Italy plans to designate a former women's prison specifically for transgender inmates. The proposal may be the first globally to separate gender variant inmates from the cisgender criminal population.
My first reaction was wariness. I tend to sniff for ulterior motive when public policy and transgender interests intersect. Perhaps it's the segregationist undertones of the proposal that leave a lingering aftertaste - a proverbial bitter pill, as it were. The transgender community seeks inclusion and equality. So the notion of an all-transgender prison, at first blush, sits as well with me as the idea that an insular, transgender gated community would provide a better way of life.
On second thought...
The reality is that as many as 30 marginalized transgender inmates will likely find themselves safer segregated behind bars in Italy's proposed transgender prison than mixing with the mainstream incarcerated population - male or female. The cisgender prison populous is where transphobia looms large.
If Italian detention centers share anything in common with US prisons, it's likely that assaults of every kind are perpetrated against transgender inmates in greater statistical percentages than any other population demographic. An all-transgender prison may not be the ideal "safe space" but it should do a better job locking out verbal harassment, emotional abuse, assault and sexual abuse.
The prison industrial complex doesn't usually account for the unique needs of the transgender population. Hormone replacement therapy is often abruptly halted, causing physical, mental and emotional trauma. Cultural incompetency of prison administrators is reflected by inappropriate pronoun use and other stigmatizing forms of misgendering.
The new Italian prison is conceptualized to bear better treatment for transgender inmates. If the Italian penal system delivers on the promise it'll be a big first-step toward inmate equality.
But why care about transgender criminals in Italy?
Because there are parallels here at home. Many of tomorrow's adult criminals start today as runaway children. New transgender youth disappear every day - fleeing extreme family ostracism, outright rejection and abuse. Approximately 1.6 million children run away each year. 20-40% of those identify as LGBTQ. A shocking statistic given they represent only 3-5% of the total US population.
Homeless and on the run, with no safe shelter and nowhere to turn, transgender youth are prey to violence as well as chronic depression, loneliness and psychosomatic illness.
LGBTQ homeless youth are 7 times more likely than their mainstream peers to be victims of crime [pdf]. In separate GLSEN studies, 74% of transgender youth reported being sexually harassed at school while 55% reported being physically attacked. The rate for transgender youth attempting suicide is 33%.
These are cold hard facts most of us don't have to face. Why should transgender children?
The combined impact of myriad physical, psychological and emotional traumas, a way of life for homeless transgender youth, often leads to drug and alcohol abuse. A pattern of "survival crime" emerges. In order to meet basic needs, trans youth can find themselves bartering their bodies in exchange for food, clothes, a roof over their head - or drugs to self-medicate the pain.
Not surprisingly, most transgender inmates of the new Italian prison will be serving time for drug offenses or prostitution. These are often self-inflicted crimes where the perpetrator and the victim are one and the same.
They are acts of desperation. Unheard cries for help. A street-smart but flawed system of survival evolves and morphs into chronic, self-destructive, dead end behavior. If the young trans-offender is "lucky" the path leads to temporary confinement, but it can easily end with a permanent home in the graveyard.
So this begs the critical question.
Is incarceration right in the first place? Does the punishment fit the crime? Perhaps community service would be a more socially redeeming and cost effective measure than converting old prisons or building new ones. At least on American shores, an even better idea would be reform of the health care and insurance industries which have long oppressed the economically disadvantaged transgender community.
Transgender adults don't have it much better than their young counterparts.
Preliminary results of the 2009 National Transgender Discrimination Survey of 6,500 transgender people in all 50 states show an unemployment rate of 20% or higher, double the overall economy rate of 10%. Pick a survey, any survey, and transgender individuals will consistently reach the highest echelons of underemployment and unemployment. Taken as a whole, this spells poverty and poor health care access for the transgender community.
That's what I call high crime.
Prison may treat the symptoms but certainly not the root cause which contributes most to transgender "crime". However sliced, it's a critical issue that begs to be heard.
Here are a few conversation starters on transgender crime prevention:
- Educational programs starting with elementary schools to promote LGBTQ understanding, respect and tolerance of diversity.
- Transgender-specific health care reform.
- Insurance coverage of transition related medical care, counseling, hormone therapy and gender confirmation surgeries.
- Mentoring programs like Big Brother/Big Sister.
- Promotion of foster parenting transgender children.
- Government and private foundation scholarship grants for transgender youth.
- Workforce development/job training programs targeted to transgender unemployment.
- Cultural competency training in both public and private sectors.
- A welcoming environment at homeless shelters which respects gender identity and expression.
- Public service announcements/educational programs to build bridges between transgender and cisgender Americans.
For more ideas and available programs visit the National Center for Transgender Equality or the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.