Hands on prison bars in black and white, representing the author's argument for prisons and their abolition
Credit: AZemdega/E+; Francesca Roh/Xtra
Opinion
16 min

Trans liberation can’t happen until we abolish prisons

For queer and trans people, policing and imprisonment come with deadly consequences. Instead of reforms, it’s time to consider ending incarceration altogether

On Thursday, March 12, Chelsea Manning, a trans ex-military analyst and American whistleblower, was released from a Virginia prison. It was her second release in less than three years.

Most of Manning’s recent life has been spent in incarceration. After leaking archives of military and diplomatic documents in 2010, she was held in a military brig for several months before being transferred to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. In 2016, she went on a hunger strike to gain access to gender-affirming treatment. Earlier that same year, her imprisonment became so unbearable that she attempted suicide twice and was thrown into solitary confinement as punishment. Manning was released in 2017, but was reincarcerated just two years later for refusing to testify against fellow whistleblowers. Her health declined, and she attempted suicide again before she was released four months ago. But even though she is now free, every day of her incarceration cost her $1,000 in punitive fines; she owes the U.S. government more than $250,000.

Manning’s case is exceptional, in that she is one of the most high-profile trans women to be incarcerated in the world. But her situation isn’t unique: All across the U.S. and Canada, queer and trans people are detained at disproportionate rates and subjected to mistreatment within the legal system.

For decades, people inside and outside of prisons have spoken about the intrinsic violence and injustice of incarceration. In the U.S., 2.3 million people are incarcerated—that’s nearly 700 out of every 100,000. And in Canada, roughly 114 people out of every 100,000 are incarcerated. It is an enormous and unconscionable number of people who live without basic privacy and mobility rights, are kept in poor conditions, forced into unpaid labour and systemically denied access to outside communities and opportunities.

In North America, incarceration is used as punishment for everything from violent murder to petty theft—spanning any and every interpretation of “crime,” regardless of the social harm caused—and disproportionately affects Black, Indigenous and Latinx communities. Certain communities are seen as inherently criminal, unruly and threatening; authorities often respond with incarceration. Statistically, one in three Black American young men will be incarcerated in their lifetime. Sixty percent of Black or Indigenous Americans have an immediate family member who has been incarcerated. Black men are sentenced on drug charges at more than 13 times the rate of white men. And Black women are twice as likely as white women to be incarcerated in the U.S. (the rates are even higher among young Black women).

In Canada, Indigenous people make up more than 30 percent of the country’s incarcerated population, despite only representing five percent of the country’s overall population. In certain provinces, the numbers are even higher: Roughly half of Manitoba’s prison population is Indigenous, for example, despite making up just 12 percent of the provincial population. (Neither the Office of the Correctional Investigator nor the Correctional Service of Canada agreed to comment for this article.)

These systems of criminalization and incarceration pose constant, pervasive threats to queer and trans liberation. Police and prisons lock up our siblings, cut us off from elders and community leaders, strengthen the state at the expense of economic and political freedoms and threaten the heart and life of our political movements. Police and prisons unjustly endanger the vulnerable and disenfranchised. And for queer and trans people of colour in particular, policing and imprisonment come with deadly consequences.

What is prison abolition?

Manning’s story comes in the midst of a long-overdue global uprising against police brutality and anti-Black racism. As calls to defund and dismantle police grow louder, LGBTQ2 people are also pointing out the urgency and necessity of abolition—not only of policing, but of prisons, too.

Prison reform is as old as the prison system itself. But reforms are generally inadequate and ineffective and fail to improve the conditions of the most marginalized people held inside. They also leave untouched the essential premise of incarceration: That human beings can and should be caged and exploited, rather than helped and healed.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated, reformist efforts have failed to ensure the safety of incarcerated people. In fact, prison populations are growing in North America, and the conditions for those on the inside continue to worsen. Prison often punishes those who survive violence, undermines community and reinforces gender-based violence. It’s everything that the movement for queer and trans liberation stands against. And so for many, there is only one solution: prison abolition.

Aspen* is a long-time abolitionist and trans woman who has spent time in both men’s and women’s prisons in Canada. (Her name has been changed to protect her safety.) In her view, police and prison abolition is deeply interlinked with trans liberation. That’s because, throughout American and Canadian history, acts of queerness and transness were often imprisonable offences. For decades, Canadian and American police have been dangerously negligent or openly hostile to LGBTQ2 people: Our communities have endured public attacks in the form of bar and bathhouse raids, purges of queer employees and routine harassment by police. Even Pride is the result of mass uprisings against policing. In many cases, being visibly trans was grounds for arrest and incarceration. This mistreatment is especially true for Black, Latinx and Indigenous people, who remain over-policed in public life.

Incarceration, Aspen says, operates by regulating and isolating people and bodies, undermining communities and reinforcing the idea that certain kinds of people and practices are incompatible with social life. They are ideal terrains for gender stereotyping and gendered violence, which is often further enforced by prison guards and staff.

That stereotyping usually begins with gendered housing assignments. “When the state is involved in telling you which door you walk through, based on what your presentation is or what your sex is… this is a space where sexism and hetero-patriarchy become very real and material,” Aspen says.

According to abolitionists like Aspen, that lack of safety is inherent to the prison system. Rather than “solving” violence, prisons prioritize punishment, dehumanization and repression. Prison also does not address the root causes of violence or desperation; rather, it further traumatizes people and feeds that trauma back into (often already under-resourced) communities.

Instead, abolitionists believe that safety comes as a result of equity and justice—ensuring that people have the tools and materials to defend and support one another. That in turn alleviates the need for people to take from, harm and endanger one another. It’s not only about abandoning the prison system: the idea behind abolition is to design and maintain systems that preserve life, fairly allocate resources and redress the legacies of historical injustices.

8 to Abolition, a U.S.-based campaign for police and prison abolition, puts it succinctly: “We envision abolition as not only a matter of tearing down criminalizing systems such as police and prisons that shorten the lives of Black, brown and poor people, but also a matter of building up life-sustaining systems that reduce, prevent, and better address harm.”

It’s all part of a larger vision for what a liberated world should look like. In that world, there is no place for police or prisons. Abolitionist thinkers and activists believe instead in programs that achieve justice and accountability by addressing poverty, inequality, colonialism, deprivation and disenfranchisement. More immediate demands propose alternatives in the form of specific services for mental health support, sexual violence intervention and community dispute resolution. Other ideas stress the need for guaranteed essential services—housing, education and health care—as the starting point to prevent violence and ensure safety. Many others take cues from pre-colonial Indigenous practices of community justice, which stress accountability and redress over punishment. In most cases, the long-term goal is a wholesale restructuring of society with a greater concern for human well-being.

Prison for trans folks

It’s with that lens on well-being that the details of Moka Dawkins’ incarceration show the vulnerability of trans people in prison. Her story was first published in a 2018 issue of Cell Count, a newspaper by and for incarcerated people published by Prisoners with HIV/AIDS Support Action Network (PASAN). A Black and Indigenous trans woman living in Toronto, Dawkins was working as a sex worker in 2015 when she says she was attacked by a client she considered her friend. In the process of defending herself, she injured him, and he died from his injuries. Dawkins was arrested, held in pretrial detention, charged with manslaughter and sent to prison for three years.

Throughout the legal process, she says, she was mocked and misgendered. Dawkins was given an impossible choice: Either she could be housed in a women’s prison and kept in segregation, not permitted to live with the cisgender women there, or she could go to a men’s prison and thereby risk greater gender-based harassment. Not wanting to endure the mental and physical costs of prolonged segregation, she chose to be held among men.

“These institutions continue to trample over the rights of trans people,” Aanya Wood, one of the driving forces behind the #JusticeForMoka campaign, told HuffPost Canada in January. “A lot of the focus has been on Moka’s status as a trans woman in a men’s prison, when the reality is she shouldn’t be in prison at all for defending herself against a violent client.”

What followed for Dawkins were four years of cruelty and struggle. While incarcerated, Dawkins says she was refused gender-affirming clothing, makeup and medications, and forced to advocate for herself in the face of harassment by guards and prison staff. She was placed in segregation for refusing to take off a head wrap, which she says was necessary to address the dysphoria of going without her long hair or makeup. Trapped, alone, harassed and racked with dysphoria, it was a constant fight to stay safe and stable.

“Every time it was my turn to shower, on days they let us have one, I would wrap my hair and go out, and the guards would give me hell. They would push me and yell spit into my face. They would go into my cell and throw out whatever stuff I would have in there. They would even take my mattress and give me this doggy pad type thing to sleep on,” Dawkins wrote for Cell Count. “They did everything they could to me, except try to understand me and what I was going through. With the guards doing all those things to me, inmates would join in the hateful bashing, yell ignorance at me and throw things at me from their hatch.”

Dawkins is now free, in large part due to the coordinated efforts of activists affiliated with PASAN and Maggie’s, a sex work advocacy agency based in Toronto, and a social media campaign—#JusticeforMoka—calling for her release and fighting the charges against her. She is now a harm-reduction outreach worker helping others overcome the trauma of incarceration in Toronto.

As trans scholar Viviane Namaste argues in her book Sex Change, Social Change, the relationship between trans women and incarceration is in part due to the ongoing criminalization of sex work. Trans people, especially trans women, are highly represented in sex work, in large part due to their systemic exclusion from the formal economy. While sex work is not illegal in Canada, it is still highly policed, particularly for those living and working on the street. Harassment, noise complaints, unfounded trafficking raids, bylaw enforcement and the punishment of self-defence against violent clients ensure that sex workers are both legally vulnerable and economically precarious. Police are also often negligent when it comes to investigating sex workers’ reports of harassment or disappearances.

And as recently as 2017, Canadian facilities did not have to house trans people according to their lived gender. Activists, however, still consider the 2017 law to be a band-aid solution to the problems that trans people face in prisons—and cases like Dawkins’ are proof.

Dawkins’ case is also reminiscent of CeCe McDonald, a Black American trans woman who was arrested and incarcerated in 2011 after defending herself against white supremacists in Minneapolis. McDonald opted to take a plea deal and served 19 months in men’s facilities. In her words, McDonald didn’t have much of a choice in where she was held due to the transphobia and anti-Blackness of her court proceedings, during which the judge and prosecution refused to accept evidence of self-defence or acknowledge her trans identity.

For many trans people, the overlapping influences of racism, transphobia, economic precariousness and gender-based discrimination put us at high risk of criminalization and incarceration. While LGBTQ2 people are generally more economically disadvantaged than our straight and cisgender counterparts, Black and Indigenous LGBTQ2 people and especially trans people of colour experience outsized marginalization and repression; as a result, they experience higher rates of homelessness and greater risk of dangerous run-ins with law enforcement in Canada and in the U.S. Around 29 percent of trans people in the U.S. live in poverty—which is twice the national average—and more than 40 percent of Black trans people in the U.S. have been homeless at some point.

Statistics on homeless youth, a highly vulnerable demographic, reveal the dramatic link between LGBTQ2 homelessness and incarceration. Canadian researchers have found that about 20 to 25 percent of the city’s homeless youth population identifies as LGBTQ2, while researchers associated with the National LGBTQ Task Force (formerly the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force) found those numbers doubled in the U.S. And though young LGBTQ2 folks make up only 5 to 7 percent of the U.S. youth population, they make up 20 percent of incarcerated youths. Activists allege a “revolving door” linking homelessness with incarceration: People who have been to prison are seven to 13 times more likely to be homeless than those who have not, according to a report by the Prison Policy Initiative.

American abolitionist organization Survived and Punished attributes this in part to how the legal system itself criminalizes and harasses survivors of violence when they belong to marginalized communities. In these cases, survivors who do not choose to go along with the criminal legal system or who defend themselves against interpersonal and institutional violence are punished—either through extended incarceration, mistreatment by prison staff, deportation or denial of services and access to community.

That’s what happened to Dawna Brown, a Two-Spirit Indigenous trans woman who, until recently, was held against her wishes in a men’s prison. Brown was finally transferred to Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ontario, after having to make a case to the Canadian correctional system explaining “why she thinks she’s a woman.” (Recalling Brown’s situation, her partner described the process as “disgusting.”)

Today, Brown remains incarcerated, cut off from her community; according to her column in last fall’s edition of Cell Count, the prison system has brought more harm than healing. Further information on her case also remains hard to access—a Facebook page dedicated to Brown’s release has not been updated since April and its moderators did not return requests for comment.

The problem with punishment

People who defend incarceration as a practice often raise the example of murderers and rapists as people who “deserve” to be locked up forever. But even if it were true that most murderers and rapists actually ended up incarcerated for their crimes (in fact, the opposite is true: Less than one percent of reported incidents of rape result in incarceration), and even if it were true that prisons only housed people who committed these egregious acts (when we know that they do not), rehabilitation, education or accountability often fail to take place within the prison system. When it comes to crime reduction, prisons are generally unsuccessful: Multiple studies have found that long sentences do little to deter future violence and do nothing to attend to the root causes of violent behaviour. As one paper in the Yale Law & Policy Review notes, incarceration produces more opportunities for rape, abuse, murder and cruelty within the walls of the prison, often overwhelmingly endangering the most vulnerable, including trans people. Prisons don’t solve violent crime, they house it.

“We’re not going to stop sexual violence by continuing to criminalize people,” Mariame Kaba, a long-time Black feminist and abolitionist organizer, told Vice in 2018. “If you’re anti-rape, you’re going to have to be anti-prison.”

Moreover, prisons are poorly equipped to address the problems of assault and abuse when they occur on the inside. In U.S. state prisons, 275 for every 100,000 people die on the inside, often in worrying spikes—though many state facilities don’t adequately track the number of deaths that occur in prison, including those held for pretrial detention. Health care for those on the inside is widely disregarded, especially when those folks are Black, Indigenous or transgender. Guards and prison staff routinely ignore incidents of violence among incarcerated people—or worse, they participate in abuse and punish people for resistance or nonconformity. And more often than not, segregation is used as punishment, not protection, according to a report by the U.S. LGBTQ2 legal organization Lambda Legal.

While the Canadian legal system has instituted some reforms in the housing of trans people, Brown’s and Dawkins’ experiences shed light on what these changes tangibly mean for trans folks. The policies and guidelines of Correctional Service Canada, for example, have an official “duty to accommodate” the identities and histories of incarcerated trans people. In practice, however, their placement in safer facilities, as well as their access to gender-affirming medication and clothing, is a constant struggle. It requires legal and bureaucratic maneuvering on the part of incarcerated people and social services personnel on the outside. It requires, in the case of Brown, trans people to explain and plead for recognition of their gender. Most often, these attempts to respect trans identity end up being humiliating, dehumanizing exercises.

U.S. federal law also requires state prisons to house transgender people based on where they feel safest. But out of the 4,890 incarcerated trans people in U.S. state prisons identified in 2019 by NBC News in 45 U.S. states (and Washington, D.C.), only 15 were confirmed to be housed according to their lived gender. In these facilities, incarcerated trans people are at exceptional risk of assault, sexual violence, routine harassment by guards and staff and denial of gender-affirming care.

According to Aspen, that element of cruelty is integral to the system. “This is the role that [the system] has always filled—as a training ground or factory for producing gendered violence,” she says.

Aspen argues that, even if well-intentioned, focusing on reforms to make prisons more “equal” or palatable for trans people fundamentally recreates the same forms of gendered violence that trans liberation seeks to abolish. Black feminist abolitionist Angela Davis echoes this in her 2003 book Are Prisons Obsolete? Tracing the history of women’s prisons, Davis notes that every move toward “equal treatment” of incarcerated women over the past two centuries ultimately resulted in more aggressive punishment, particularly against Black, Latina and Indigneous women. By the late 1800s, U.S. women’s facilities were primarily for white women; women of colour were considered too inherently criminal to be saved, and were often sent to men’s prisons instead. Prisons relied upon race to create two distinct gendered categories, even within the broad tent of “woman.”

Legally enshrined racial segregation went out of fashion, but it remained standard practice even after the Civil War, particularly in the southern states. (As for racial segregation in Canadian prisons, official documents are fuzzy on dates and details. But as Canadian scholar Robyn Maynard argues, it would be inaccurate to the history of anti-Black criminalization in Canada to take this absence of official acknowledgement as evidence of Canadian anti-racism.) White women were seen as “fallen women,” suffering from gender deviance that could be reformed through punishment and training in domestic labour. But, as Davis writes, “Black women endured the cruelties of the convict lease system unmitigated by the feminization of punishment; neither their sentences nor the labour they were compelled to do were lessened by virtue of their gender.”

Contemporary reforms have done no better. As demands for “equal treatment” grew, they did so without prompting a reconsideration of the prison system altogether; instead, as Davis notes, women were given longer sentences, higher conviction rates, harsher punishments, greater restrictions and less access to outside support. “Paradoxically, demands for parity with men’s prisons, instead of creating greater educational, vocational and health opportunities for women prisoners, often have led to more repressive conditions for women,” she writes.

The same principle holds true in the case of incarcerated trans people: Reforms have minimally pacified public outcry, but they function on an idea of “gender equality” that takes for granted racialized violence against incarcerated people.

The situation of solitary confinement is one the clearest illustrations of how reform fails vulnerable incarcerated people. The target of reforms for years, solitary confinement is widely recognized as a form of psychological and physical torture. But when Canada officially abolished solitary confinement in late 2019, it was immediately replaced with something called “Structured Intervention Units,” or SIUs. The new SIUs are effectively indistinguishable from the older system of segregation; people are still isolated for 20 hours a day in 10-by-6-foot cells. And though the reform promises “meaningful human contact,” it is no substitute for genuine community and solidarity.

Ending the practice of solitary confinement altogether in the U.S. and Canada would be an easy, concrete way to curtail death and suffering on the inside—but reformists have left it untouched. That’s left incarcerated people with existing physical and mental health concerns facing even more dire consequences. Layleen Polanco Xtravaganza, a Black Latina trans woman who was incarcerated in Rikers Island prison in 2019, died while in punitive segregation. That’s where she was denied appropriate medical care, despite guards knowing about her pre-existing health concerns. (In June 2020, the Bronx district attorney ruled that there was “no criminality” behind Polanco’s death in custody.) When trans people—particularly from Black, Indigenous and Latinx communities who already face higher risks for chronic health issues—are placed in segregation, they are likely to suffer horrific long-term mental and physical health effects, including death.

And Black, Latinx and Indigenous individuals tend to be placed in segregation more often and for longer periods than white people. In Canada, Indigenous women are disproportionately affected by the violence of segregation. They are assessed as “higher risk” by a legal system that refuses to acknowledge histories of colonialism and racism, and the prison system treats them as inherently violent, unstable and unworthy of basic care.

In this light, Indigenous women like Dawna Brown and Moka Dawkins are not exceptional cases: They reveal the ordinary, extraordinary cruelty of incarceration, and the incapacity of reforms to undo these systems of harm.

Today, Chelsea Manning is safely home and out of prison. She suffered horribly, and will live with the costs—mental, physical and financial—of her unjust incarceration for the rest of her life. But right now, she is free. Not everyone gets released; not everyone makes it. She has been through hell, and still, she is one of the lucky ones.

As queer and trans people, the treatment of our trans siblings on the inside should be cause for horror. Prisons do not work; they are obsolete, dangerous, inhumane devices. They represent everything that our liberation stands against. Rather than being reformed, they need to be abolished altogether.

Prison abolition is an urgent and necessary project for trans and queer liberation. More people are in prisons today than ever before in human history—if incarceration worked, it would have worked already. So if we care about solving these social problems, we should recognize that prisons are not part of the solution. In fact, they often exacerbate these issues. We must ask ourselves what it really means to support and protect trans people. If we are committed to trans rights, we must also commit to ending incarceration—now and forever.