Friday, October 27, 2023

By Josh McGhee

Happy Friday, MindSiters. The end of Spooky Season is coming. I hope your final weekend is filled with scary movies and pets in adorable costumes. This month, we chat with journalist Lee Romney about the failure of California prisons to uphold a state law aimed at protecting transgender prisoners. Plus, a new documentary, premiering next week, will explore treatment of the mentally ill in the Florida justice system.

Let’s get into it…

Inside the story: A conversation with a journalist on the fight to protect transgender people in prison

Correction: This version updates to correct editing errors, noting that only some correctional officers were hostile to the new law and that transfers were segregated from the general population in the reception unit, not placed in the segregation unit.

This week, MindSite News published a story looking at the implementation of a new California law, the Transgender Respect, Agency, and Dignity Act. It requires California prisons to use the chosen pronouns of incarcerated people who are intersex or identify as nonbinary or transgender and, under most circumstances, to honor their requests to be housed at a facility that aligns with their gender identity.

The story, by Lee Romney and Jenny Johnson, is part of a collaborative project with KQED that follows the struggles of Syiaah Skylit. Before the law was passed, Skylit bounced from one men’s prison to another and was forced to balance embracing her identity with the need to protect herself from violence. 

The law promised an end to the nightmare, but what has transpired has been much more complicated. Many correctional officers were hostile to the law. Some cisgender prisoners have committed acts of violence. And prison administrators did little or nothing to protect the transgender population – even as guards were stirring up cisgender inmates by depicting incoming transgender prisoners as fakers and sexual predators.

State corrections officials chose one women’s prison as the initial place where transgender women would be held. For the first month, the transfers were segregated from the general population and held in the reception unit, . As soon as Skylit arrived, guards began writing her up for minor violations. Within a month, she was in solitary confinement after being accused of a consensual relationship with her female bunkmate.

MindSite News spoke with Lee Romney about reporting on transgender people in prison, the mental health challenges they face in and out of prison, and how to make the new law actually do what it’s supposed to do.

The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

MindSite News: Your stories look at the conditions that incarcerated transgender people face in California prisons. How did you get into that story, and find the people to focus on?

Lee Romney: I teamed up a few years back with former public defender Jenny Johnson to create a podcast that takes a long view at our intersecting mental health and criminal legal systems. We’re exploring how the most vulnerable among us fare. Our starting point is historical because we have a clearer view of bias in the rearview mirror. We did our historical piece on the era when our laws and mental health diagnoses blatantly labeled LGBTQ+ people as criminal and mentally ill, essentially for being LGBTQ+. To follow the thread to the present, we asked ourselves, who in the LGBTQ+ community is still most marginalized, most criminalized, and most likely to suffer from mental health issues as a result? And the answer quickly became clear: trans folks, especially transgender women held in men’s prison, and Black trans women even more so. 

We started talking with transgender advocates in the spring of 2022, and learned about the difficult conditions for trans women who had transferred to the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla under the Transgender Respect, Agency and Dignity Act. We also learned that an anti-trans organization was behind litigation attempting to undo the law, and that the false narratives that outside groups were creating about the trans women being “fakers” and “rapists” were creating real damage to real people. We are at a moment in time when transgender people have found themselves at Ground Zero of the culture wars and we were seeing the impact of that inside CCWF in real time. 

In fall 2022, Syiaah Skylit’s attorney secured permission for us to speak with her. She wound up becoming our central character because her situation just kept getting worse and – trying to avoid a spoiler here – her case stood out in one particularly egregious way. As I tried to unravel what was true and what wasn’t, incarcerated people I was speaking with led me to others. These were transgender women, transgender men and cisgender women, whose stories I started following too.

Even outside of the prison environment, transgender people have enormous mental health challenges – very high rates of depression and suicide, in particular. How does their treatment in prison by correctional officers and other incarcerated people affect their mental health? 

This is an important question, and a complicated one. Since we were interested in the intersection of mental health and criminalization, from the outset we researched rates of mental illness. It’s important to note that when it comes to what’s known as serious mental illness — thought disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder — there’s no evidence that transgender people experience these at disproportionate rates. But depression, anxiety, PTSD, suicidal ideation and suicide, absolutely. 

Experts believe this is due to societal marginalization and bias and, for some, the stressors of gender dysphoria. Being trans doesn’t make you ill, just like being a gay man in the 1950s or 1960s didn’t make you ill. But the societal response does, and did. Being transgender also correlates with high rates of criminalization, especially for Black trans folks. One survey found that nearly 50% of Black trans respondents had been in jail or prison at some point in their lives.

As we reported this story, we learned that many Black trans women grew up in violence-prone neighborhoods, in harsh socioeconomic conditions, surrounded by gang culture and dealing with family and community trauma. That makes coming out as trans exceedingly difficult – and those who do are often met with harsh responses by everyone from close family to law enforcement. 

Imagine arriving in prison with this background. You can’t live in the wrong body forever without serious mental health consequences. Medicine and psychology acknowledge this now. The paradox is that, for some, prison is where they have an opportunity to finally be themselves in a deep and anchoring way. But being openly transgender in men’s prison brings on physical and sexual violence – from other incarcerated people and from staff. 

The data on this is stark. These traumatic conditions are brutal for mental health. They worsen PTSD, depression and anxiety. Sometimes, “going suicidal,” – self-harming – is the only way for trans people to briefly get out of danger by getting sent to a mental health crisis bed. For all  these reasons, transgender people in prison are high utilizers of mental health services compared to the overall population. 

It was emotionally difficult to report on this as people who became longtime sources, people who I grew to care about deeply, suffered in real time. In a number of cases, Syiaah’s included, I witnessed their mental health worsening and it was frankly heartbreaking. 

As you report, California passed a law to make life easier for transgender people in state prisons and give them more choices about where they are confined and who they are confined with. That’s great, but as you also report, the culture of corrections has impeded the implementation. Where do you see things going, and are other states moving in good directions?

The law was not the first to acknowledge that something had to be done to improve the safety and honor the self-expression of transgender, nonbinary and intersex people in prison. But it has a lot of strong protections for transgender people. Advocates call it the most expansive of its kind in the country. And leadership at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation wanted it to be a national model.  

But some of that leadership has moved on, and implementation has been fraught. For starters, it’s been very slow. Secondly, CCWF has proved to be an exceedingly difficult place for those who have been transferred. False narratives were pumped up by many – not all – correctional staff before the trans women even arrived. False allegations that trans women have perpetrated sexual or physical violence have been common and even when disproven have landed trans women in solitary confinement. Trans women have also been disproportionately punished for having consensual sex, which is extremely common at CCWF. Simply having enemies has also prompted prison officials to lock trans women away in solitary confinement. 

So, what needs to happen? For starters, more accountability. The law says all correctional employees must honor the chosen pronouns of the transferees. Yet in many cases, staff – including the former CCWF acting warden — have been openly hostile to the law, calling the trans women “men” and “predators.” 

We’ve heard that the atmosphere is a little better for trans women allowed to move to the California Institution for Women, in Southern California. But there’s room for improvement there too. If leadership on the ground were on board with the principles of respect for transgender people in their custody, that would certainly help. 

Many trans people at CCWF say they want more education, conversation and support groups that bring cisgender women together with trans folks to dispel myths and find common ground. Meanwhile, attorneys and advocates for incarcerated transgender people are pushing for clemency for those who have suffered the most. To be isolated for months or years and labeled “predators” after experiencing so much violence, they say, warrants compassionate release. 

As for whether any other state or federal prisons are doing a better job, I have not personally heard of any shining models of success. I’d love to be wrong about that. 

New TV doc to look at the appalling plight of mentally ill in Florida prisons

CBS News in Miami will explore the treatment of the mentally ill in the Florida justice system in a new documentary airing next week. 

The hour-long documentary follows the story of 37-year-old Tristin Murphy, who was arrested and sent to prison for littering. He died by suicide at a prison just west of Miami on Sept. 16, 2021, according to CBS News.

Following his death, the outlet launched an investigation that found police, prosecutors, judges, and prison officials pushed him through the criminal justice system without addressing his mental health needs. They also found his story is far from unique.

“WAREHOUSED: The Life and Death of Tristin Murphy” will premiere on the station on Wednesday November 1 at 10 p.m. ET. It will also be available on demand here.

Until next month,

Josh McGhee

If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and connect in English or Spanish. If you’re a veteran press 1. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing dial 711, then 988. Services are free and available 24/7.

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Type of work:

Staff reporter Josh McGhee covers the intersection of criminal justice and mental health with an emphasis on public records and data reporting. He previously reported for Injustice Watch, the Chicago Reporter,...