Prison experiences can be devastating for LGBTQ people

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(WYDaily file/Courtesy of Unsplash)
(WYDaily file/Courtesy of Unsplash)

When Tykira Spruill thinks about her time in prison as a trans woman, she thinks of the dirty tiles on the bathroom floor where she was pinned down and raped.

She thinks about the confusion from her doctors and the struggle to stay safe.

Spruill’s experiences in prison changed her, but they also reflect the stories of thousands of trans women in correctional facilities.

The U.S. corrections system isn’t necessarily an easy experience for any inmate, but for those in the trans community the experience can challenge their sexuality, identity and cause lasting psychological damage for years.

Transgender people are nearly 10 times more likely to be sexually assaulted while incarcerated, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

Spruill has been out of prison for nearly two years now, but she said her traumas still live with her everyday. As a Transcend Specialist for the Nationz Foundation, she uses her stories and her past to help other trans women who are struggling.

“There are days where I wake up and I just have to keep pushing forward,” she said. “I know there are people in the trans community crying out for help but they’re scared because they don’t trust people.”

Spruill was incarcerated twice, first on charges related to stealing and the second time on charges related to identity fraud. Her time in prison was spent at St. Bride’s Correctional Facility in Chesapeake and Nottoway Correctional Center in Nottoway County.

Spruill thought she had learned how to protect herself and stay out of the way after being in prison for more than a decade. She eventually found out being a trans woman in prison comes with a different level of fear.

Cory Gerwe, clinical director with the LGBTQ Life Center, has worked with LGBTQ people in the correctional system before and seen first-hand the damaging psychological impacts.

“From my perspective, it seems like the challenges are really based on the possibility of being outed,” he said. “The possibility of people being judgmental towards the LGBTQ identity both physically and verbally.”

Going to jail or prison for members of the LGBTQ community typically means hiding their sexual identity to protect themselves. Gerwe said they can be targeted and live in fear of their own safety because they’re in a setting that still has issues with race and sexuality.

Those issues are more prominent because the culture in regular society is different from that of jails and prisons, where the mindset might be less progressive and mature, Gerwe said.

“I do think the atmosphere is a lot different than the general public,” he said. “I always joke and say the atmosphere is several decades behind but I do think there’s some truth to that.”

The experience becomes even more difficult for trans people because they’re typically placed in a ward based on their gender at birth as opposed to how they identify. This means they are stripped of their underwear, clothing and other gender identifiers.

And that can be a traumatic experience with lasting psychological effects.

“I think it has a major impact because they have to shift their identity,” Gerwe said. “They have to put on a mask of someone they’re not and pretend their something they’re not.”

When Spruill was first sent to prison in 2006, she had just started the process of transitioning. She was going through hormone therapy and had silicone injections in her face, but she didn’t have breasts yet. However, even stripped of her clothes and placed on a male ward, Spruill said her feminine features weren’t something she could hide.

By the second time she was in prison, Spruill had breasts and had infections in her silicone injections that were causing her to lose her vision and sometimes pass out.

Spruill said she was taken to the medical area to be treated but the doctors didn’t know how to care for a trans woman or how to treat silicone infections.

“The doctors just didn’t know what to do with me,” she said. “I was terrified.”

Eventually Spruill was transferred back to St. Brides where she was treated for her condition and felt more comfortable because she knew the officers and staff.

Spruill said she experienced the traumatic event of a lifetime a year away from her heading home.

Spruill was in the middle of her cleaning duties when she noticed a man staring at her. At first, she decided to ignore it but when she went to take a shower later the man approached her, pinned her down on the bathroom floor and raped her.

“I didn’t want to scream and wake the whole pod up,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do. What do you do when you’re being raped?”

Spruill felt more unsafe than ever after that and eventually men started approaching her while holding their genitals because they had heard about the incident. The rest of Spruill’s time in prison she tried to avoid others and move forward, but she couldn’t shake the violent memory.

Spruill went home in October 2018 at the age of 38. She has struggled with her past but has settled in her new role with Nationz as a way to help others who might’ve had the same experiences.

Spruill said trans people in prisons across the country face similar challenges that can be improved with changes to the system.

“As long as you have prisons open, someone on that compound will be extorting a trans woman,” she said.

Gerwe said there are a few ways to improve the system and experience for LGBTQ individuals. 

The first he said would be to improve mental health resources, especially those focused on LGBTQ populations. 

Prisons should also have separate pods or wards for the LGBTQ community so they can protect themselves better.

Gerwe said there also needs to be a greater investment in studying the impact of transgender placement in prisons and educating guards and staff on LGBTQ protections.

“There are so many changes that need to be done with the prison system in general,” he said. “I think absolute systemic change is how we navigate that process.”

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