I posted the other day about Maria Benita Santamaria, a transgender woman sent to prison after she was found with ten pounds of meth on her. She was sent to a men's prison, put in solitary confinement, and denied hormones after having been on them for two years.
Considering the reaction to the post, I probably didn't explain my position sufficiently. I'll admit, I took a few shortcuts in that post since I assumed we were all coming from a similar perspective on some basic issues, like that transitioning isn't just playing dress-up and that people shouldn't be treated differently because they're L, G, B, or T.
To clarify, I don't think that what Santamaria did was just peachy and that she should be allowed to traffic meth as she pleases. The specific problems I had were:
1. She was denied basic medical care that she required, medical care that reduces depression and suicide among transgender people. Her sex hormones were sent out of whack because of the prison's refusal to provide basic care, which caused her body to start showing secondary sex characteristics of the opposite gender. Forcibly altering sex hormone levels is not something prisons do to cissexual prisoners.
2. She was sentenced to solitary confinement for six months, which is a torture technique. Anything longer than a week is enough to start breaking someone's brain, and they kept her there for administrative reasons. Long-term solitary confinement has almost been declared cruel and unusual punishment, and she was put in it (and asked to be released) for "her safety." Again, this is not something they would have done to her if she were a cissexual woman - she would have just been placed in a women's prison.
More on each after the jump.
Transgender people should have a right to hormone therapy in prison
Actually, let's start the conversation by talking about a cissexual gay man - Alan Turing, fighter of Nazis and computer pioneer. Here's a brief description of how Turing died:
In January 1952 Turing picked up 19-year-old Arnold Murray outside a cinema in Manchester. After a lunch date, Turing invited Murray to spend the weekend with him at his house, an invitation which Murray accepted although he did not show up. The pair met again in Manchester the following Monday, when Murray agreed to accompany Turing to the latter's house. A few weeks later Murray visited Turing's house again, and apparently spent the night there.
After Murray helped an accomplice to break into his house, Turing reported the crime to the police. During the investigation, Turing acknowledged a sexual relationship with Murray. Homosexual acts were illegal in the United Kingdom at that time, and so both were charged with gross indecency under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, the same crime that Oscar Wilde had been convicted of more than fifty years earlier.
Turing was given a choice between imprisonment or probation conditional on his agreement to undergo hormonal treatment designed to reduce libido. He accepted chemical castration via oestrogen hormone injections, one of the side effects of which was that he grew breasts.[...]
On 8 June 1954, Turing's cleaner found him dead; he had died the previous day. A post-mortem examination established that the cause of death was cyanide poisoning. When his body was discovered an apple lay half-eaten beside his bed, and although the apple was not tested for cyanide, it is speculated that this was the means by which a fatal dose was delivered. An inquest determined that he had committed suicide, and he was cremated at Woking crematorium on 12 June 1954.
Alan Turing was convicted of a crime that he most likely committed. The court found him guilty, and, instead of prison, he had the "choice" to let the state mess with his sex hormones. He was injected with female sex hormones, and they changed his body.
I can only imagine the experience of having one's body start showing secondary sex characteristics of the opposite sex, the discomfort, humiliation, and dysphoria that would cause. And I'm sure it did a number on Turing, who eventually committed suicide. There is a connection between gender identity and the comfort one has in their own body if it doesn't match up.
Moreover, even if growing breasts were just dandy for Turing, I'm incredibly weary of the government changing someone's sex hormones as a punishment for committing any crime. In the US today, courts have upheld the right of prisoners to protect their bodily integrity and have rejected as cruel and unusual various punishments that require people to be injected with something or have some form of surgery.
While the Court hasn't ruled on whether messing with people's sex hormones (like in chemical castration) is cruel and unusual punishment, the court ruled on vasectomies in Davis v. Berry and said that both vasectomies and castration were cruel and unusual punishment for the same reasons: "the humiliation, degradation, and mental suffering are always present and known."
I also don't remember anyone defending the British government's actions when Gordon Brown apologized. Sure, what he did hasn't been a crime in the US since all the way back in 2003, but he did do something that was a crime in the time and place he lived. And even if he were instead convicted of, say, trafficking ten pounds of meth, would the punishment have been appropriate?
While it's a whole lot easier to say that whatever punishment a criminal gets is appropriate since they knew of the laws in advance and could have altered their behavior (an argument that applies 100% to Alan Turing's case since I'm sure he knew sodomy was illegal), we still live in something called a civilization, and we're still free-thinking individuals who can and should be questioning the criminal justice system's actions. The punishment can be too large for the crime, and even people who commit crimes still have basic human rights.
Back to Santamaria, who is not as illustrious of a figure as Turing but still a human being. I find her situation to be pretty much the same, except for the means through which the state is coming to the same end: mess with her body chemistry and change her sex hormones so that her body starts to show signs of the opposite gender. The prison chose to deny her needed hormone therapy instead of forcing her, as Britain did to Turing, to take the incorrect hormones, but that doesn't change the basic fact that her body started showing signs of the opposite gender as a result of the state's intervention in her body chemistry:
Alterman said Santamaria was born a male, but lives life as a woman and has a feminine appearance. She has been undergoing hormone treatment in preparation for a sex change operation for the past two years. Since she's been in prison, however, Alterman says Santamaria has not received the hormones and has started to grow facial hair.
Turing grew breasts as a result of being forced to take the incorrect sex hormones for his gender, and Santamaria started growing facial hair as a result be being forced to stop taking the correct sex hormones for her gender. Turing committed suicide, Santamaria is considering suicide and the actual risk of her doing so has been greatly increased. I'm not seeing a profound difference; Virginia just found a different way to do the same thing.
The judge who ordered the prison, for a second time, to transfer her to a federal prison that will treat transgender prisoners properly (I don't know if that exists or if she'll actually be transferred) likely understands that as well. Some people need special medical treatment, and the fact that they commit crimes doesn't change that. A diabetic needs insulin regularly, someone with a heart condition might be put on permanent medication. Cutting off those treatments, even if the patient is convicted of trafficking meth, isn't a punishment a civilized society uses.
And we don't deny those people those treatments because they cost the state money, because we don't want to have to pay for someone else's medical treatment. People in prison don't have access to medical care the way most Americans get it: through their employer, through marriage, or by going to a doctor and just paying for it. If we're going to be putting people in prison, we take on the responsibility for making sure they get basic medical care, as well as nutritious food and other basics. If we don't want that responsibility, then we shouldn't put them in prison.
Of course, the fact that providing a diabetic with insulin is uncontroversial while providing a transgender person with the appropriate hormones is controversial really just speaks to the way most Americans see transsexual/transgender people, not to any actual medical or policy or financial issue. Maybe they just think "That's stupid" or "I don't get why they need treatment" or just plain "Ick," but when they say "State money shouldn't pay for GRS or hormone replacement therapy," they're basically saying, "Transsexualism is just a game and prison isn't a time for games."
Because, you know, if we were really interested in saving the prison system some money, we'd just stop sending so many people to prison.
Long-term solitary confinement is torture
I included a quotation the other day from an expert on solitary confinement who talked about why it's usually included as part of a torture regimen: denying people human contact can break their brains. Humans are social animals and they need contact with other people for basic mental health and to maintain an identity.
But that was a hippy-dippy anti-torture professor who thinks that just because he devotes his life to studying a subject that he knows something about it. Everyone knows that people who oppose torture are living in a dream world and are completely Unserious and should be ignored. Perhaps the pro-torture, conservative Washington Post is more convincing?
At one time shunned in the United States, solitary confinement is becoming a tool increasingly used by corrections officials trying desperately to keep order in grossly overcrowded and sometimes chaotic prisons. These decisions are made even though solitary confinement costs roughly twice as much as keeping an inmate in the general prison population. At any given time, experts estimate that 25,000 to 100,000 prisoners are kept in some sort of "special housing unit" where they are isolated and kept apart from the general prison population.
A short stint in solitary for most does not result in serious or permanent harm. But more prolonged stays of months or years -- a practice not uncommon in many states -- can result in devastating psychological damage, including psychosis and debilitating depression. Studies have also shown that inmates kept in solitary confinement for prolonged periods display higher levels of hostility than those in the general prison population; they tend to carry this hostility with them after they are returned to the general prison population or released back into the community.
Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, estimates that some 30 percent of prisoners in solitary confinement suffer from serious mental illness -- at least some of it entirely induced by the isolation. Sometimes the only justification given for sending an inmate to solitary confinement is the desire to separate him from fellow gang members.
Americans used to recognize that solitary confinement was excessively cruel punishment. Back in the 1800's, solitary confinement was almost banned:
It wasn't always like this. The wide-scale use of isolation is, almost exclusively, a phenomenon of the past twenty years. In 1890, the United States Supreme Court came close to declaring the punishment to be unconstitutional. Writing for the majority in the case of a Colorado murderer who had been held in isolation for a month, Justice Samuel Miller noted that experience had revealed "serious objections" to solitary confinement:
A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others, still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover suffcient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.
That was written in 1890. We can't pretend like we don't know that solitary confinement isn't torture nowadays. The only thing that's changed is that we've become a more heartless and cruel society that sees torture as just another thing that people who commit crimes have coming to them. If they didn't want to be tortured, then they shouldn't have committed the crime!
Santamaria was put in solitary confinement for six months because prison staff say they feared she would be raped. She is there because she is transgender. If she were a cis woman, then she would have been put in a women's facility and her risk of being raped would have been the same as anyone else's, which is still unacceptably high (unacceptable to me, but the fact that no one really wants to do anything substantive to fight violence in prison shows that it's acceptable to most people). The Washington Examiner describes how Santamaria's living:
Despite that, "[Santamaria] has repeatedly tried to convince jail personnel that she is willing to risk being in general population," court documents said.
That's because Santamaria "is treated no differently than inmates on punitive lockdown," Alterman said. Santamaria is let out of her cell for one hour a day and allowed to shower every three days. Her solitary cell has no windows and Santamaria has considered suicide, Alterman said.
We can say that she needs to be there because of the risk of rape, but that risk doesn't have to be there in the general population and she's willing to take that risk over solitary confinement.
Prison guards have a terribly tough job and this is one of the few punishments that they can use since prisoners are, by definition, already in prison. Overcrowding is part of the reason prisons are more unruly nowadays, although solitary confinement costs a whole lot more than putting someone in a regular cell. And, as I said above, if we want to save money on prisons, we could just stop sending so many people there.
While long-term solitary confinement is torture and is therefore immoral when used on anyone in my book, the fact that Santamaria was placed there just because she is transgender makes it all that much more offensive. She would not have gotten solitary if she were a cissexual woman; she would have just been placed in a women's facility. It's both an equality and a criminal justice system issue.
There are too many people in prison in the US
I've mentioned already a few times that if we really want to deal with prison overcrowding, if we really want to save money when it comes to prisons, we would just stop sending so many people to prison.
If this level of imprisonment is appropriate, if we need for all these people to be punished in prison in order to be safe, then we have to wonder why. Are Americans substantially more criminal than people in other countries? Are people in 2010 more violent than they were in the 70's? Is an entire 1% of the adult population so dangerous that they must be kept away from the other 99% of us?
Prison budgets are one of the last things a state will cut; the reason overcrowding is getting out of hand is because there are just so many people in prison nowadays. Surveilling, feeding, restricting, housing, and giving medical treatment to 1% of the adult population is expensive, so we've decided to cut corners instead of questioning why it is that so many people are in prison. We just worsen conditions, say that they're guilty of something so they knew they had it coming, and continue on with our lives because we don't have to look at them.
Since so much of the prison population comes from poor and minority communities, most people with the most power to change the system often don't even know someone who's been in prison. That's a disconnect, and any disconnect between people and peoples allows for cruelty. We don't want our friends and neighbors treated badly, we especially don't want to be treated badly ourselves, but those other people we don't know? They probably deserve it.
Updated at 6:40PM for clarity and mechanics.