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  • Writer's pictureAllison Murray

Solitary Confinement Is Not The Answer: Protecting the Rights of Transgender Prisoners

The ability of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals to enter into gender-affirming spaces has incited much debate in recent years. Significant legislation has been introduced to restrict the ability of transgender individuals to participate in basic aspects of society, from the emergence of state “bathroom bills” that restricted people from utilizing the bathroom correlated with their gender in the mid-2010s, to the recent “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida prohibiting instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in elementary school classrooms.

The subject of transgender individuals’ placement in U.S. prisons has been particularly controversial. Conflicting legislation has emerged as lawmakers have fought either to ensure that transgender individuals can be placed in the facility of their preference – such as California’s recent SB-132, or that they must be placed in the facility that correlates with their biological sex, such as the Preventing Violence Against Female Inmates Act of 2022 introduced in the U.S. House and Senate earlier this year.

Layleen Polanco, a transgender inmate from New York, died in solitary confinement at Rikers Correctional Center in 2019 while facing misdemeanor charges. Image Source: NBC News.

As prisons have struggled to figure out how to ensure the safety of both transgender prisoners and their fellow inmates, many prisons have resorted to placing transgender individuals in solitary confinement to prevent them from interacting with other prisoners. Though this practice ensures inmates' physical security, solitary confinement is far from a harmless solution.

Research has found that time spent in solitary confinement has significant and long-lasting effects, and experts have called for it to be significantly reduced or banned entirely for years – the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners were updated in 2015 to restrict the usage of solitary confinement for periods longer than 15 days.

Given the well-researched harmful effects of solitary confinement, even when used as a disciplinary procedure, it seems unthinkable that inmates would be exposed to the grave risks of these so-called “segregated housing” units indefinitely, solely because of their gender identity. Indeed, recent high-profile cases of trans inmates facing abuse or even death while in solitary confinement have sparked protests in many cities against the practice.

People protest the death of Layleen Polanco in July 2019. Image Source: Solitary Watch

Recently passed legislation in California, however, would prohibit this. Assembly Bill 2632 (AB 2632) states that facilities “shall not place a person in segregated confinement solely on the basis of the person identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or gender nonconforming,” throwing a wrench in the de facto solution that many prisons have resorted to for the placement of transgender inmates. Though the bill does not address the many other abuses trans inmates face in U.S. prisons, such as the placement of prisoners in segregated units for “disciplinary measures” related to their gender identity, it takes a vital step toward ensuring that those who do not conform to traditional gender and sexual identity expectations are treated humanely while incarcerated.

Though the debate over the placement of transgender individuals in U.S. prisons is far from over, one thing is certain: solitary confinement cannot be the answer. Regardless of one’s opinion on the facility that transgender prisoners should be placed in, they are people, not pawns to be shuffled around in a political debate.

AB 2632 takes an important step toward protecting the human rights of transgender inmates, but more must be done to ensure that all prisoners are afforded dignity and respect while incarcerated. Robust federal legislation protecting transgender prisoners against unwarranted disciplinary measures and other abuses must be passed before more inmates face the tragic consequences of these inhumane practices.

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