Why are trans women still being placed in prisons for men? This is the heated question put forth by the potent new documentary Cruel And Unusual, playing as part of the Queer Madness program at the Rendezvous With Madness Festival running Thu, Nov 9 to 18.
Directors Janet Baus, Dan Hunt and Reid Williams present the stories of five trans prisoners and the harsh conditions they’re subjected to inside and out of prison. The title comes from the eighth amendment to the US Constitution whereby prisoners are promised, “no cruel and unusual punishment inflicted.” Yet the hypocrisy is blatantly obvious in the cases of these trans women: They’re consistently harassed, mistreated, raped and abused within the US penal system.
Upon entering prison, one woman, Linda, was told by the warden, “More than likely you’ll wind up killing yourself.”
Outside of prison, these women are often forced into lives of crime due to the lack of acceptance in everyday life. Denied from working her old job on an oil rig as a trans woman, Linda turned to stealing in order to eke out a living. Meanwhile, 21-year- old Yolanda was a prostitute from the ages of 10 to 19 while Ophelia held up a bank in order to get money for her surgery.
Anna is a middle-aged trans-sexual who was living a quiet life with her son when she was sentenced for a crime she claims she didn’t commit. Upon intake, she was sexually assaulted by one of the guards, denied her hormone treatments and lost custody of her child.
All of the women in the documentary are on hormone treatments and only a couple talk about wanting or waiting for surgery. It’s not clear, however, if they are all preoperative. Whether or not a trans inmate has had genital surgery is the deciding factor for most prison systems in the US and Canada.
Most trans women are raped in prison and live with constant fear as they are surrounded by sexually aggressive men and offered little protection. The prison’s solution is to send the women to solitary confinement as a method of “protecting” them. Being locked up for 24 hours a day with no human interaction causes the women extreme emotional and physical anguish. One woman, Ophelia, took to self-mutilation and eventually tried to castrate herself. She says, “I’d rather be dead than be in prison in a body that’s not mine.”
But the documentary does present some hope. Several inmates filed lawsuits for continued hormone therapy and won in their cases. Yolanda gets released and tries for a new life while Anna has a touching reunion with her son.
A winner of several awards at different queer festivals in the US, Cruel And Unusual simply and emotionally interprets how this is not a case of human beings who’ve made mistakes, rather a justice system that is contemptuously ignorant of the world outside its walls.
Cruel And Unusual runs 66 minutes; it’s screened with Simon Lavoie’s new 20-minute drama À l’Ombre (In The Dark), where a mother, imprisoned for life in jail, struggles to maintain her fragile relationship with her young son through infrequent visits and problematic telephone calls. The Queer Madness program is Fri, Nov 10 at 7:30pm at the Workman Theatre.