Trans Inmates: It’s Complicated

Should trans woman Jovanie Saldana really be in a male prison?

In a recent article in the Philadelphia Daily News, reporters Dana DiFilippo and Philip Lucas suggest that Jovanie Saldana, a 23-year-old transgender woman, somehow “suckered” the system after it was discovered that she has been incarcerated in a female prison for more than a year. Not only does the article seem to suggest that gender identity is confined to sexual genitals (a major oversimplification at its worst), but it overlooks the fact that Saldana, a resident of Kensington, has accused a corrections officer of orally raping her while being in the jail.

We would argue that the safest place for an imprisoned transgender person is in a facility that’s akin to their own gender identity. For someone like Saldana, who easily passes for a woman, to be jailed with men creates danger. Trans people often experience the highest rates of discrimination, violence and sexual assault out of anyone in the LGBT community. To place someone who may be biologically male (but who identifies as a woman – not even the prison knew she is biologically male) into a male prison poses many risks. And yet there are few options for inmates like Saldana in the U.S. penal system.

Even though Saldana has been living and dressing as a woman since she was 12, she has since been relocated to a male prison in Philadelphia. Critics believe that the reason for the transfer has more to so with her accusation against the guard (who was relocated to another facility) than her gender identity.

This article also seems to underestimate the complexity of gender identity, which is why a much more informed discussion needs to take place about how prisons and other correctional facilities handle transgender inmates on a case-by-case basis. A person’s record and danger level should also be considered, sure. But so should an inmate’s sexual orientation and gender identity. Transgender inmates shouldn’t get a pass by any means. But they should be treated as fairly as everyone else. And this sometimes means rethinking what it means to be male or female.

Even without the makeup and clothing she has adopted to express her own gender identity, a trans woman would appear misplaced in a men’s facility. But the article argues that women at the women’s prison were more in danger because Saldana, who is accused of armed robbery, has male sexual organs (she was disciplined for fighting with other inmates). There’s also the question of why the mandatory cavity search was not done on Saldana as it is on every other inmate. It’s presumed that officers would have known that she is biologically male had the obligatory search happened. It also would have lessened the chance that she was bringing contraband into the prison. But it wouldn’t change the fact that she is, in every other aspect, a woman.

When it comes to crimes against transgender people – such as the still-unsolved case of Nizah Morris, a transgender woman who died from head injuries after being in police custody – the playing field is seldom equitable. We just hope that training and a greater awareness about these issues does some good for others. But when the press blames someone for “suckering” the system, despite an alleged rape and insufficient intake from Philly’s own penal system, one thing is clear: We have a long, long way to go.