Kelly Blackwell longs to escape her life as a transgender woman in a California men’s prison, where she struggles every day to avoid being seen in her bra and panties and says she once faced discipline after fighting back when an inmate in her cell asked for oral sex.
After more than 30 years, and two decades since Blackwell began hormone therapy, her chance to leave arrived last fall when groundbreaking legislation gave transgender, intersex and nonbinary inmates the right, regardless of anatomy, to choose whether to be housed in a male or female prison.
The demand has been high, with 261 requests for transfers since SB 132 took effect Jan. 1, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. It’s the start of a hugely sensitive operation playing out in one of the largest prison systems in the country.
Jasmine Jones, a legal assistant at the Transgender Gender-Variant & Intersex Justice Project, which provides supportive services to inmates, has been in touch with several dozen inmates in the women’s facilities with concerns about the transfers, explaining to them that she was raped several times in prison and attempted suicide four times.
More than two hours away, at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, there’s fear. Inmates say guards have warned them that “men are coming” and to expect sexual violence.
“That if we think it’s bad now, be prepared for the worst. That it’s going to be off the hook, it’s going to be jumping,” Tomiekia Johnson, 41, said staffers have told her. “They say we’re going to need a facility that’s going to be like a maternity ward. They say we’re going to have an inmate program where inmates become nannies.”
Just over 1% of California’s prison population — or 1,129 inmates — have identified as nonbinary, intersex or transgender, according to the corrections department, populations that experience excessive violence in prison. A 2007 UC Irvine study that included interviews with 39 transgender inmates found that the rate of sexual assault is 13 times higher for transgender people, with 59% reporting experiencing such encounters.
So far, the prison system has transferred four inmates to the Chowchilla women’s prison, approved 21 gender-based housing requests and denied none. Of the 261 requests, all but six asked to be housed at a women’s facility.
Johnson, the inmate who said staffers had told her to expect violence with the transfers, said that she has survived domestic violence from a man and that it would be triggering to live with transgender people who haven’t had gender-affirming surgery.
“I do think they should be safe, but it infringes on my right to be safe as well,” she said.