Keri Renault

Italy's All-Transgender Prison: That's Amore?

Filed By Keri Renault | January 16, 2010 2:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: cisgender people, drug abuse, incarceration, Italy, LGBT Health Care Reform, LGBT homeless, LGBT homeless youth, Pozzale, prison industrial complex, prostitution, transgender prison, transphobia

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.

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we could also start by decriminalizing sex work and vehemently opposing the criminalization of HIV transmission.

but that would make the good heteronormative gays look bad by supporting "bad" behaviors. and they would NEVER stoop to that level, right? we'd rather just teach cultural and linguistic competency to our prison guards and lock people up more nicely...

uggg. how depressing.

we could also start by decriminalizing sex work and vehemently opposing the criminalization of HIV transmission.

but that would make the good heteronormative gays look bad by supporting "bad" behaviors. and they would NEVER stoop to that level, right? we'd rather just teach cultural and linguistic competency to our prison guards and lock people up more nicely...

uggg. how depressing.

I believe there used to be a trans only prison in New York, but they dismantled it.

Part of my wariness about such prisons is that every prison built always gets filled and building more prisons just means resigning ourselves to higher prisoner rates. That's been true in every historical case at least here in the U.S. I don't know anyone who's ever heard of a new prison that doesn't fill up right away.

A long time ago, all prisons used to be all-genders. In the nineteenth century people decided to set up women's prisons and soon after women's incarceration rates went up to make up for it. As for protecting women, they still get assaulted by the guards. We don't need to start developing a trans prison industry.

Kathy Padilla | January 16, 2010 3:45 PM

This is only considered needed because of the safety issues when trans women are incarcerated with men. Not when they are treated as women in the system. So, it's not an inclusion issue - it's an issue of noninclusion by not accepting people as their affirmed gender. It's not just an issue for those who haven't had grs as some woman with trans histories and who have had bottom surgery where incarcerated with men, with the expected horrific results.

The WashBlade Story isn't online any longer, but DC Police incarcerated a post-operative trans woman with men. She was raped several times:

Trans woman reports sexual assault in D.C. male cellblock
Incident prompts police to consider changing record system

Friday, November 28, 2003

A transsexual woman arrested last month in a domestic dispute was placed in a male cellblock at the D.C. Superior Court after authorities determined they had no procedure for changing her gender from male to female in the court’s criminal records system.

The incident, in which one or more male prisoners reportedly sexually assaulted the woman, has prompted D.C. police and court officials to consider changing a record system that failed to recognize her correct gender, despite the fact that she had undergone sex-change surgery and a legal name change"

There were cases of in the US where judges ordered trans women who hadn't had bottom surgery to womens' prisons back into the 60's. If memory serves - here's one from 28 years ago:

Detroit Free Press (MI)
March 19, 1982
Author: JOHN CASTINE Free Press Staff Writer

Ricardo Ellington, a 25-year-old genetic male undergoing a sex-change
procedure, will be incarcerated with women if sentenced to prison next
month on a felony conviction, an Oakland County judge ruled Thursday.

Oakland County Circuit Judge George La Plata announced the ruling
after he heard an expert in the field of "sexual identification"
testify that Ellington should go to a woman's prison because he "acts
and perceives herself as a female.""

This new facility was preceded by the lgbt facility at Rikers Island that existed for decades until it was closed in 2005:

City Prepares to Close Rikers Housing for Gays
Published: December 30, 2005

For at least three decades, gay and transgender inmates had their own housing unit inside Rikers Island's sprawling jail complex. To be admitted, all a new inmate had to do was declare homosexuality, or appear to be transgender, and ask to be kept out of Rikers's main jails.

The idea, city correction officials said, was to protect vulnerable inmates who might otherwise become victims of discrimination or sexual abuse in the rough world of the general inmate population. The only other metropolitan jail to separate gay and transgender inmates is Los Angeles County Jail. Gay inmates there, however, are forced to live separately from other inmates.


There's been so many stories on the torturous treatment transwomen face in the criminal justice system, but here's a few to consider:

"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."

My opinion is that it might be positive if and only if it's up to the trans person to choose in what kind of prison where they shall be detained. In this case it might be a (probably poor) palliative to the deeply wrong current situation.

If it's not, it just looks like segregating a minority against its will...

And yes, I agree with the above remarks: I am not certain the solution is really to have more prison, and maybe questioning the need to criminalize prostitution and drug usage would be a better start to make things change...

Keri, I may have missed it, but did you give your final verdict on whether or not you think the trans prison is a good idea or a bad one? What's your final verdict on it.?

I don’t have a definitive opinion on merit of a transgender prison. The short answer would be the Italian transgender prison is a better bet than incarceration within a traditional prison population, designated by gender.

Transphobia, transmisogyny and gender identity oppression create too many gray areas to conclude that one method of incarceration is more fair & equitable than another. It is the adverse social conditions which contribute to crime that need be brought into focus.

At this time in history transgender prisoners are not safe in either the population of their birth sex or expressed gender identity. Prisons are largely segregated by gender with the social expectations of that gender enforced, often to the detriment of the transgender/gender variant/intersex inmate. In special circumstances, the transgender inmate may be assigned “administrative segregation” to prevent violence. However, these transgender inmates are not only isolated from the entire prison population, but rehabilitative programs as well.

I would most certainly cast my vote on behalf of aggressive prison reform. Legalizing prostitution may be a good idea. It would create safer, healthier work conditions. But even these are band aid approaches.

What’s morally imperative to me is critical assessment of the circumstances behind transgender crime. Social ostracism from family, homelessness and poverty are rampant in the LBGTQ community, acutely so with transgender. These are the greatest contributors to substance abuse and prostitution and thus “crime”.

Halfway houses should be a more readily mandated alternative to incarceration.

Unless these inequities---especially those suffered by our youth---are addressed through reform we can expect continued transgender incarceration and resultant violence. A safe, welcoming home environment, equality of opportunity in the real world, access to public resources and trans-specific health care services would go a long way toward leveling the playing field. When that day arrives transgender “crime” will be on the decline.

In Italy prostitution is not illegal (while pimping is), it's possible that most of these trans women are in jail for prostitution-related crimes (drugs and illegal immigration) or, of course, "normal" crimes.
BTW, while Italy is backwards in too many things to be counted, after surgery (unfortunately only after) trans people can have all of they data changed to the new identity and all the old documents are destroyed.


In fact, you're correct, Luciano. Most of the trans-women were incarcerated for prostitution-related charges. Which is precisely why it's vital to underscore that this type of "crime" is preventable with equal opportunity. Until the worldwide LGBT community is able to enjoy that right, inequity will persist, from homelessness on the streets to survival "crime" to prison abuse.

Thanks for the heads up on the legal status of prostitution in Italy. The streets would be safer with it legal here (hopefully keeping the pimps at bay). Having birth certificate records changed in the US isn't federally mandated. So, regretablly, it's a state by state issue in which the best interests of the trans-community are most certainly not served.

Luciano Molina | January 18, 2010 5:40 PM

I have some experience with how it is in the USA as my wife is Texan and there a Judge changed her name and sex on the documents. Then she came in Italy and, after a quick trip to Thailand for her surgery, we married.

I think that hypocrisy is the biggest obstacle on the path of true equity. Here in Italy (a country where only 20-30% of people go to church the Sunday and where often people tells you "I believe there could be a god but not in the church, of course") I see people that don't have problems cheating on their partner or their companies, fooling around before and after they are married and where corruption is widespread, but every time there is the need to screw the right of someone else the majority is suddenly, absolutely in step with the church and the conservative leaders (all of them so pro-family to have more than one and often bragging about their sex exploits).

Religious hypocrisy is also what made me analyze my faith and one of the reasons I became an atheist when I was 18 y.o., 33 years ago.


One side that's being ignored here is the xenophobic aspect to creating this prison. The vast majority of trans women sex workers in Italy are either Brazilian or Pinay (from the Philippines). So what you then have is a facility which not only third genders trans women but is also sorting them out by their foreign nationality. While I appreciate the lip service given to the safety of trans inmates, I'd like to reserve judgement for several years as to whether they're really any safer in this new institution and not attacked by guards or other corrupt parts of society... like Italian politicians or bureaucrats. I agree with Tobi how when prison facilities are built, their existence will be justified by making efforts to fill the prison and hassling the community even more to do so.