[EMRAWI:] Female Keep Separate: Prisons, Gender, and the Violence of Inclusion

When final­ly the cell door clo­ses, when the jang­ling keys rece­de, you’­ve arri­ved as far as you’­re going that day. Then you can exha­le alo­ne with your mat­tress and be in your own body again, your body no lon­ger a pro­blem to be sol­ved or a ques­ti­on to be ans­we­red. Just your own fami­li­ar weight under the blan­ket, whe­re you can just shake and shake and try to sleep and get rea­dy for wha­te­ver hap­pens next.

I’ve done time in both men and women’s pri­sons, and from this I’ve lear­ned a lot of things about the world we live in. About gen­der and how the sta­te per­cei­ves it, about how gen­der is a form of con­trol. Here in the ter­ri­to­ry cal­led Cana­da, the sta­te chan­ged its rules about how its insti­tu­ti­ons enga­ge with gen­der a few years ago by lis­ting “gen­der iden­ti­ty” as a char­ter-pro­tec­ted cate­go­ry, like race or sex, in Bill C‑16i. This meant that all the arms of the sta­te have been requi­red to figu­re out what it means to respect self-iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­on around gen­der.

In the stark, vio­lent world of pri­son, the weak­ness of the libe­ral frame­work of gen­der is very clear. Cana­di­an socie­ty offi­cial­ly approa­ches dif­fe­rence posi­tively, through inclu­si­on of diver­se iden­ti­ties based on self-iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­on. This is in many ways the pro­duct of strugg­le, but we also have to be able to cri­tique it to con­ti­nue working towards a world without pri­son and the vio­lence of gen­der. We will get into this more in a minu­te, but adop­ting the state’s pure­ly posi­ti­ve under­stan­ding of gen­der iden­ti­ty can lead us to over­sim­pli­fy our under­stan­ding of (hetero-)sexism and end up defen­ding the state’s pro­jects from reac­tio­n­a­ries when we should be attacking them on our own terms.ii

Get­ting Iden­ti­fied

Pri­son is one of tho­se rare remai­ning spaces whe­re the sta­te is open­ly invol­ved in cate­go­ri­zing peop­le by gen­der and expo­sing them to dif­fe­ren­tia­ted tre­at­ment on that basis. When I lay on that shit­ty mat­tress, I was in a cell in the seg unit of the women’s sec­tion of my local jail after having been iden­ti­fied as trans. I had been gril­led about my gen­der and sexua­li­ty for about two hours until I was in tears, which felt hor­ri­ble sin­ce I nor­mal­ly try to not show much to the guards.

On a human level, I don’t think their actions were at all mali­cious. The pro­cess was new, most of them had­n’t dealt with it befo­re, and they pro­bab­ly don’t know any trans peop­le. And a lot of it was­n’t the offi­cial ques­ti­ons – when the guard behind the desk pau­sed to type some­thing, one of the ones off to the side would chi­me in with curio­si­ty, “So you won’t iden­ti­fy as anything, but do you like men or women? You got­ta make up your mind.” Then the desk guard would con­ti­nue, “So if you’­re on sui­ci­de watch and we’­ve taken your clothes away, who do you want to be watching you on came­ra, a male or a fema­le?”

How do you iden­ti­fy. Iden­ti­fy yourself. The­re are two metal detec­tors lea­ding to two dif­fe­rent incarce­ra­ti­ons, you need to iden­ti­fy yourself so we know which to use.

The pres­su­re to iden­ti­fy had star­ted just befo­re dawn that day, not long after our door got kicked down and the flash­bangs went off. I was zip tied naked under a sheet by a mas­ked and armou­red cop car­ry­ing an ass­ault rif­le, then a more nor­mal­ly dres­sed cop came in. He told me some char­ges, and then asked if I wan­ted a male or fema­le cop to watch me get dres­sed. I said I did­n’t care. He went and got a fema­le cop and then cut the zip ties off. I sifted through my clothes for some­thing both femmy and warm, then igno­red their calls to hur­ry as I slap­ped on some make­up.

In the poli­ce sta­ti­on, I kept my face blank as the detec­ti­ve show­ed me pic­tures and docu­ments and asked me ques­ti­ons. When the time came to get trans­fer­red to court, the court offi­cers asked who should pat me down, a male or a fema­le. I said I did­n’t care. They said I had to ans­wer. I said whoever wan­ted to could, I could­n’t stop them. They deci­ded to have the male offi­cer gro­pe my bot­tom half and the fema­le my top.

After court, I was loa­ded into a trans­port van, a sin­gle-pri­so­ner box, clas­si­fied as FKS, “Fema­le Keep Sepa­ra­te”. A bunch of men were in the other boxes, and one of them star­ted joking, cal­ling me his girl­friend. We got moved one after the other into the men’s sec­tion of the jail, put in cells bes­i­de each other, and the joking con­ti­nued. I ner­vous­ly play­ed along. I’ve been in men’s pri­son befo­re, I some­ti­mes got iden­ti­fied as gay the­re, but I loo­ked pret­ty dif­fe­rent at that time. The guards saw what was hap­pe­ning and pul­led me out after a few minu­tes. They asked me whe­re I wan­ted to be. I asked what my opti­ons were and they said pro­bab­ly men’s seg or women’s seg. The other pri­so­ners were still tal­king about me. I said women’s. It was the first affir­ma­ti­on in ans­wer to a ques­ti­on I’d given that day.

Con­struc­ting and affir­ming an iden­ti­ty, on insta­gram like in the inter­ro­ga­ti­on room, is a way to get us tal­king. The pri­son has to be inclu­si­ve of gen­der diver­si­ty, and to be inclu­ded is to be invi­ted to par­ti­ci­pa­te: “Whe­re do you want to be?” Should I be hap­py to be inclu­ded in a pri­son, affir­med as a trans per­son, wha­te­ver that means? Of cour­se I’m glad I did­n’t expe­ri­ence more vio­lence, but does this actual­ly repre­sent a win for tho­se who have deman­ded inclusion?iii

It’s easy and not­hing new to make cri­ti­ques of inclu­si­on, becau­se there’s so much we’d rather ask for – I come from an anar­chist tra­di­ti­on whe­re that’s what the word “queer” means. It’s dif­fe­rent to start from what inclu­si­on feels like in our bodies though, how it shapes us. The ways that exclu­si­on is vio­lent are often obvious, but is the­re a vio­lent dimen­si­on to inclu­si­on too, some­thing from which we right­ly recoil?

A star­ting point then is to ask how the sta­te sees gen­der. What does the word “woman” in the phra­se “woman’s pri­son” mean? What are the con­se­quen­ces of being inclu­ded as a woman in such a pri­son? How does the sta­te under­stand “trans” and how does that under­stan­ding mani­fest its­elf through walls and bars?

Iden­ti­ty has two parts, a posi­ti­ve and a nega­ti­ve. The nega­ti­ve refers to opp­res­si­on and vio­lence, the posi­ti­ve to affir­ma­ti­on and belon­ging. I was first expo­sed to this dis­tinc­tion around black­ness (I’m white) whe­re “Black” refers at once to a histo­ry and ongo­ing expe­ri­ence of racist vio­lence that pro­du­ces cer­tain peop­le as Black, as well as an affir­ma­ti­on of a resi­li­ent iden­ti­ty, a shared strugg­le, and the cul­tu­re that emer­ges from the­seiv. A simi­lar con­ver­sa­ti­on is going on in my regi­on around indi­gen­ei­ty and the role of lineage, cul­tu­re, belon­ging, vio­lence, racism, and strugg­le in forming tho­se iden­ti­ties.

The dis­cus­sion of trans inclu­si­on and the state’s offi­cial dis­cour­se focu­ses hea­vi­ly on the posi­ti­ve side, on affir­ma­ti­on — self-iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­on as a basis for mem­bers­hip in a reco­gni­zed class of peop­le (for me, women). But that posi­ti­vi­ty is just a veneer, which is espe­cial­ly obvious around pri­son whe­re our posi­ti­ve affir­ma­ti­on, our self-iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­on, is pre­cise­ly the thing that expo­ses us to identity’s nega­ti­ve side – the gen­de­red vio­lence of women’s pri­son.

Being Real

In the con­text of pri­son, women exist as an other. Pri­son is for men, the pri­so­ner is male, even as the rate at which women are incarce­r­a­ted con­ti­nues to incre­a­se. In the con­text of patri­ar­chy, to have a gen­der-blind pri­son would expo­se women to addi­tio­nal vio­lence of a kind this socie­ty does­n’t offi­cial­ly endor­se. So in a spi­rit of bour­geois equa­li­ty, the pri­son sys­tem pro­du­ces a sepa­ra­te insti­tu­ti­on for women, grou­ped tog­e­ther on the basis of an expe­ri­ence of sexu­al vio­lence. When the sta­te starts see­ing its legi­ti­ma­cy threa­tened by queer and trans peo­p­les’ expe­ri­ence of simi­lar vio­lence, they can be added to that exis­ting cate­go­ry without having to fun­da­ment­al­ly chan­ge what pri­son is.

Men and women are mea­ning­ful cate­go­ries in as much as the­re is an expe­ri­ence of patri­ar­chy dis­tinct to each; trans­wo­man may be a dis­tinct iden­ti­ty in as much as it too has a spe­ci­fic rela­ti­ons­hip to the vio­lence of patri­ar­chyv. Pri­son then func­tions as a fac­to­ry, sor­ting bodies, expo­sing them to dif­fe­ren­tia­ted tre­at­ment, and vio­lent­ly repro­du­cing them as gen­de­red bein­gs in a world that requi­res such bein­gs.

Sepa­ra­te is not equal. The way peop­le are trea­ted in women’s pri­son is not the same as in men’s pri­son. Some of this is to accom­mo­da­te dif­fe­rent needs – clothes with sepa­ra­te tops and bot­toms ins­tead of a jump­su­it, access to pads and tam­pons, more social workers, less empha­sis on anger and more on trau­ma in pro­gramming. Some of it is clear­ly sexist and is the pri­son enfor­cing gen­der norms – strict dress codes and rules against tou­ch­ing, dis­cou­ra­ge­ment of exer­cise, low tole­ran­ce for con­flict and figh­t­ing.

Bey­ond dif­fe­rent tre­at­ment though, even things that are the same bet­ween men and women’s pri­sons don’t pro­du­ce the same effect – stan­dar­di­zed meal trays, visi­ta­ti­on, sur­veil­lan­ce and sear­ches, the pre­sence of both male and fema­le guards. The two expe­ri­en­ces of the­se iden­ti­cal fea­tures end up strikin­gly dif­fe­rent. Lets quick­ly fle­sh out one examp­le:

The men’s and women’s pro­vin­cial pri­sons in Onta­rio get exact­ly the same food. In men’s pri­son, this is usual­ly expe­ri­en­ced as insuf­fi­ci­ent, in part becau­se a big part of pri­so­ner cul­tu­re the­re is working out – it’s com­mon for pri­so­ners to be released fit­ter and more mus­cu­lar than when they went in. In women’s pri­son, working out is stron­gly dis­cou­ra­ged bet­ween pri­so­ners and is some­ti­mes even trea­ted as a rule vio­la­ti­on by guards. It’s nor­mal for pri­so­ners to quick­ly gain weight while having over­all fit­ness ero­de due to enfor­ced inac­ti­vi­ty. Socie­ty as a who­le tre­ats fat­ness super dif­fer­ent­ly for men and women, so this weight gain often comes along with shame and inter­acts with eating dis­or­ders or other men­tal health chal­len­ges.

The equal meals in a deeply une­qual socie­ty pro­du­ce a very nega­ti­ve impact over­all on pri­so­ners in women’s faci­li­ties – pri­son harms and con­trols as much by what it gives as what it takes away. In that way the women’s pri­son repro­du­ces a spe­ci­fic visi­on of patri­ar­chy through the forms of harm it cau­ses and the toxic dyna­mics it encou­ra­ges. We could make a simi­lar ana­ly­sis for how women’s expe­ri­en­ces with sexu­al vio­lence and objec­ti­fi­ca­ti­on make the fre­quent strip sear­ches more harm­ful, as well as the pre­sence of male guards obser­ving you at all times. Or how the inten­se restric­tions around visits and pho­ne calls inter­act with women pri­so­ners having much less access to resour­ces and out­side sup­port than do pri­so­ners on the men’s side.

Con­ti­nuing my sto­ry, I ended up in women’s seg at the end of that first day. Which is more or less the same as men’s seg, super­fi­cial­ly at least. The cell is about the same size, the lay­out is the same, as are the stran­ge rules about not being allo­wed shoes and the TVs out bey­ond your cell door having no volu­me. I did even­tual­ly end up on a regu­lar women’s ran­ge with other pri­so­ners the sys­tem con­si­de­red women, but it took some time.

A lot of hor­ri­ble things hap­pen insi­de pri­sons. Most of it never emer­ges, never beco­mes visi­ble to tho­se out­side. The­re are excep­ti­ons though, the most nota­ble being death. Cur­r­ent­ly, pro­vin­cial pri­sons in my area are rest­ruc­tu­ring them­sel­ves to redu­ce drug over­do­se deaths – this isn’t becau­se they care about pri­so­ners, but becau­se having a body emer­ge as a corp­se is unigno­r­able. The­re­fo­re they’d pre­fer pri­so­ners have no pro­grams, no books, and no let­ters rather than risk fen­tanyl get­ting insi­de. Pregnan­cy is ano­t­her thing that pri­son can’t hide.

In its busi­ness of sor­ting bodies, the pri­son con­si­de­red my body to be a poten­ti­al source of the vio­lence women’s pri­son exists to avoid (or at least mana­ge). In my ear­ly days of women’s seg, I was told I could only move out of the­re if I could pro­ve that I could­n’t get an erec­tion. I did­n’t rise to the bait (no pun inten­ded), so I don’t know what “pro­ving” that would have ent­ail­ed. But the­re are other ways that pri­son tri­es to satisfy its­elf that you aren’t a thre­at – they look at whe­ther you’­re taking hor­mo­nes and what the doses are, they look at how you pre­sent insi­de and on road, at what you fight them for (“How many times will you beg at the win­dow of your seg cell for a razor?”). They also assess how other pri­so­ners react to you.

At one point, a ser­geant came and told me I had ten minu­tes to get rea­dy, I was going to visit a ran­ge. I resis­ted, say­ing I had­n’t been given a razor yet, so they brought me one but did­n’t budge on the ten minu­tes. For­tu­n­a­te­ly I’d been in for a mon­th by then and the­re were peop­le sen­ding me money, so I had alrea­dy been able to get some make­up off can­te­en. So I rus­hed shaving with the shit­ty razor and dum­ped foun­da­ti­on over all the cuts befo­re being mar­ched over and depo­si­ted on a ran­ge with thir­ty other pri­so­ners.

I’ve never expe­ri­en­ced anything qui­te like wal­king on to a new ran­ge for the first time. The only thing that chan­ges in pri­son from day to day is the peop­le, so ever­yo­ne scru­ti­ni­zes each other, and new peop­le espe­cial­ly are curio­si­ties. You need to make yourself unin­te­res­ting, but I was clear­ly brought the­re to be a sub­ject of con­ver­sa­ti­on.

I was only on the ran­ge a few minu­tes for my “visit”. Some peop­le tal­ked to me, ever­yo­ne loo­ked, and then I was pul­led off again. It was deeply awk­ward and embarr­as­sing. I pas­sed the test, which was later exp­lai­ned to me as being about the sound of my voice, if I tucked, how I loo­ked and moved. I’m pret­ty small and I was told that hel­ped too. The pri­so­ners who the guards tal­ked with agreed that I was “real”, and I was moved on to the ran­ge that night.

I’ve heard a lot of sto­ries about “fake” trans­wo­men. This might mean trans­wo­men who did­n’t pass, but usual­ly meant tho­se who were con­si­de­red not to be making an effort to. I heard my fel­low pri­so­ners descri­be being ass­aul­ted or pro­po­si­tio­ned by trans­wo­men while insi­de. I have no rea­son not to belie­ve their expe­ri­en­ces – we spent mon­ths tog­e­ther and got to know each other pret­ty well. A num­ber of the peop­le who told me the­se things were also the ones most wel­co­m­ing to me per­so­nal­ly. It see­med that scorn for “fake” trans­wo­men was direct­ly pro­por­tio­na­te to how stron­gly my fel­low pri­so­ners felt that the “real” ones should be inclu­ded.

“Real” trans­wo­men don’t fight, yell in mas­cu­li­ne voices, do push­ups, or hit on women; on the other hand, “fake” trans­wo­men like to bul­ly, for­ce their voice high except when its con­ve­ni­ent to intimi­da­te, don’t want a femi­ni­ne body, and their sexua­li­ty is that of a strai­ght man. It feels gross to repeat this nar­ra­ti­ve, which echos the worst anti-trans pro­pa­gan­da. I do belie­ve though that in the con­text of pri­son, it was also a way that peop­le who I know don’t hate trans­wo­men were try­ing to keep each other safe.

The dis­tinc­tion bet­ween “real” and “fake” is even more gar­ba­ge than gen­der its­elf, but I want to own the way I ended up play­ing into it. I was incarce­r­a­ted three times over the cour­se of a year and a half, and during that time I moved from femmy non-bina­ry to try­ing my best to pass as a woman. In some ways this pro­cess was very ful­fil­ling and is may­be what I would have done any­way. In other ways, a big part of my moti­va­ti­on was to not spend mon­ths and mon­ths in soli­ta­ry con­fi­ne­ment. I still under­stand my gen­der iden­ti­ty as being essen­ti­al­ly coer­ced and I still try hard to pass, even though it’s been almost a year sin­ce I last heard a cell door slam shut.

Howe­ver, I don’t think the pro­blem is one of indi­vi­du­al atti­tu­des – not mine, not my fel­low pri­so­ners’, not even the guards’. I think the libe­ral under­stan­ding of gen­der as being pure­ly posi­ti­ve is fal­se and harm­ful, and I see this espe­cial­ly clear­ly in the pri­son system’s adop­ti­on of gen­der self-iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­on. I intend to dig into this in more detail, but I’ll have to cir­cle back to it sin­ce first I’d like to tell a sto­ry I heard while I was insi­de.

Iden­ti­ty as Access

The sta­te has a rule whe­re it has to pro­vi­de meals appro­pria­te to reli­gious diets, and the most com­pli­ca­ted one is Kos­her, sin­ce it’s not just a ques­ti­on of repla­cing one thing with some­thing else. So Onta­rio pri­sons con­tract out for kos­her meals, and they typi­cal­ly end up being of much hig­her qua­li­ty than the stan­dard fare. This means that pri­so­ners are con­stant­ly try­ing to con­vin­ce the insti­tu­ti­on they are Jewish in order to access the bet­ter food. The pri­sons are thus in the role of poli­cing Jewish iden­ti­ty and throw up all sorts of blocks to peop­le who are actual­ly try­ing to meet reli­gious needs.

I heard recent­ly that a ran­ge in the adja­cent men’s pri­son tried to sol­ve that pro­blem once and for all by brin­ging a human rights chal­len­ge in court about access to kos­her meals. They argued that the die­ta­ry rules fol­lo­wed by Jewish peop­le are also laid out in scrip­tu­re hono­u­red by other reli­gi­ons, so all devout peop­le of the book should have access to food com­pli­ant with tho­se rules. Their chal­len­ge was suc­cess­ful, and sud­den­ly hund­reds of pri­so­ners were exer­cis­ing their new-found right to kos­her food. This cau­sed the sup­ply of kos­her meals to col­lap­se (or at least the bud­get the pri­son sys­tem had for them) and resul­ted in most Jewish pri­so­ners being told to take the vegan diet, sin­ce kos­her meals were scar­ce.

I have no idea if that sto­ry is true. I can’t find any record of it in goog­le. But I’ve wit­nessed, both as a pri­so­ner and as a per­son in soli­da­ri­ty, several moments whe­re access to kos­her food beca­me a flash­point for pri­so­ner strugg­le in Cana­da, as a stand-in for bet­ter food for all. Even if this sto­ry is a fable, it high­lights some dyna­mics of how chan­ge on the basis of iden­ti­ty occurs.

The pri­son sys­tem was for­ced to except an expan­ded defi­ni­ti­on of a reco­gni­zed class of peop­le and, becau­se of this, to pro­vi­de the accom­mo­da­ti­ons asso­cia­ted with that class to many more pri­so­ners. Both the sys­tem and the pri­so­ners unders­tood the­se accom­mo­da­ti­ons as pri­vi­le­ges, and obtai­ning them repre­sen­ted an impro­ve­ment in con­di­ti­ons for many pri­so­ners, along with an incre­a­sed finan­cial obli­ga­ti­on for the insti­tu­ti­ons. The pri­son then trans­fer­red the bur­den onto ano­t­her group of pri­so­ners (in this case, Jewish pri­so­ners who are obser­vant on road) while moving to restrict access to the accommodation/​privilege on a dif­fe­rent basis, rather than chal­len­ging anyone’s iden­ti­ty.

You can pro­bab­ly guess whe­re I’m going with this, but I’ll lay it out. The sys­tem is requi­red to expand its poli­cing of gen­der to accom­mo­da­te self-iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­on, resul­ting in a great­ly incre­a­sed num­ber of peop­le who were assi­gned male at birth lan­ding in women’s pri­son­vi. It also crea­tes an easy pathway for anyo­ne to move bet­ween men’s and women’ pri­son. The con­di­ti­ons in the two faci­li­ties are dif­fe­rent, as I descri­bed abo­ve, and the basis of that dif­fe­rence is to redu­ce or mana­ge the vio­lence faced by peop­le the sys­tem sees as women.

The vio­lence in men’s pri­son, in Onta­rio like many other pla­ces, can be inten­se, and many peop­le have rea­son to flee it, not just trans­wo­men. The men’s pri­son sys­tem attempts to accom­mo­da­te this need (becau­se hos­pi­tal visits, like corp­ses and babies, are pro­ducts the pri­son has a har­der time hiding) through Pro­tec­ti­ve Cus­to­dy (PC), which is basi­cal­ly the same as Gene­ral Popu­la­ti­on (GP) except ever­yo­ne the­re did­n’t feel safe on a regu­lar ran­gevii. Typi­cal­ly, a lot of queers end up in PC, but it is also whe­re peop­le accu­sed of sex cri­mes or vio­lence against child­ren go, as well as peop­le with too much con­flict, who are in the wrong gang, who have a bad repu­ta­ti­on, who were in law enfor­ce­ment… Admis­si­on to PC is vol­un­ta­ry, pri­so­ners just have to ask, but once you are in PC you can’t usual­ly switch back. Over time, the result is that the num­bers of pri­so­ners in PC and GP get clo­ser tog­e­ther, as do their levels of vio­lence.

So whe­re do peop­le go who then need to escape the vio­lence of PC? The­re has been an expan­si­on in recent years of new forms of segre­ga­ti­on­viii. More and more queers were fin­ding them­sel­ves doing all their time in seg. Onta­rio pri­sons are alrea­dy over­crow­ded and this makes that worse, sin­ce the­se seg units often can’t be popu­la­ted as den­se­ly and the pri­son sys­tem wants space the­re to use at its dis­cre­ti­on. Trans peop­le in par­ti­cu­lar usual­ly end up being in a cell alo­ne, ins­tead of two or three to a cell, as is stan­dard for others.

Being able to move trans peop­le to a dif­fe­rent insti­tu­ti­on whe­re they be put on a regu­lar ran­ge is thus part­ly a respon­se to over­crow­ding. It also means that iden­ti­fy­ing as trans can give pri­so­ners who may not have iden­ti­fied as trans other­wi­se an addi­tio­nal opti­on to escape the choice bet­ween vio­lence and iso­la­ti­on. I don’t think very many peop­le do this whol­ly cyni­cal­ly – for many, it seems more simi­lar to my pro­cess of moving from non-bina­ry towards a way of pre­sen­ting that more neat­ly fits the prison’s (as well as the broa­der society’s) under­stan­ding of a “real” (trans)woman. Add into this that pri­son vio­lence dis­pro­por­tio­na­te­ly falls on tho­se who­se men­tal health makes them unab­le to con­form to the rigid social envi­ron­ment, which is in turn a respon­se to over­crow­ding and incarce­ra­ti­on itself.ix

The pres­su­re to iden­ti­fy your gen­der to the pri­son starts to resem­ble more and more the pres­su­re to iden­ti­fy yourself to a cop who’s arres­ting you. It is an invi­ta­ti­on to par­ti­ci­pa­te in having the pro­cess of con­trol­ling your body move smooth­ly, causing you the least phy­si­cal harm. I remem­ber mys­elf cry­ing in the inta­ke room becau­se it was no lon­ger that I was refu­sing to tell them which gen­der boxes to tick, but that I just did­n’t have the right kind of ans­wers. In the end, I came up with an ans­wer that got me what I nee­ded at the end of that very long day – a safe place to slee­px.

Some peop­le do iden­ti­fy as trans cyni­cal­ly, more like tho­se pri­so­ners figh­t­ing to be iden­ti­fied as obser­vant peop­le of the book so as to access the bet­ter kos­her meals. This seems to be a very small mino­ri­ty. Regard­less, women’s pri­son comes to ope­ra­te as a kind of “super PC” for the pri­son sys­tem as a who­le.

Always Against Pri­son

I spent a lot of time tal­king about this with other pri­so­ners, both cis and trans. May­be it’s not a pro­blem that women’s pri­son is also the super PC. Coer­ci­on and vio­lence is a part of iden­ti­ty any­way, so may­be its just up to the cul­tu­re among pri­so­ners in women’s pri­son to accom­mo­da­te this shift. That is the libe­ral ide­al no? that enligh­te­ned rulers deter­mi­ne peo­p­les’ rights and then our free­dom is limi­ted only by the requi­re­ment to respect tho­se rights? becau­se opp­res­si­on is just indi­vi­du­al beha­viour, yeah? So thank good­ness the pri­son sys­tem put up copies of the Gen­der­B­read Per­son ™ pos­ter on all the ran­ges in the women’s pri­son, so pri­so­ners can edu­ca­te them­sel­ves and keep the space saf­e­xi. I’m not joking, it’s right the­re next to the obli­ga­to­ry prin­tout of our rights, a dozen pages behind a plastic panel who­se cha­rac­ters are so small as to be ille­gi­ble.

Ever­yo­ne who cares about trans inclu­si­on as a pro­ject, who strug­gled in the cam­pai­gns that were recup­era­ted by the sta­te and regur­gi­ta­ted as federal Bill C‑16 should take an honest look at how their pro­ject has been taken up by the pri­son sys­tem. See­ing it in this gro­tes­que form should chal­len­ge our ana­ly­sis of gen­der and inclu­si­on to beco­me richer and more nuan­ced. Becau­se self-iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­on as a basis for inclu­si­on in pri­son is unsus­tainab­le. When the­re is an anti-trans back­lash on a legis­la­ti­ve level, you can be sure the­re will be no shor­ta­ge of hor­ror sto­ries from pri­son to fuel the outra­ge.

This is not becau­se some trans­wo­men are “fake” and it is not becau­se some trans­wo­men repro­du­ced pre­d­a­to­ry beha­viour of a kind that cis­wo­men pri­so­ners do too. It is obvious­ly wrong to hold a who­le group of peop­le respon­si­ble for the fucked up things some indi­vi­du­als in that group do. The back­lash will come becau­se stap­ling a posi­ti­ve under­stan­ding of gen­der iden­ti­ty onto the pri­son sys­tem is total­ly ina­de­qua­te.

It feels important to me that the­re be a cri­tique of Bill C‑16 and how it has been imple­men­ted that comes from queers and from peop­le who car­ry a libe­ra­to­ry pro­ject — not just from oppor­tu­nists who hate trans peop­le, like Jor­dan Peter­son. I don’t see the sta­te as an agent of posi­ti­ve social chan­ge, but even tho­se of you who do should ask yourself if we real­ly have not­hing to cri­tique in C‑16, as if Tru­deau just got it per­fect on his first try.

For tho­se out­side of Cana­da, perhaps see­ing how libe­ral trans inclu­si­on has play­ed out here can be use­ful for avoiding some of the pit­falls that we have run into. It’s a sub­ject for ano­t­her day, but the starkness of pri­son might mean that ana­ly­zing how trans inclu­si­on has play­ed out the­re could reve­al cer­tain weak­nes­ses with self-iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­on as the basis of gen­der in other spaces too.

The­re are a few ways the pri­son sys­tem might react to the­se con­tra­dic­tions, but first a quick sto­ry. The­re were a cou­p­le of queer guards I inter­ac­ted with in the women’s pri­son. One was a trans­wo­man who, while strip sear­ching me, said “We’­ve been making huge gains the­se last few years, things are get­ting bet­ter.” But the one I inter­ac­ted with most regu­lar­ly worked on my ran­ge and they were pret­ty friend­ly towards me. One day, they bru­ta­li­zed one of my friends by empty­ing a can of pep­per spray into her eyes from an inch away while ano­t­her guard held her down. We gave them a mean nick­na­me based on the inci­dent, and they com­p­lai­ned to manage­ment to make us stop “bul­ly­ing” them. Later they got top sur­ge­ry and enthu­si­asti­cal­ly told me about it while I was stan­ding in line for meds, and I reg­ret that I ended up congra­tu­la­ting them.

The first way the sys­tem might react is by doub­ling down on impro­ving its pro­ject of inclu­si­on, fine tuning their trans poli­ci­es and working out the kinks in imple­men­ta­ti­on. I hope sto­ries like this one can help con­vin­ce us that their efforts in this direc­tion have not­hing to do with mee­ting out needs. I don’t care about the gen­der iden­ti­ty of the guard bru­ta­li­zing me just like their accom­mo­da­ti­on for my gen­der iden­ti­ty did­n’t make me any more fre­exii.

Alter­na­tively, the pri­son sys­tem might react by fal­ling back on its ori­gins and app­ly­ing a model of con­trol through sepa­ra­ti­on. The­re is a lot of talk of queer-spe­ci­fic units, or pos­si­b­ly even a sepa­ra­te faci­li­ty. Gen­der queer peop­le will thus exist in a sta­tus not mid­way bet­ween the men and women’s pri­sons, but bet­ween the regu­lar and psych­iatric pri­sons, which are alrea­dy the system’s way of mana­ging forms of devi­an­ce that we can’t be bla­med for. We should oppo­se this as we do all expan­si­ons of the pri­son sys­tem.

As an anar­chist, I am of cour­se against all pri­son and I’m not going to offer any poli­cy sug­ges­ti­on. I’m wri­ting short­ly after the mur­der of Geor­ge Floyd by the Min­nea­po­lis poli­ce and the mas­si­ve rebel­li­on that fol­lo­wed, in a moment when cri­ti­ques of the poli­ce and pri­son have spread in a way I never thought I would see. This moti­va­ted me to actual­ly finish this text ins­tead of just car­ry­ing the­se expe­ri­en­ces around insi­de, becau­se I think femi­nist and queer spaces could do more to build hos­ti­li­ty to cops and pri­sons in their own way. I live for the day when all tho­se who­se lives are impac­ted by pri­son will gather tog­e­ther to des­troy them, turn them over to the pigeons and rain. We will plant the ruins with fruit trees and have a bon­fire of all the pri­so­ner and guard uni­forms. I know the smo­ke will car­ry away some of the gen­de­red night­ma­re we are all living both insi­de and out­side the walls.


i) Here’s bill C‑16’s sum­ma­ry as it’s laid out in the bill: “This enact­ment amends the Cana­di­an Human Rights Act to add gen­der iden­ti­ty and gen­der expres­si­on to the list of pro­hi­bi­ted grounds of discri­mi­na­ti­on. The enact­ment also amends the Cri­mi­nal Code to extend the pro­tec­tion against hate pro­pa­gan­da set out in that Act to any sec­tion of the public that is dis­tin­guis­hed by gen­der iden­ti­ty or expres­si­on and to clear­ly set out that evi­dence that an offence was moti­va­ted by bias, pre­ju­di­ce or hate based on gen­der iden­ti­ty or expres­si­on con­sti­tu­tes an aggra­vating cir­cum­s­tance that a court must take into con­si­de­ra­ti­on when it impo­ses a sen­tence.” https://www.parl.ca/DocumentViewer/en/42–1/bill/C‑16/first-reading

ii My expe­ri­ence isn’t everyone’s, I can’t speak for all trans expe­ri­en­ces. A few notes about me to help con­tex­tua­li­ze:

-I’m white, and so don’t face the same level of cri­mi­na­liz­a­ti­on in my dai­ly life or the same level of hos­ti­li­ty wit­hin the pri­son sys­tem. Black and Indi­ge­nous trans pri­so­ners I inter­ac­ted with had often expe­ri­en­ced more vio­lence and refu­sal from the pri­son sys­tem around their iden­ti­ty than I did, which just makes sen­se con­si­de­ring they also expe­ri­ence more vio­lence and exclu­si­on on the street.

-I’ve only ever been insi­de for anar­chist acti­vi­ty, so that’s a big dif­fe­rence in expe­ri­ence from basi­cal­ly ever­yo­ne I ever met insi­de, and I get far more out­side sup­port. I’ve gone in five sepa­ra­te times that have tota­led about year, which is in some ways long, but com­pa­red to a lot of peop­le it’s real­ly not. –

-Also, trans­men are in qui­te a dif­fe­rent posi­ti­on than what I descri­be in this text – the trans­men I tal­ked to were for­ced to choo­se bet­ween stop­ping taking tes­to­ste­ro­ne and stay­ing in seg, so the inclu­si­on ques­ti­on is not the same for them.

-I intend this text just as a star­ting point and hope others will add to it. This text is not signed, even though I know it’s not very anony­mous. If you want to get in touch with feed­back, you can reach me at jus­t­so­me­rab­bit at rise­up dot net

iii I don’t bla­me the pri­so­ners for my bad expe­ri­en­ces as much as I do the dehu­ma­ni­zing insti­tu­ti­on that puts all dif­fe­rence under such inten­se pres­su­re.

iv Bey­ond the iden­ti­ty ele­ment, I would­n’t have the ana­ly­sis of pri­son I do without the wri­tings and examp­le of Black radi­cals. Rea­ding Assa­ta Shakur, Geor­ge Jack­son, and Kuwa­si Balagoon in men’s pri­son and dis­cus­sing it with other pri­so­ners was pret­ty for­ma­ti­ve for me.

v Alt­hough I under­stand why this framing exists, insis­ting that “trans­wo­men are women” is too simp­le. Most of us grew up with male pri­vi­le­ge and don’t under­stand what it means to be pro­du­ced as a women from birth; as well, the exclu­si­on and vio­lence trans­wo­men face in socie­ty isn’t the same as what cis­wo­men face, and no one would claim cis­wo­men under­stand it sim­ply becau­se “we’­re all women”. We don’t need to argue if one form of vio­lence is worse than the other, it’s that they are dif­fe­rent. Dif­fe­rence does­n’t mean that inclu­si­on should­n’t occur (this is not an argu­ment in favour of having to hold your pee until you get home). It’s an argu­ment against let­ting the neces­si­ty of inclu­si­on, becau­se of simi­lar needs for safe­ty in the world as it is, lead us to an idea of gen­der that has been redu­ced to its posi­ti­ve dimen­si­on. Simi­lar­ly, there’s a dif­fe­rence bet­ween iden­ti­fy­ing as some­thing and being iden­ti­fied as that – whe­ther or not the two of tho­se coin­ci­de for a given per­son will also lead to a dif­fe­rent expe­ri­ence of vio­lence. Pro­ble­ma­ti­zing cate­go­ries like man/​woman (or cis/​trans) is use­ful, but I don’t want us to flat­ten things out and actual­ly end up with less abi­li­ty to talk about our dif­fe­rent expe­ri­en­ces of sys­temic vio­lence.

vi The­re have been occa­sio­nal trans­wo­men in women’s faci­li­ties sin­ce at least the 80s, but the majo­ri­ty of trans­wo­men were in men’s pri­sons.

vii I know all the clas­si­fi­ca­ti­ons can be a bit con­fu­sing if you haven’t done time befo­re, so I want to exp­lain here. PC and GP are both very simi­lar in terms of how your time is struc­tu­red – same sche­du­le, same level of crow­ding, same (lack of) access to pro­grams. It is not segre­ga­ti­on, you’­re still with lots of other peop­le and sharing a cell.

viii This is also part­ly in respon­se to Cana­di­an court rulings that have limi­ted the pri­son system’s abi­li­ty to use soli­ta­ry con­fi­ne­ment as a punish­ment

ix To be clear, women’s pri­son isn’t some kind of safe space for queers. For instance, I saw situa­tions whe­re AFAB queers got pas­sed around by tough cis women who were strai­ght on road. The queer folks thought at first they were in some sort of gay sum­mer camp, but they even­tual­ly rea­li­zed they were in situa­tions it would­n’t be easy to lea­ve or chan­ge.

x This pres­su­re on pri­so­ners’ gen­der iden­ti­ty isn’t just a trans issue. I’ve seen the ways that men in men’s pri­son expe­ri­ence pres­su­re to per­form hyper­mas­cu­lini­ty, as well as how women’s pri­son repro­du­ces peop­le as power­less vic­tims by strip­ping pri­so­ners of their opti­ons and sup­ports and play­ing on trau­ma. Almost everyone’s gen­der is scru­ti­ni­zed and chan­ged by pri­son. The­re is a dis­tinct expe­ri­ence of this rela­ted to being trans though, and that’s what I’m most con­cer­ned with here.

xi The Gen­der­b­read Per­son is a tea­ching tool pos­ter for exp­lai­ning dif­fe­ren­ces in gen­der, sex, and sexua­li­ty that is very much wit­hin a libe­ral under­stan­ding of gen­der: https://​www​.gen​der​b​read​.org.

xii It’s a weird iro­ny that the pri­son guards’ uni­on mana­ged to get accep­t­ance for the gen­der iden­ti­ty of their workers befo­re the sys­tem got around to doing the same for pri­so­ners. The­re have been trans­wo­men guards in women’s pri­sons sin­ce well befo­re Bill C‑16

This text was sub­mit­ted anony­mous­ly to North Shore. It is avail­ab­le as a pdf for prin­ting and sharing

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