For the past two years, Prisoner Advisory Committee member Isabella Adler has been sharing her tips on surviving in prison as a trans woman with SRLP. With the help of Maya Martin-Udry and Nadja Eisenberg-Guyot SRLP was able to combine her tips into a brochure that can be shared anywhere.
SRLP shares this guide as we know that the wisdom and experience of those currently experiencing incarceration should be guiding us all; however, this is not legal advice or counsel. This guide consists of Isabella’s thoughts and knowledge around survival, and we thank her for sharing her expertise. We are sure that many trans women navigating prison systems will have different, and maybe even conflicting, advice. So please use this guide to learn about Isabella’s experience and – if helpful – apply it to your own or a loved one’s situation!
About the Author: Isabella Adler is an artist, writer, and transgender activist. She enjoys music, anime, cats, and movies. Her artwork has been used in the SRLP calendars and donated to Small Works for Big Change to help raise money for SRLP. Her writing has appeared in the Prisoner Advisory Committee (PAC) blog and been shared during advocacy days with New York State lawmakers. Isabella is inspired by Mik Kinkead.
Help! How Can I be Moved?………………….. 5
Protecting Yourself …………………………………6
How Do I Stay Safe in the Yard?…………………6
What are Some Things That Can Get Me in Trouble? …………7
What Should I Know About Snitching? …………………………….. 7
What Can I do if Staff’s Being Non-Responsive to a Complaint I Have On an Inmate Sexually Harassing or Assaulting Me? ……………………………………………. 8
Help! I Moved Prisons and Some Property of Mine Never Made It! What Do I Do? ………. 8
What about Other Girls? ………….. …………………………………….. 9
Dress Code; What about Makeup? ……………………………………. 9
Education and Empowerment………… ………………………………..10
What are Some Helpful Guides? ……………………………………….11
Help! How Can I be Moved?
Your safety is your number one priority. If you feel unsafe and don’t want to openly tell staff, put a note (called a “kite”) in an envelope with the nightly mail. State that you feel unsafe and need to move. If you do this, you’ll most likely be on a callout to mental health the following morning and they can work with you to move you to a different block or dorm.
While you can normally ask to be moved, this will not happen unless there is a specific issue, such as your personal safety. You have a good chance at going to Protective Custody (PC) and then a new jail if your personal safety is an issue. In the event you got to move for personal safety and don’t want to be in PC, state that you’re depressed or suicidal; if anything like that’s stated, you’ll be “off the count” ASAP and put into a one to one cell, you’ll have a smock and no property being watched. But as your upside it’s absolutely guaranteed to get you out of “gen pop” and locked up fast. You DON’T have to carry out with hurting yourself. Just simply stating it, they are obligated to move you somewhere safe for you and others. Downside is being locked up. But always remember, your health and safety come first and going home in one piece should be your number one goal.
Will another inmate protect me? NEVER put your personal safety in the hands of another inmate. Finding a husband only provides an appearance of protection. If someone truly wants you for sex or to hurt you, they’ll take out your husband first then you may have a worse situation on your hands. So remember this “jewel:” no one is responsible for you or your safety but yourself. Stay diligent and proactive with regards to staying safe.
How do I Stay Safe in the Yard?
All yards are different. Some are run by prison politics. For example, phones. In some jail yards, there’s a phone for just our LGBTGNC community, so find out from someone if that’s the case. That way, no one will pick a fight with you for something trivial like using the wrong phone. If by any chance you are in a max with “courts” or different yards within one big yard, and you are told to get off the one you went on, I suggest you do so fast. But don’t name names on who told you to go. It’s better to avoid pointless fights or situations if you can do so.
My personal advice, if you can count more than 4 or 5 people in your circle, there’s too many around you. If you keep your circle small, there’s less drama and when drama does happen, its fewer to deal with and easier to stop and get on with your bid.
What are Some Things That Can Get Me in Trouble?
- Many people get into serious trouble due to one thing: their mouth. Watch what you say and who you say it too. And if you hear a word you don’t know, by all means don’t use it!
- Another way is “screwing around” with too many men. My personal advice: don’t “mess around” at all. But if you feel you “must” then be with only one man at a time.
What Should I Know about Snitching?
There’s no such thing as “no snitching” in today’s system. Everyone tells. It all depends on who you’re telling on. If it’s a gang member, your husband, or boyfriend, you may have serious problems on your hands and will probably need to tell a staff member and go to PC so none of his “homeboys” can get you.
What can I do if Staff’s being Non-Responsive to a Complaint I Have on an Inmate Sexually Harassing or Assaulting Me?
- You can put a kite for mental health. They are required by law to report any threat of harm on you or another.
- Grieve it. It is always smart to make a paper trail so you can prove you told staff.
- If it happens to be a staff member doing this and not an inmate, wear out all the channels, and if it isn’t working, then fill out a grievance complaint.
Help! I Moved Prisons and Some Property of Mine Never Made It! What do I Do?
Go to inmate grievance and ask for an “inmate claim form.” Fill it out and turn it in. If you do get it in your favor, the money those missing items costed will be put in your inmate account.
What about Other Girls?
- Number one is DON’T get involved in the petty nit-picking and back stabbing with other girls. Always remember police are trained to separate, divide, and conquer us. If they cause strife and distrust amongst us to fight amongst ourselves, they win, so don’t feed into it.
- Find another girl (or one that knows the ropes) and get under her wing.
- If need be, find a sister to teach you to read and write and learn to comprehend what you read.
- If you’re harassed in the yard or gym, tell a girl who is respected by the other inmates to talk to them, to stop bothering you. If no one is around like that, tell them to leave you alone and walk away and stand up for yourself and they’ll get bored and bother someone else.
Dress Code: What about Makeup?
There is no makeup in prison. You will get a ticket if you wear any makeup snuck in or made in prison. You also might experience some increased harassment.
Education and Empowerment
We got the perfect chance to upgrade our education in prison, and, in doing so, we upgrade our fighting abilities. One thing the prison system cannot stand and is afraid of is an educated inmate, especially a transgender one. Once you know the rules and regulations and law better than the police, they will steer a wide berth around you and pick an uneducated fool to harass. I know because I see it a lot and the police hate paper work when it makes sense and uses their own rules against them! Also if you have no GED or job skills, you should get them in prison, that way you will have a better shot at staying out and not coming back.
What Are Some Helpful Guides?
Are there any laws or rights for transgender women in prison? If so, what are they? Yes, there are laws protecting us. Read more about them in any of the following guides:
- ACLU “Transgender People and the Law”
- ACLU “Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) Toolkit: End the Abuse”
- Prisoners’ Legal Services “Your Rights at a Tier III (Superintendent’s) Hearing”
You can also write to the below address and receive a 25 page resource directory for free:
P.O. Box 70447
Oakland, CA 94612
Ask for the prisoner resource directory!