A Story of Strength From a Transgender Person in Prison
Content Warning: The following article details instances of sexual violence in an incarceration setting and may be upsetting to some readers. If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence and is in need of help, please contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1–800–656–4673.
By Janetta Johnson
There are few people exposed to more violence and abuse in our society today than a transgender woman in prison. According to our US Transgender Survey, transgender people are ten times as likely to be sexually assaulted by others in prison and five times as likely to be sexually assaulted by staff. They are frequently humiliated, denied medical care, and kept in solitary confinement for extensive stays.
Sexual violence in prison is largely left out of the national conversation about survivors and the #MeToo movement, even as overcrowding and a persistent lack of oversight leads to increases in violence. According to a recent Department of Justice report, sexual abuse allegations in prison rose from 8,798 in 2011 to 24,661 in 2015 — meaning sexual violence in prisons tripled in just four years.
For Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we wanted to give voice to one of the women who endure such abuse in our nation’s prison system. Janetta Johnson of the TGI Justice Project — a Bay Area organization working with those formerly and currently held in prison — detailed her own experiences in a federal facility for us. With her permission, we are sharing it and asking readers to reflect on their own commitment to ending sexual violence wherever and to whomever it occurs.
It started the very moment I was arrested and the police flipped my dress up to show the fellow officers my anatomy as “proof” that I wasn’t a “real woman.” After that, they stopped using female pronouns and treating me with respect, because I’m trans and, to these officers, trans women do not deserve respect.
And then, I entered a cell that had blood and feces in it and they left me there, stark naked. Being sentenced to 6 years in prison as a nonviolent offender, I knew — as I told the judge who sentenced me — that there would be some physical and sexual violence, violence that all Black trans people experience inside jails and prisons.
Once inside the jail, one of the men who was also in custody in the protective housing unit lied to the correctional officer to get me transferred into his cell, telling the CO that I wasn’t allowed to be housed with the white man that they had me in the cell with, and then I was not able to sleep for the first while as I was constantly having to navigate my safety and wrestle with this guy to avoid being raped by him.
Every night I had to argue and defend and protect myself to prevent the violent act that he was so persistently, insistently wanting to perpetrate. And I was so afraid to ask to be removed or report because, at the end of the day, reporting any sexual abuse is looked at and frowned upon as snitching, and it’s like putting a bigger target on your back.
Eventually, someone heard me fighting and wrestling and told the officers, and there was an “intervention” — another violent act. While people were out smoking in the POD, they took all of us out to the rec yard and made everyone stripped naked and the other people incarcerated with me were able to see my naked body in its entirety and that put an even bigger target on my back and brought on more unwanted attention.
While being transported from one facility to another a correctional officer left me standing there alone, with no clothes on, having all these different COs make violent and derogatory comments about me.
I was placed in [solitary confinement] for six months. The individual inside the cell with me repeatedly touched himself in front of me. I tried to deflect him, deciding that I wouldn’t comb my hair or take a shower to try to get him to stop. Didn’t work; he found that to be sexy and attractive and enjoyed smelling my natural body odor and forced me to let him smell my armpits.
Every day that I was in that cell with him he called me a faggot, haunted, a bad spirit. He told me I was no good and I was going to hell. Every day during the six months I was in the same cell with him. It was miserable and I fought like hell to keep my sanity and to not believe all the negativity and to keep some sense of self-worth.
Janetta Johnson is an Afro-American trans woman who was raised in Tampa, Florida. She is a healer through her work at the Transgender Gender Variant and Intersex (TGI) Justice Project and facilitator invested in decolonizing spaces. Since 2006, she has been organizing around the intersections of violence she and her trans and gender non-conforming communities of color face. She has been both politicized and mentored by Miss Major who has been deeply influential in her life, and she is honored to have accepted Miss Major’s former position as Executive Director of the TGI Justice Project. The spiritual force that drives her to dismantle the violent systems that black trans people are subjected to and oppressed by is one that awakens her.