New Book Shares Stories of Transgender Women Serving Time in Men’s Prisons

Alone in her cell, sleep became an escape. Each time she awoke, Daniella Tavake would sob, unnerved by her own reflection in the scratched-up metal mirror, sickened by the feel of whiskers, coarse and uncut, obscuring her once-smooth face.

Locked up at a Central Valley men’s prison, the transgender Redwood City native spent several weeks in the summer of 2013 in solitary confinement. Though for her own protection—another inmate called her a “faggot,” she says, and then physically attacked her—isolation brought its own kind of torture.

“When I look in the mirror, I want to cry,” Tavake wrote in a letter at the time. “I am forced to wear a beard.”

In other ways, the two decades she spent cycling in and out of prison on nonviolent, mostly drug-related offenses, reaffirmed her identity in a way the outside world never had.

“I was a woman,” she wrote in one of her letters from Salinas Valley State Prison. “So when I went home, I felt out of place. I felt like I didn’t belong out of prison. I used to dream of being sent back to prison and in my dreams I was always happy and felt like I belonged. I wasn’t being treated like a woman when I went home and it truly bothered me.”

Preferring confinement, of course, says less about Tavake’s treatment in prison—two decades marked by violence from being a woman among men—than about the struggle of being trans in a society hostile to anyone outside the commonly presumed gender binary.

As a teen in the South Bay, Tavake turned to gangs and meth to quell flashbacks of childhood sexual abuse and the anguish of being in a body at odds with her femininity. Behind bars, at least, the men saw her as a woman. Behind bars, at least, she began taking hormones that curved her frame and softened her skin.

“But I still shouldn’t even be in this place,” she wrote in her distinct looping script to pen pal Kristin Schreier Lyseggen. “I can’t wait to get out so I can put all this behind me.”

Lyseggen, a Norway-born, Bay Area-based journalist, shares Tavake’s story by way of their correspondence in her new book, The Women of San Quentin: Soul Murder of Transgender Women in Male Prisons. The volume, filled with the letters, portraits and biographies of nine gender-variant inmates, offers a rare, nuanced glimpse of the trauma inflicted upon trans women by a system that considers them men.

“Because of the way we institutionalize these women, they are raped and beaten, they’re denied their humanity,” says Lyseggen, who has been reporting on LGBT issues in several countries for the better part of a dozen years. “How can this nation, one that considers itself a progressive, democratic society, shove women into crowded compounds of very violent men?”

Virtually every jail and prison in the United States houses trans inmates who have not had reassignment surgery with a population corresponding with the gender they were assigned at birth. Such policies conflict with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which prohibits carceral agencies from housing people separately by gender identity, birth sex or sexual orientation without a court order.

Those policies also endanger people like Tavake, with full breasts and an effeminate gait, in the company of hundreds of men. While 4.4 percent of inmates statewide reported experiencing sexual assault, that figure soared to 59 percent for trans inmates, according to a 2011 study by UC Irvine criminologist Valerie Jenness. The same study found that half of trans inmates reported being raped by guards or other inmates.

The PREA allows jails and prisons to assign housing for LGBT wards on a case-by-case basis. Yet if placed in isolation for safety’s sake, trans inmates have no access to programming such as work assignments or vocational training that could reduce their sentence.

In a decision announced last month, California became the first state in the union to foot the bill for an inmate’s gender-affirming surgery. Shiloh Quine, booked into the carceral system on a first degree murder conviction as Rodney in 1980, will move into a women’s facility once she recovers from her operation. While the federal court decision ruled the procedure a medical necessity for Quine, it dodged the question of whether it’s a constitutional right.

Former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner, whose public transition elevated her as a spokeswoman on trans issues, expressed fear on NBC’s Today that, if charged in connection with a fatal crash, she could end up jailed with men.

“That is the worst-case scenario,” Jenner said. “I don’t know. We’ll see. The men’s county jail, it is an enormous problem that they would put trans women in a men’s county jail.”

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) houses 385 transgender inmates on hormone therapy. Of those, 363 consider themselves women and 22 of them men. Yet many more refuse to come out, bound by stigma or fear for their own safety, which makes it difficult for trans inmate advocates to pinpoint an accurate count.

“Those numbers rely on people self-reporting, on people who feel safe enough to disclose,” says Flor Bermudez, an attorney at the Transgender Law Center. “We don’t know the exact number. But I can tell you that we get eight to 10 letters a day from people, from families, from prisoners who need our help.”

Even in the Bay Area, a left-leaning region in a left-leaning state, the dialogue around trans inmates has only just begun to translate to responsive policies. Last month, San Francisco County became one of the first in the nation to house trans inmates by their lived gender rather than birth-assigned sex. Santa Clara County still hews to the prevailing standard of pre- and post-operative.

“Housing is dependent on how far their post-op surgeries have progressed,” according to Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. James Jensen. “Once they identify, our medical department verifies which gender their genitals associate with.”

They will, however, stay in protective custody among LGBT inmates or others with “victim potential,” Jensen adds. Unlike solitary confinement, which limits access to programs, protective custody still allows inmates to participate in classes.

There’s a chance that the county may reconsider the protocol to allow trans women to bunk with cisgender women and trans men with their cis-male counterparts. A newly formed blue ribbon commission—formed in response to a mentally ill inmate’s beating death in August—will likely address the issue as it investigates how to improve custody operations.

Santa Clara County has taken greater strides in dealing with incarcerated minors who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or other shades of queer or questioning. In 2011, the county booked its first self-identified transgender teen, Probation Manager Anne Elwart told her law enforcement peers during a PREA training session last fall.

“We didn’t know what to do,” Elwart acknowledges in the online lecture, which was recorded and posted online. “We talked to counties from San Francisco all the way down to L.A. and nobody had to deal with this before, which was shocking to us, especially with those two jurisdictions.”

The county took an ad hoc response, calling on higher-up public agencies and nonprofit advocacy groups for help.

“The more we started to look … the more we realized that we were already working with this population,” she says. “They were just invisible.”

To train her staff to work more effectively with LGBT youth, Elwart relies on an exercise she calls “the impact of silence.” She tells everyone in the room to write down 12 of the most important things in their life: three people, three routines, three recreational activities and three hobbies. Then, she tells them to find someone in the room they’ve never met and describe themselves without naming anything they just wrote down.

“What’s amazing is the room goes silent because of the fact that they go, “There’s nothing to talk about. You took all the important things away from me,’” Elwart says. “I go, ‘Exactly. You just did that for 90 seconds. Imagine if that was an hour of your life, eight hours of your life … or worse, you couldn’t even [open up] to your own family.’”

That's a critical insight, she says, because LGBT youth are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. Family rejection, inappropriate foster care placement or a hostile school climate over gender identity or sexual orientation lead to truancy, drug abuse and homelessness. The force of those problems make transgender youth far more likely to come into contact with law enforcement, according to the Campaign for Youth Justice.

Screen Shot 2015-10-20 at 5.01.21 PMIn her book, Lyseggen raises the question: What do we owe a criminal? The short answer, she says, is the right to dignity and rehabilitation. But the question should prompt people to look at the way society criminalizes transgender people in the first place. Rejected by their families, a disproportionate number of trans men and women become homeless and turn to crimes of survival—sex work, theft, violence in self-defense—and cycle in and out of incarceration.

“We betrayed these women long before they became adults by not believing what they told us about who they are,” Lyseggen writes. “And then when we lock some of them up, we torture them, watch them being raped, and forget that they exist.”

In one of the final letters before she got out early for good behavior, Tavake told Lyseggen how excited she was to finally live as a free woman.

“Pretty soon I will be home wearing heels, skirts, dresses, real makeup, and I can’t wait to get my nails done!” she gushed. “Kris. You don’t understand how bad I want to slip into some heels and a cute dress and go job hunting with a cute-ass handbag and briefcase.”

Tavake was released in San Mateo County 11 months ago. She says she’ll never go back to prison.

“I’m living proof that there is hope with guidance and support,” she says. Now 40 years old, she divides her time between a restaurant job in Palo Alto and myriad appointments, classes and counseling sessions mandated by her re-entry program.

With Lyseggen, she wants to highlight the need for psychological help and appropriate placement for inmates in the process of transitioning. But she also stresses the importance of supporting trans inmates upon their release.

“We have a responsibility to do better,” says Lyseggen, who will speak on her project Thursday, Oct. 22, at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park. “Punishment must not be cruel, it must not be unusual. We have to recognize people for who they are.”

Jennifer Wadsworth is a staff writer for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

13 Comments

  1. “a disproportionate number of trans men and women become homeless and *turn to crimes of survival*”

    Can’t all crime be designated “crime of survival”?

    Tavake cycled in the criminal justice system for 20 years and remains on probation. Presumably she had access to all the rehabilitation opportunities available to others, but elected not to alter her behavior.

    She’s also hit 40 – a time that many inmates decide they are ready to change. Lots of data on this. Strong arguments that her behavior change is due less to external factors (e.g., social acceptance) than organic factors (aging).

    LGBT youth: Yes. Higher rates of drug addiction / substance abuse in the entire LGBT population too. But far from clear that the causal factor is social treatment. There are significant differences among various populations where environmental factors have been statistically eliminated. Once you eliminate environmental factors, genetic ones surface. Or confounding effects.

    Would be nice if the article included legal requirements, costs and outcomes: what are the:
    a. minimum legal requirements (presumably the most inexpensive)?
    b. incremental costs for the trans population?
    c. what has been the impact (cost / benefit analysis)?

      • Assuming you were locked up for 50% of the past 20 years mentioned in the article, then the social cost has been at least $532,900. This is based on a daily cost of $146 / inmate.

        Additional costs could include court, law enforcement, probation costs (if any), plus rehab costs not offset by any fines (if any). Assuming one qualifies (most ex-offenders do), then there is MediCal, discounts for public transit, food stamps (SNAP/CalFresh), free job training, and other assistance programs.

        Hope things work out.

      • wait a minute…negative or opposing viewpoints add fuel to controversial subjects, and open dialogue to differing opinions. If you dont like it, find another place to voice your opinions where yours is the only voice. Until we live in a communist society, where you control the media, you have no right to silence different opinions.

    • Ms. Tavake is not on probation or parole. Speaking from someone in recovery and who has worked in the addiction field, your feelings, valid as they are yours, are not entirely accurate. Addiction is a disease not a choice. Most addicts get caught up in the system as there is no where else to put them. Rehabilitation opportunities are not as readily available as one might think due to funding and space issues. It is not necessarily that she did not elect to alter her behavior as it is no one gave her the tools to find the cause of her addiction. Most addicts have mental health issues that go unaddressed for years or even undiagnosed all together. 20 years ago when Ms Tavake started to get caught up in the system, you would be looking at hard time for being under the influence or in possession of a controlled substance. What she may have done 5 years for 20 years ago, you now get prop 47 and do no jail time at all and are offered services that were not available then. Also 20 years ago if Ms. Tavake came out as transgender, she might have gotten killed in prison as that is something that just wasn’t accepted or even talked about then. So now, social factors and being able to openly talk about being transgender and the emotions and pain and stigma tied to it have changed the organic factor just happened to be at the same time. There are many people just entering into rehabilitation centers for the first time at the age of 50 and 60 along with those that are 19. There is an increase in younger people going into rehabilitation now due to the fact that addiction is now seen as a disease and not a choice. They are able to talk about past abuse, pain and mental health issues that you weren’t able to talk about 20 years ago. If you only knew how many addicts I know that were molested or beaten as children and had no where to turn as they were too scared of what additional abuse they would see. Though your feelings might be valid for today in today’s society, 20 years ago that wasn’t the case. That is why you are seeing the 40 somethings “ready to change” as the help has finally caught up to their age and generation.

      • The disease model of addiction was originally proposed to remove social stigma (previously viewed as a moral failure). Unlike organic diseases, addiction cures have not been developed, nor do treatment regimens deliver consistent results. And unlike organic diseases, a diagnosis can be non-deterministic.

        Research does show outcomes similar to spontaneous remission. Some engaged in previous addictive behavior can resume drinking or consuming drugs without adversely affecting their lives (subjective, but one definition of an addict). Most spiral down and die if they resume. Abstinence works, but long term abstinence proves elusive for many.

        Treatment programs have a low [low double digits] “success” (abstinence) rate for alcoholics and lower [single digits] for drug addicts as measured over 5 years. Different studies give different results as does the criteria for desired outcome.

        I’m unaware of research that suggests treatment modalities today result in significant differences compared to 20 years ago. Or that 40 somethings change due to the availability of resources. Lots of federally funded studies (about 90% of all research) since NIAAA was formed in 1970. About 15% of people with mental health problems also have a co-occuring substance abuse problem.

        “Though your feelings might be valid for today in today’s society, 20 years ago that wasn’t the case.”

        They aren’t feelings, but from research metastudies (NIAAA and NIMH) and personal experience. As someone clean and sober for over 40 years, working with incarcerated inmates and those on probation, I’ve met many from abusive backgrounds. Some end up in the penal system and fortunately most don’t. I distinctly remember some trans individuals attending AA meetings in the 1970s. I’ve never seen anyone shunned or excluded – even those with obvious mental health problems or drunks unless they are disruptive.

        Our county and state recidivism rate compares poorly to others. I hope Daniella doesn’t become part of that group.

  2. I don’t know who you are! You don’t know me and you don’t know what I am doing in my life. I have made it on my own with minimal help. My Parents didn’t give anything!

  3. “In other ways, the two decades she spent cycling in and out of prison on nonviolent, mostly drug-related offenses, reaffirmed her identity in a way the outside world never had.”

    Since we readers have been treated to so much detail about the life of this person and the perils of imprisonment, why have we been denied the details of the crimes and charges involved? Was it the intent of the writer to lead the reader to believe this person was merely a drug user, and thus deserving of some level of sympathy (as opposed to revealing this person, regardless of gender, as a repeat — and thus despicable — perpetrator of more serious crimes?

    I’m trying to stay positive here, but…

    • FF,

      I’m all out of “positive”. If I committed crimes and went to jail, I doubt that I’d be the subject of a sympathetic SJI article that starts out:

      Each time she awoke, Daniella Tavake would sob, unnerved by her own reflection in the scratched-up metal mirror, sickened by the feel of whiskers, coarse and uncut, obscuring her once-smooth face.

      The answer is so simple I won’t even bother to point it out.

  4. I don’t honestly know what to make of this story. Are we supposed to be sympathetic to an adult who has made 20 adult years of bad decisions? Is gender or gender dysphoria or the question of gender reassignment somehow supposed to offset our collective disdain for criminals? Is this article – and the book it references – intended to drum up public support for the recent decision in California to offer gender reassignment to those members of the inmate population who suffer ‘gender dysphoria’.

    Frankly, as far as I am concerned, Daniella Takave’s 20 years of bad decisions, incarceration recidivism, etc. are nothing more than a glaring reminder of how broken and dysfunctional California’s criminal justice system truly are. Because Daniella Takave’s story of drug use and recidivism are not unique at all. In fact, in the world of criminal justice Daniella Takave’s story is about as mundane as it gets. Just another recidivist in a firmament of thousands upon thousands of recidivists.

    And, being retired as I am, just as I cannot begin to describe how disinterested I am in the stories of thousands of other recidivists, and I am equally disinterested in that of Takave. Takave and every other criminal or recidivist with a similar story are no more interesting than any other criminal and I am not sure how those stories are somehow elevated to being worthy of the effort of writing and publishing a book. As far as I’m concerned there are adults tend to break down to contributors and non-contributors. That’s the only thing that counts to me and, I’d bet, thousands upon thousands of others throughout the state. And in all the time Takave spent OUT of jail or prison, Takave has managed to be nothing more than a recidivist and non-contributor to date, taking far more from society than Takave has ever given back. If Takave manages to make a meaningful change, this tie around, then that’s great.

    But, guess what? In the grand scheme of things, even contributors tend to be pretty unremarkable as far as the rest of society is concerned. And no one is writing books about their lives, either.