Out on the Inside: Transgender Women Share Stories From a California Prison

I arrived at a state prison in Vacaville, California, with a cart full of video equipment and two fellow reporters from KQED. We had come to meet with a group of transgender inmates and learn about their experience behind bars.

Prison is a challenging environment by any measure, but for the roughly two dozen transgender women living here alongside nearly 2500 men, there are unique challenges — not just for the women, but also for the prison staff responsible for keeping everyone safe.

The California prison system (like most) has long been set up along traditional gender lines — there are prisons for men and other ones for women, with a current total of 35 institutions located in every region of the state. But in recent years, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has had to contend with a growing number of offenders who do not fit into a binary gender classification system.

Take Jazzie Paradize Scott, for example, who said she’s been taking hormones since she was 16.

“I've always had my mom and my father's approval of being a trans woman,” she said. “It was just always about getting my life together and stop making so many careless mistakes. Like this — ending up in prison.”

Jazzie Paradize Scott displays her transgender ID card, issued by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The CDCR has designated certain prisons as hubs for transgender inmates, where support services and resources can be clustered.
Jazzie Paradize Scott displays her transgender ID card, issued by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The CDCR has designated certain prisons as hubs for transgender inmates, where support services and resources can be clustered. (Monica Lam/KQED)

The CDCR has designated certain prisons as hubs for transgender inmates, where support services and resources can be clustered. The prison I visited, California Medical Facility (CMF), is one of those hubs, and it’s also a prison where inmates with medical and mental health needs are placed for better access to health care.

Scott is on her third tour of prison and wants to put what remains of her time inside to good use. She was elected to represent other transgender prisoners on the inmate advisory council and successfully lobbied to create a weekly workout club for transgender women, complete with a prison staffer as a fitness coach.

“It took a long journey with a long fight, but I was able to work with staff on talking to the right people to get it done,” Scott said.

Today’s workout began with a simple, brisk walk around the perimeter of the gym, with a couple of women following along in their wheelchairs. While one group pedaled stationary bikes, another group played a high energy game of half-court basketball that left them drenched in sweat. Afterwards, Scott led the group through a series of stretches to cool down.

Transgender prisoners at California Medical Facility in Vacaville successfully lobbied to create a weekly workout club for the prison's transgender women, complete with a prison staffer as a fitness coach.
Transgender prisoners at California Medical Facility in Vacaville successfully lobbied to create a weekly workout club for the prison's transgender women, complete with a prison staffer as a fitness coach. (Sruti Mamidanna/KQED)

The point of the workout club, said Scott, was “to be able to let our hair down and wear our makeup and our gym shorts” in a safe environment. In fact, while they were inside the gym, the women could take off their prison blues and wear sports bras, tank tops, and leggings. Once the workout was over, they had to once again don their prison-issued pants and loose-fitting blue shirts before exiting the gym.

‘I Never Saw Myself as a Guy’

Gender identity and expression inside prison is more than a matter of getting to dress as one would like. Transgender people face harassment, hatred and violence both outside and inside prison.

“Since I was a child, I felt like I was a girl,” said Yekaterina Wesa Patience when we sat down to talk. “No matter what nobody told me, I just never, I never saw myself as a guy.”

Her family, she said, could not accept that.

“My father literally would beat me, sometimes every day, just to get me to act like a boy — to toughen me up,” she said.

By 14, Patience said she had left home, and before long, ended up in jail. She’s been in prison since 1996 for first-degree murder, a crime she committed when she was 18.

Inside prison, the violence continued. Patience said she was raped twice by other prisoners. In response, she tried to hide her identity.

“I immediately cut all my hair off, grew facial hair and never grew it long again,” she said. “I had to act like the toughest person I could find.”

Even today she searches her memory for what she could have done differently to prevent the assaults.

Yekaterina Wesa Patience said that in the past, she cut off her hair and grew facial hair to protect herself from the threat of harassment, violence and sexual assault behind bars.
Yekaterina Wesa Patience said that in the past, she cut off her hair and grew facial hair to protect herself from the threat of harassment, violence and sexual assault behind bars. (Monica Lam/KQED)

There are too many stories of transgender prisoners being attacked, beaten, raped or killed behind bars. While violence and sexual assault inside prison is a widespread problem, a 2007 study by UC Irvine researchers found that transgender prisoners are 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than their cisgender counterparts. That statistic is even more striking given that transgender prisoners make up only about 1% of the total prison population in California.

Under the pressure of federal law and numerous prisoner-led lawsuits, California's prison system has been making changes to ensure greater safety for all its prisoners and also to make accommodations for the needs of transgender people.

In settling a lawsuit brought by transgender inmate Shiloh Quine, the department in 2015 started allowing access to apparel previously reserved for female prisoners at women’s prisons — items like bras, clothing, makeup and jewelry. Similar policies were put into place for transgender men at women’s prisons.

Sponsored

During one of the weekly meetings of a transgender support group, which gathers in a bright room lined with blue couches, I asked about the makeup. To me, makeup seemed like one of the niceties of life that I hadn’t expected to see on a list of prison canteen items.

“I love my pinks,” said Cary CJay Smith, showing me a couple tubes of lip gloss. Her eyelids were also dusted a soft shade of pink. “This one is for my eyes, the volumizing,” she said, holding up a bright yellow tube of mascara.

With a wink, she showed me what else she used the mascara for.

“I cover up my gray with it,” she said, brushing the wand’s bristles against her hair. “Just a little bit on the side.”

Cary CJay Smith shows her makeup in her favorite color: pink. The state prison system in 2015 started allowing access to apparel previously reserved for female prisoners at women’s prisons — items like bras, clothing, makeup and jewelry. Similar policies were put into place for transgender men at women’s prisons.
Cary CJay Smith shows her makeup in her favorite color: pink. The state prison system in 2015 started allowing access to apparel previously reserved for female prisoners at women’s prisons — items like bras, clothing, makeup and jewelry. Similar policies were put into place for transgender men at women’s prisons. (Monica Lam/KQED)

Many of the prisoners who have been inside for a long time said getting access to makeup was a big deal.

“It used to be that we didn't have real makeup and we had to improvise,” said David Bella Birrell. “Like getting China markers for eyebrow stuff.”

Or mixing Koolaid and Chapstick to make lipstick, added Birrell, who’s been incarcerated since 1983 for first-degree murder.

Smith also shared one of her hacks.

“I use a toothpaste box — Colgate — and I get a Q-tip, and I can rub baby oil along the red part of the box,” she said. “I can make me a little eyeshadow, a little pink eyeshadow.”

The support group is also where more serious topics get discussed. An animated argument flared up about whether one inmate was adequately dressed on a recent hot day.

“I was sitting in my cell and it's almost 90 [degrees]. I'm sitting with just my bra and my shorts, facing the wall,” said Rachael Goosen. When a passing corrections officer reprimanded her for being inappropriately dressed, Goosen was upset. “When I'm at my bed area, that's my area and I can dress as I feel,” she said.

But Smith disagreed, advocating that trans women should err on the side of modesty.

“As a woman, you should want to be covered,” Smith said. “I keep my mumu on. I mean I don't care how hot it is.”

Transgender women gather for a weekly support group at California Medical Facility, a state prison in Vacaville, CA.
Transgender women gather for a weekly support group at California Medical Facility, a state prison in Vacaville, CA. (Sruti Mamidanna/KQED)

Women in Men’s Prisons

California prisons don’t have special housing units dedicated to transgender inmates. Instead, they are generally housed in the same type of cells as other men and in some cases share dorms with more than a hundred people.

How a prisoner is assigned to a particular cell at a particular prison is based on a complex calculus that incorporates his or her crime, personal profile, past behavior inside prison, requests or preferences and the types and availability of programs at individual prisons.

“We have a classification process for our offenders that allows for a case by case review,” said Amy Miller, associate director of the CDCR’s female offender programs.

During the support group, we injected ourselves into the discussion to ask the members for their opinion: Should transgender women be housed in a women’s prison?

The reactions were mixed.

Patience said housing transgender and cisgender women together would alleviate her safety concerns. “If you identify as a female then I think you should be housed around females,” she said. “I think that would eliminate a lot of the problems of being sexually assaulted or being raped, pressured.”

Ava Marie Fey, who began taking hormones last year, said she hopes to eventually obtain gender affirmation surgery and be transferred to a women’s prison.

“I’d love to go over to the female institution instead of this,” Fey said.

But Mark Peaches Cates said she was happy where she was.

“I wouldn't like it because I love men,” Cates said. “I'd rather be right here with a bunch of men instead of with a bunch of women.”

Ava Marie Fey, who began taking hormones last year, said she hopes to eventually obtain gender affirmation surgery and be transferred to a women’s prison.
Ava Marie Fey, who began taking hormones last year, said she hopes to eventually obtain gender affirmation surgery and be transferred to a women’s prison. (Sruti Mamidanna/KQED)

Last year, Democratic state Senator Scott Wiener, who represents San Francisco, had advanced legislation to allow transgender prisoners to be housed at the prison of their choice. It stalled in the fall, but Wiener said he plans to push an amended bill this year.

Several members of the transgender support group questioned how such a law would be enforced. How would prison officials know if someone was sincere about identifying and living as a woman? What if there are men who game the system simply in order to get inside a women’s facility?

CDCR’s Miller said the department was working on updating its housing classification policy but could not comment on what changes it is considering.

A Long Journey

California’s prison system is one of the largest in the country, with around 114,000 inmates in its care. How the department continues to evolve and adapt to an increasingly diverse inmate population is being watched by other states, advocates, and of course, prisoners.

Ongoing lawsuits continue to push for further reform, from improving access to healthcare to buttressing prisoner safety, while officials scrutinize yearly whether the prisons have done enough to prevent sexual assault.

All the prisoners I spoke with said that things could be better. But they also agreed that life for transgender prisoners has come a long way and that they felt especially safe at CMF.

Prison officials said their hub system of grouping transgender prisoners together is working — together with changes to policy and prison culture.

“This is the first prison I've ever been to that actually had a transgender community,” Patience said.

She said she started growing her hair out again after coming to CMF, as well as wearing jewelry and makeup.

“It was actually probably the biggest load I've ever taken off my shoulders, when I just stopped saying I was going to be what everybody else wanted me to be,” said Patience.

As the weekly support group wound down, people broke off into smaller clumps, starting personal discussions. Goosen and another woman compared rock ‘n’ roll to hip hop music. Patience had a computer class to attend. Scott got ready to start her shift as a janitor.

“It’s been a long journey, but I'm comfortable in my skin,” Scott said. “I’m blessed to be where I'm at right now.”

Production Credits

Director & Producer: Monica Lam
Editor: Dina Maria Munsch
Camera & Sound: Sruti Mamidanna, Monica Lam
Co-Reporter: Miranda Leitsinger
Executive Producer: Annelise Wunderlich
Post Production:Roger Chiang, Tony Cox, Simon Hui, Kim McCalla, Amy Miller, Vivian Morales
Managing Editor of Digital: Julia B. Chan
Managing Editor of News: Vinnee Tong
Executive Editor of News: Ethan Toven-Lindsey

Sponsored