The story of a woman confined to a men’s maximum-security prison

While we wait for Biden to be inaugurated and for the words “insurrection,” “impeachment” and “Trump” to disappear from our day-to-day vo...



While we wait for Biden to be inaugurated and for the words “insurrection,” “impeachment” and “Trump” to disappear from our day-to-day vocabulary, the world keeps churning both miracles and injustices that still need our attention.

Despite the Democrats’ renunciation of the draconian incarceration policies they pushed through in the 1990s and the Republicans’ newfound libertarian embrace of decarceration efforts, America still imprisons way too many people, and still deprives many of them of basic necessities. Some of these necessities are material (decent food, physical and mental health care, personal safety, etc.) and some are social and spiritual (contact with their families, a sense of self worth and personal dignity, some modicum of education and entertainment, etc.).

Decarceration advocates often point out that the problems that plague our society at large are that much more acute in our prisons. For example, as the “outside” world begins timidly to engage with the issue of transgender people’s rights, the “inside” world, which is heavily segregated by assigned sex, is largely oblivious to this matter.

And yet, here and there, individual activists, some incarcerated and some not, are forcing Departments of Corrections, wardens and sheriffs, guards, and incarcerated people to have the often difficult conversations around gender identity and human rights.

I spoke with one such activist who is currently incarcerated in a state prison in Missouri, and asked her about the special challenges of dislocating prejudice in the ultra-conservative, ultra-macho prison environment.

Patricia Elaine Trimble grew up in rural Missouri in a religious family who did not accept her identity. As she notes in the autobiographical texts she published on the Prison Journalism Project website, she was first incarcerated at age 8. She is now 61 and has been incarcerated for 41 consecutive years.

In prison, she has earned her GED, has taken college courses, has published in a scholarly journal, and has taken on the role of spokesperson for the Missouri chapter of Black and Pink, a prison abolitionist organization advocating for the rights of LGBTQ people and people living with HIV/AIDS behind bars. (Disclosure: I serve as an Academic Associate for the PJP).

Trimble’s advocacy for, and mentoring of, LGBTQ people in prison acquired a state-wide reputation in 2018, when another incarcerated person, Jessica Hicklin, successfully sued the Missouri Department of Corrections in an effort to force it to allow hormone therapy for transitioning people.

“Prior to that, transgender healthcare was not something that was a topic,” recounts Trimble. “The medical and mental health staff weren’t trained. In order for me to get the treatment that I needed, I knew that I was going to have to be the smartest person in the room. I studied the Endocrine Society guidelines for hormone therapy, I studied the standards of care from the Center of Excellence for Transgender Health at the University of California, I studied psychology papers, everything. I became the smartest person in the room. Girls around the state would write to Jessica because they knew about her lawsuit, and Jessica was like, ‘Look, I really don’t have the time to help all these girls. I’ve got all this other litigation going on,’ so she put them in touch with me. I started educating them and helping them get to the next levels. They started calling me ‘Mother’ and I accepted that role. I advocate for their continued healthcare and mental healthcare. When they don’t get it, I try to counsel them as best I can and give them the information that they’re lacking.”

 

While all states incarcerate cis women in different facilities than cis men, most of them think nothing of incarcerating trans women alongside cis men. As a matter of fact, any LGBTQ-specific services whatsoever are hard to come by behind bars.

 

“I use the analogy of Alcoholics Anonymous,” Trimble says. “AA is a support group by nature, but I’m in an all-men’s prison so you have predominantly cis heterosexual men. My life and my lifestyle and my relationship choices, the domestic abuse, the rapes, my past drug addiction, etc., all play a part. Yet, when you bring any of that up in a group of heterosexual people, they’re like ‘Oh, man, I really don’t want to hear this.’ Which is why in the free world, there are LGBTQ-friendly AA and NA groups. Unfortunately, here in Missouri, they’re completely unsympathetic to the LGBTQ community. Being in the middle of the Bible Belt, I guess it’s their belief that should they permit such a support group, they would in some way be encouraging or endorsing a ‘homosexual lifestyle’. So many [incarcerated LGBTQ people] shy away from involvement with these rehabilitative programs.”

 

In 2015, Black and Pink surveyed 1,118 incarcerated LGBTQ people about their identities, their health, their education, their experiences with the criminal justice system and with violence, and their relationships with other people. The statistics that resulted from the compiled answers are thoroughly depressing. You can find the report at blackandpink.org, and a wealth of additional information about LGBTQ people in prison at prisonpolicy.org/research/lgbt/.

So, yes, it is vitally important that America’s democratic backsliding under Trump be arrested. But simply reverting to an Obama-era “old normal” is a woefully inadequate political agenda for the new government. Only when we’re capable of respecting the human rights of someone like Patricia Elaine Trimble, a person relegated to the very margins of our society, we’ll know we’ve made true progress.

Razvan Sibii is a senior lecturer of Journalism at UMass Amherst. He writes a monthly column on immigration and incarceration. He can be contacted at razvan@umass.edu



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