How Solitary Confinement Is Used as a Weapon Against Trans People

How Solitary Confinement Is Used as a Weapon Against Trans People

How Solitary Confinement Is Used as a Weapon Against Trans People

Incarcerated trans people say they are put into solitary confinement at highly disproportionate rates—including after being sexually assaulted.


When a male inmate slid a note under Jessica Hicklin’s prison cell saying that she was his property, Hicklin decided to take matters into her own hands. As a trans woman in a maximum-security Missouri state prison for men, Hicklin was all too familiar with the neglect of prison staff.

In order to defend herself, Hicklin crafted a homemade knife. When staff learned of the weapon, they pulled her aside for questioning. She explained to them that she made the weapon to defend herself against threats of rape.

Hicklin needed protection. Instead, she received nine months of solitary confinement. “I was punished for not wanting to be sexually assaulted,” Hicklin said in an interview.

A recent Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) report shows that Hicklin’s experience is anything but unique among trans people in United States prisons. The report, which compiles data on trans people in federal prisons from 2017 to 2022, shows that incarcerated trans people are consistently two to three times more likely to be put in “restrictive housing”—what the rest of us know as solitary confinement—than their cisgender counterparts. (There are around 1,200 trans people incarcerated in federal prisons; data on solitary confinement in state prisons—where around 5,000 trans people are reportedly jailed, along with the large majority of all incarcerated people—is much more difficult to find, though there is no reason to assume it would be wildly different from the federal data.)

Solitary confinement lasting more than 15 days is classified as torture by the United Nations and various other human rights organizations. Studies show that it dramatically increases the likelihood of self-harm. “This is indicative of a prison system that is uninterested in actually protecting or caring for trans women or trans men,” James Lydon, founder of the prison abolitionist organization Black and Pink, said. “It’s outrageous that we do [solitary confinement] in this country.”

In a response to a request for comment about the data in its report, a BOP official told The Nation that it is “focused on decreasing the number of incarcerated individuals housed in restrictive housing in all of [their] facilities” and that victims of assault are placed in solitary “only if determined to be necessary.” Despite this, the overall number of federal inmates in solitary confinement increased by 29 percent from late 2015 to early 2022.

Milo Inglehart, a staff attorney at the Transgender Law Center, said that he has noticed a pattern in some of the cases of solitary confinement that he deals with.

“To try and address the problem, the prison will place the trans person in restrictive housing to try and single them out, which treats the trans person as the problem rather than the violence as the problem,” Inglehart said. “It’s really a horrific way to treat a victim of violence.”

For Tahj Graham, a trans man who spent the majority of his 18 months in prison in several women’s units in Texas, the threat of solitary confinement was a constant. He told me that solitary confinement would be threatened as a punishment for violating the dress policy by refusing to wear a bra, grow out his hair, or shave his religious beard.

More concerningly, Graham said he was put in solitary confinement at least three or four times when he reported being sexually assaulted.

“I eventually just stopped reporting it,” Graham said. “Because they would place me in solitary confinement each and every time.”

Graham said that the lack of air conditioning in the hot Texas weather and an inability to contact family added to the “pure torture” of solitary. He has since been diagnosed with PTSD and is currently going through counseling.

In addition to being put in solitary for extended periods of time following sexual assaults, trans people are also commonly put in solitary for consensual sexual contact, according to multiple studies. This is often done by citing the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which sought to “maintain and enforce a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual assault for both inmate-on-inmate and staff-on-inmate misconduct” in federal, state, and local correctional facilities.

“During my time at Black and Pink, we saw PREA being used over and over again to criminalize queer and trans folks for consensual sexual relationships,” Lydon said. “And for simple things such as hugging each other and being in the same area.”

Jennaya Bennett-Werra, a trans woman currently incarcerated in a Massachusetts state prison in Framingham, claims to have experienced this firsthand. She said she was once put in solitary for a consensual sexual relationship for four months—nearly twice the amount of time she said she received for assaulting a doctor who tried to take away her medications.

“When [cis] women have sex with each other they get two weeks at most in [solitary] but I get months at a time,” Bennett-Werra said.

In addition to the disproportionate use of restrictive housing, the BOP report also shows that the population of trans people in federal prison in late 2022 was 13 times what it was in early 2017. This meteoric rise occurred simultaneously with a drop in the overall federal prison population. Inglehart cited the recent rise of trans people coming out in all areas of society and the “increasing criminalization of women” as potential explanations for the meteoric rise in the trans inmate population. (In response to a request for comment, a BOP official suggested that the “increase in individuals willing to identify as transgender” could be explained by “a variety of treatment and programming options for transgender individuals…that were not historically offered.”)

For Lydon, who has himself experienced solitary confinement while incarcerated, the solution to the problems facing trans inmates is clear. “The solution is to decarcerate,” he said. “The most important thing we can do is get people out of prison.”

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