their experiences abroad. Maisha Yearwood had been returning to New York City from a trip to Israel. She had a layover in Istanbul. She had 9 grams of hash on her person when she was detained by authorities at one of the checkpoints. Typically an American caught with this amount of illegal narcotics would be deported. However, in Yearwood's case, the arresting officers alleged that she had 15 grams of hash, which meant she was considered a drug-trafficker - a far more serious offense.

Once in prison, Yearwood noticed a disproportionate number of black women locked up in Bakırköy - the majority appeared to be South African immigrants who like Yearwood were facing drug-trafficking charges. However, Maisha Yearwood differed from her black counterparts in that she was an "out lesbian" and because she was gender non-conforming the authorities treated her as even more of a threat. She was placed in solitary confinement for the safety of the other female prisoners and Yearwood was subjected to a series of invasive tests to determine whether she did in fact "have a uterus."

Transported by armed guards and handcuffed during these visits, doctors at the hospital examined her outer genitals and gave her a sonogram. Despite having what they regarded as proof of her "true sex," she remained in solitary for three months. During that time, her family and friends worked on her release. Though she was finally cleared of the more serious charge of drug trafficking and deported back to the United States, Yearwood struggled to overcome the trauma of her incarceration.

Her writing helped her survive Bakırköy, but after her release she remained haunted by not only having been denied the basics such as seeing the sun or bathing daily, but also by the screenings and interrogations about her sexuality. Yearwood's treatment and experience of solitary confinement bears similarities to how transgender prison activist, CeCe McDonald was treated during her incarceration for defending herself against a racist, transphobic attack. Released in 2014, McDonald had served 19 months in solitary in Minnesota. As the National Center for Transgender Equality explains: "Being transgender or gender non-conforming in an American jail or prison often means daily humiliation, physical and sexual abuse, and fear of reprisals for using the legal remedies to address underlying problems."

In her upcoming performance, Yearwood aims to call attention to the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality with respect to confinement globally; but also her work seeks to reframe how mainstream audiences consider and understand the incarcerated. She explained, despite being a college graduate and a successful writer, "Solitary confinement made me invisible. Simply removed from Life. Whatever Life I had simply PAUSED or disappeared."

Yearwood knows she made a mistake, just as she knows: "I sat in prison because I am a Black woman. I sat in solitary confinement because I am a butch lesbian." Ultimately, Yearwood's project challenges the use of solitary confinement for gender non-conforming prisoners at home and abroad.