The transgender community is one of the most stigmatized and persecuted populations in America’s criminal justice system. Not only are transgender and gender nonconforming (TGNC) people more likely than others to spend time behind bars – their rate of incarceration is 3-4 times higher than average – but their conditions of confinement are brutal.1 TGNC individuals are ten times more likely than others to be sexually assaulted while in prison, and some studies indicate that as many as half of all transgender incarcerated persons have been sexually assaulted.2 Close to half of all TGNC individuals have been denied hormone therapy during their incarceration, and almost 80% report having been refused access to gender-appropriate commissary goods.3 These trends are magnified for TGNC people of color, constituting an acute crisis that needs immediate policy attention. The rate of incarceration for black transgender women is almost twenty times that of the general population, with one in ten black transgender women having spent time behind bars over the past year.4 Two out of three black and Latina trans women report having been sexually assaulted while incarcerated, and even more (70%) have experienced physical assault.5 Transgender people held in immigration detention facilities are much more likely than others to be sexually or physically assaulted there.6 Once released, transgender individuals enter a society that rarely embraces them or promotes their success. Transgender Americans are three times more likely than others to be unemployed, with unemployment 4-5 times higher among black, American Indian, and Latinx individuals.7 As a result, one in five transgender people (half of black and American Indian transgender individuals) earn their primary living through criminalized work.8 Thirty percent of transgender people have been homeless at some point in their lives, reaching a remarkable 51% for black and 59% for American Indian transgender individuals.9 Transgender people are eight times more likely than others to experience serious psychological distress.10 There have been insufficient policy efforts to address the needs of this population in jails, prison, or reentry. Many in the field of corrections look to PREA for policy direction. Signed into law in 2003, PREA’s primary purpose has been to reduce rates of sexual assault, but it also offers limited guidance on the incarceration of transgender people.11 PREA suggests that housing decisions – whether to place an individual in ‘male’ or ‘female’ facilities – should take place on a case by case basis.12 It also mandates privacy during showers, limits strip searches, and indicates that transgender people at risk of victimization should be placed in restrictive housing only as a last resort.13

Despite these regulations, transgender people are overwhelmingly housed according to their gender assigned at birth. Anecdotal evidence further suggests that privacy during showers and strip searches is limited, and those who seek protection from harm are by default placed in restrictive housing. Moreover, PREA does not offer guidance on transgender reentry, and both research and policy need to put much more emphasis on how best to serve transgender individuals after their release.

While the trans community is very aware of how it is treated by the carceral system, this has rarely ever been accounted for in empirical research. To date, what limited research does exist on TGNC people in prisons often centers the perspectives of prison staff or costs to facilities.

Accurate and current data that reflects the experiences and needs of transgender people in prisons is urgently needed for the creation of policy that protects TGNC people