When members of the transgender community are incarcerated it often presents a problem for the penal justice system because it was constructed only to accommodate the male/female binary. This places trans prisoners at particular risk. A trans man who has a vagina would not be safe in an all male prison and pre-op trans women who are placed in male prisons are similarly not not safe. In the U.S quite often the penal system will simply place the trans prisoner in solitary confinement for the majority of their incarceration. Solitary confinement is understood to be a form of torture and yet trans inmates are regularly subjected to this because of a lack of proper facilities. In both Canada and the U.S., inmates have had to sue to maintain their hormone treatments and to complete to their sex reassignment surgeries. Even though there is much medical evidence to affirm that this is indeed a medical condition too often the penal justice system will consider the needs of trans inmates to simply be cosmetic.
The opening of a facility specifically designed to house transgender inmates will hopefully lead to a more humane form of incarceration. According to the BBC:
The prison, at Pozzale, near the Tuscan city of Florence, is expected to house inmates who mainly have convictions for drug-related offences and prostitution.
Gay rights groups in Italy welcomed the move to convert an almost empty medium security women’s prison into a specially equipped detention centre.
It is thought that Italy has a total of some 60 transgender prisoners.
The centre will house about 30 people, according to reports.
The BBC’s Duncan Kennedy, in Rome, says that until now transgender prisoners have been located in women’s prisons where they are often segregated for their own safety.
Leaving aside the issue that drug and prostitution is not best dealt with by incarceration, if we are determined to incarcerate members of the trans community, we have a responsibility to ensure their safety and to the best of our ability promote good mental health.
It is my hope that this model will be copied throughout the world. Being trans is difficult enough in the outside world and to be placed in a position of outright powerlessness in their case often leads to complete loss of personhood. At some point these incarcerated inmates will rejoin society and are we at all better severed if they emerge as damaged human beings at our hand? Prison should be about rehabilitation; however, when it comes to trans prisoners the punishment aspect is magnified because they are regularly subject to conditions that most inmates avoid due simply to their cisgender status.