This Damning New Report Shows Just How Badly The U.S. Criminal Justice System Fails Trans People

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Janetta Louise Johnson is an Afro-American trans woman who was raised in Tampa, Florida. Since 2006, she has been organizing around the intersections of violence she and her trans and gender non-conforming communities of color face. As a formerly incarcerated trans person, Janetta has faced adversity and this has informed her community work as well as her deep investment in the liberation of all black trans and gender non-conforming people. She has developed a grassroots reentry program with the focus on recidivism and reentry, she is a member of the Bay Area chapter of Black Lives Matter, and is dedicated to ending capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy, and building the organizing capacity of trans and gender non-conforming communities of color as a trans warrior. She enjoys working to shift and reframe the value of black trans lives through media, education, and community building.

While caged inside the San Francisco County jail system, Athena Cadence refused food for nearly two months, surviving off of water and an unrelenting dedication to expose the agonizing reality of our country’s detention system.

For months, the 29-year old transgender woman and ex-parachuter for the Army was housed in a concrete cell in the men’s ward of San Francisco’s central jail, where she was often subject to humiliating strip searches by male corrections officers. Like so many others (queer and straight), Athena experienced abuse in the military, yet she describes her time at the jail as “the worst [I’ve] experienced,” both in terms of physical brutalization and verbal sexual harassment, which typically included misgendering by both court and sheriff’s department staff.

But something positive came out of Athena’s nationally publicized hunger strike: fresh attention to the injustice facing transgender people of color in the nation’s jails and prisons. A new report paints the most comprehensive picture to date of exactly how the U.S. criminal justice system puts the lives and life chances of trans and LGB people of color at serious risk.

Unjust: How the Broken Criminal Justice System Fails LGBT People of Color, examines how racism and anti-LGBT discrimination combine to make LGBT people of color uniquely vulnerable to entering the system and facing unfair and abusive treatment once they are in it. Coauthored by the Movement Advancement Project and the Center for American Progress, the report affirms that Athena’s mistreatment at the hands of San Francisco jail authorities is just one example of a broad epidemic of discrimination, oppression, racism and abuse behind bars.

The Unjust report confirms what the Transgender, Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project and our allies already know to be true: LGBT people of color are dramatically overrepresented in the criminal justice system. For example, one in five young people in U.S. juvenile justice facilities identify as LGBTQ, and 85 percent of these individuals are youth of color. The report also describes how LGBT people of color face rampant discrimination, bias and abuse at the hands of law enforcement, courts, immigration authorities, and re-entry programs once they’ve served their sentences.

TGI Justice is particularly outraged by something we’ve long known to be true; something that is laid bare in the report’s harrowing portrayal of the unfair and inhumane treatment of transgender people of color in confinement. Using a combination of personal stories and data, the report shows how transgender people of color are regularly placed in segregated units or solitary confinement, or else in units that are inconsistent with their gender identity. It also details the harassment and physical and sexual assault that are a daily fact of life for transgender people in jails, prisons and immigration facilities. Yet another problem highlighted in the report: deficiencies in transgender-inclusive health care — including HIV care — in prisons.

The Unjust report touches on another case that makes clear how the system targets certain bodies more than others. In 2013, Michael Johnson, a black gay student at Lindenwood University outside of St. Louis, was arrested by police and charged under Missouri’s HIV criminalization law. Michael was later convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Low-income and unable to afford a private attorney, Michael was assigned an incompetent public defender who in her opening statement reminded the jury that he was “guilty until proven innocent.”

Among Michael’s sex partners were a number of white men; the prosecutor drew on racial stereotypes to paint Michael as a sexual predator who was out to infect other gay men. The nearly all-white jury, several of whom expressed that being gay is a “sin,” deliberated for just two hours before deciding to lock up the 23-year old father of a young son.

Michael’s case highlights how racial discrimination intersects with stigma and discrimination against queer and trans people and those living with HIV. The report examines how black people are overwhelmingly more likely to be convicted under HIV criminalization laws and to receive harsher sentences than their white counterparts.

But the Unjust report doesn’t just focus on the experiences of trans and LGB people of color in confinement. It also reveals the challenges associated with re-entry into the outside world after confinement. As the report concludes, “Few LGBT people of color leaving prisons have the tools needed to truly rebuild their lives — to find safe, affordable housing, employment to provide for their needs, and adequate health care; to reconnect and reestablish family ties and connections to the community.”

The many issues and problems raised in this report aren’t news to TGI Justice and our supporters. But we hope this effort to catalogue and frame the problems for the media and policymakers around the country helps to further ignite the work that has been building over the past years to abolish the prison industrial complex, and to liberate every single one of our queer family members who is affected by it.

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