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.
In 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.”