Trans Incarceration

The following post is an in-depth look at the incarceration of trans people on a systematic level by Bethlehem, a former Ella Baker Center intern and a current student at Brown University.

In some ways, the past few years have seen a marked increase in visibility of and public discourse surrounding trans people. Actress Laverne Cox’s appearance on the cover of Time Magazine, as part of a featured story titled “The Transgender Tipping Point,” is one such example. Advocate Tiq Milan is one of many to discuss this increased visibility alongside persistent and increasing violence against trans people in the US, especially trans women of color. Edited by Reina Gossett, Eric A. Stanley, and Johanna Burton, Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility is an exciting text which engages with these contradictions of increased visibility and violence.

While receiving less attention than important ongoing struggles for trans people to be able to use the bathrooms that they please, experiences of trans people within policing and incarceration constitute another site of considerable discrimination and violence. According to a report published by the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 16% (almost one in six) trans people have experienced incarceration and 47% (nearly one in two) black trans people have been incarcerated.

The Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP) offers explanation for these high rates of incarceration in a diagram titled “Systems of Inequality: Criminal ‘In’ Justice” which masterfully details the multiple factors producing disproportionate incarceration of trans folks, as well as the violence that trans folks face at the hands of the police and while incarcerated. This diagram illustrates how the incarceration of trans people is produced by the intersecting policing and criminalization trans people, poverty, and homelessness.

As laid out in this diagram, poverty and homelessness are systematically criminalized through the policing of low-income communities, criminalization of underground economies that low-income people may participate in to support themselves (i.e. sex work, participation in drug trade), and criminalization of sleeping in public.  

In many regards the discrimination and violence perpetuated against trans people increases the likelihood that trans people will be low-income and homeless, putting them further at risk of incarceration. High rates of employment discrimination (including disparities in pay and wrongful termination), violence in the workplace, unemployment, and poverty facing trans people and reflected in NCTE’s most recent national survey demonstrate the means through which transphobia systemically produces issues of economic insecurity for many trans folks. Trans women and femmes face higher rates of employment discrimination and violence in the workplace and trans people of color face higher rates of unemployment and poverty, placing trans women and femmes of color at particular risk of financial insecurity, poverty, and incarceration.

These issues of financial insecurity and poverty, alongside issues of housing discrimination facing trans folks, fuel high rates of housing insecurity and homelessness which place trans people further at risk of incarceration. Trans women impacted by housing insecurity and homelessness are particularly vulnerable as they are often unable to access shelters, either due to threats of violence or outright exclusion from shelter access.

The term “walking while trans” is another lens through which the systematic policing, criminalization, and incarceration of trans people can be understood. This term refers to the profiling and criminalized of trans women as sex workers, simply on the basis of their existence in public as a trans person. Trans women and gender non-conforming femmes of color, especially those that are black, face high rates of profiling, harassment and physical violence by the police, and arrest for “walking while trans.”

In addition to these systemic issues of criminalization and incarceration, trans people experience high rates of verbal, physical, and sexual violence at the hands of the police, as well as while incarcerated, both at the hands of prison and jail staff and other incarcerated individuals. The transphobic and transmisogynistic discrimination and violence which make trans people more vulnerable to incarceration also make trans people more vulnerable while incarcerated.

On a fundamental level prisons and jails operate as gendered spaces, with separate facilities designated for men and women, and rendering trans and gender nonconforming people hyper-visible and vulnerable. Incarcerated trans and gender nonconforming people have a range of experiences with housing while in prison, from housing corresponding with gender assigned at birth, to housing based upon gender identity, to placement in restrictive housing and solitary confinement.

Trans people in prison may also face gendered violence in the form of policing of their gender identity and presentation. This violence can look like anything from consistent misgendering on the part of prison staff, guards, and other incarcerated individuals, as well as lack of access to gender-affirming clothing and healthcare (including hormones and surgeries), all of which can be incredibly detrimental to someone’s mental and physical health.

Organizations like the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP) work to resist violence against trans, gender variant, and intersex people perpetuated through policing and incarceration. TGIJP is a San Francisco-based organization led by Janetta Johnson, a formerly incarcerated black trans woman, which centers the voices of currently and formerly incarcerated trans women of color in its work.

This past legislative cycle TGIJP was part of a successful effort to get the Name and Dignity Act for Incarcerated Trans People signed into law, alongside co-sponsors: the St. James Infirmary, the Western Regional Advocacy Project, the Transgender Law Center, the Women’s Foundation of California, and Equality California. The Name and Dignity Act was written by currently and formerly incarcerated trans people (the first such law to get signed into CA state law) and will make it easier for incarcerated trans people to change their names and gender-markers, allowing trans people to have their names and identities respected, and easing the reentry process through access to accurate legal documents. (Read more about the fight for the Name and Dignity Act, here.)

Follow and support TGIJP and organizations like it to learn more about this fight for trans justice!

Bethlehem Desta is a fourth-year undergraduate student at Brown University, and a former Ella Baker Center intern. They study Ethnic Studies, with a focus on carceral studies and gender and sexuality studies, and are currently searching engaged in the job search process with the aim of diving into justice oriented work full-time after they graduate this coming spring. Bethlehem is from San Diego, CA and in the long-term hopes to return to California. Any inquiries can be directed at

Additional resources:

2015 U.S. Transgender Survey Report, National Center For Transgender Equality


Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, Eric A. Stanley & Nat Smith, editors

Sylvia Rivera Law Project

The Forgotten Ones: Queer and Trans Lives in the Prison System, Grace Dunham, The New Yorker

The Gay and Transgender Wage Gap, Crosby Burns, Center for American Progress

“It’s War in Here”: A Report on the Treatment of Transgender and Intersex People in New York Men’s Prisons, Sylvia Rivera Law Project

Meaningful Work: Transgender Experiences in the Sex Trade, Best Practices Project, Red Umbrella Project, & National Center for Trans Equality

“The Most Dangerous Thing Out Here Is The Police”: Trans Voices on Police Abuse and Profiling in Atlanta, Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative

Transgender Law Center