CeCe McDonald: Self-Defense and Still Defending

Just a hair over a year ago, a 23-year-old Black transgender woman in Minnesota named CeCe McDonald was walking to store with four friends of her’s, also Black, late in the evening. CeCe and her friends walked past a bar, and there were three white people (one man, two women) on the patio. When the white people spotted the group of friends, they verbally assaulted the group, and specifically CeCe, with insults that included both racial slurs and hate speech regarding CeCe’s gender identity and presumed sexuality. By most accounts I’ve read, the group called CeCe and her group “niggers”, “chicks with dicks”, and mentioned “rape” among other things.

One of the women in the group smashed a glass in CeCe’s face, cutting and injuring her. As a matter of fact, the glass sliced all the way through her cheek, lacerating a salivary gland. A fight ensued. One of the attackers, a 47-year-old male, died. CeCe was arrested and charged, and self-defense was not considered. By some counts, CeCe was denied proper medical care and was kept in solitary confinement for a month. The woman who initiated the incident and smashed the glass in CeCe’s face was charged nearly a year later; as far as I am aware there is no acknowledgment of a hate crime, despite the guy who was killed having a prior criminal history and swastika tattoo on his chest.

Also, the woman was charged after CeCe pled guilty to manslaughter.

CeCe was sentenced on June 4, 2012 to 41 months in prison. Whether or not she was given due process and justice, she is to spend 3 years and five months in prison. Some of you may be thinking, ‘she plead guilty, now she has to face the consequences.’ What might be the problem with this line of thinking?

CeCe McDonald is a male-to-female transgender woman, and while she identifies as a woman, she will be housed in a facility with male inmates.

The obvious issue popping into the minds of most people invested in CeCe’s case and hopeful for her wellbeing is the issue of physical and sexual violence by the other inmates in the facility. It is a concern an has been reported to the Transgender Law Center from previous inmates that this is a very real fear and concern for both male-to-female transgender inmates and also female-to-male transgender inmates. Rape and sexual violence in prisons are heavy concerns, especially for trans* inmates. There may be coerced sex by another inmate or inmates, or also prison staff. Coercion is rape. There may be gang rapes and violence. And there another main form of sexual violation on trans* inmates according to reports to TLC is unnecessary strip searches and forced nudity:

a frequent substitute for, or precursor to, sexual violence or coercion is the use of strip searches or forced nudity by deputies, guards, officers, or medical personnel. Because of the severe reduction in privacy that occurs in jails and prisons, transgender people have very little control over who sees their bodies. Bodies that often times do not conform to the identity they know to be true or at least society’s expectations about that identity. Therefore, strip searches and public nudity can be especially humiliating to transgender prisoners.

Transgender men in particular report being subjected to unnecessary strip searches. Two men who have been held in San Francisco County jail have told me about frequent strip searches conducted by deputies and medical personnel for no reason other than to seemingly satisfy curiosity. These searches were not related to visits or interactions in which these guys could have been passed contraband. Instead, they seemed to come randomly from many quarters and occasionally involve two or more people doing the search.

Back in Sacramento County Jail, one of the two women described above and two of her fellow transgender prisoners related stories of being forced to walk topless through a gauntlet of male cells in order to get new clothes each week. Along the way, the women were subjected to taunts and catcalls. The very act of walking the line made them objects of both harassment and ridicule.

There are also a whole host of other concerns that include:

– Lack of competent medical care

– Access to programs, jobs, and recreational activities

– Ability to dress properly

– Respecting one’s gender identity and referring to them by the proper name and/or pronoun

– Segregation from the rest of the prison population. This is a huge deal because it has already happened in CeCe’s case. She was kept in solitary confinement for nearly a month by most accounts. Prison staff may determine to place trans* inmates in confinement as a way to, possibly, keep them safe or keep the incidences from occurring. This makes less likely and nearly impossible for the inmate to receive jobs or proper treatment programs.

Also, according to TLC:

The stated purpose of administrative segregation is that people being confined within it are a proven danger to themselves, staff, or other inmates. By using this classification for transgender prisoners, the message is being sent that a person’s gender identity itself is threatening to the institution and that person must be locked away in a prison within the prison.

The Transgender, Gender Variant and Intersex (TGI) Justice Project has a prison survival guide for trans* and intersex inmates. According to the survival guide, written by transgender women, “prison politics outweigh prison policy.” Sadly, this comes after the explanation that if you are any race other than Black and housed with the general population, you will be removed or leave the yard because the gang violence geared toward you, as the transgender inmate, will be so harsh.

And sadly, I don’t think that this post adequately describes the horror that trans* inmates have faced, nor the injustice that CeCe and others are facing and will continue to face. According to an article that includes a survey of trans* people of color by Advocate.com:

38% of African-American respondents experienced police harassment, 15% reported being physically assaulted by the police, and 7% reported being sexually assaulted by the police; 38% of African American MTF (male-to-female) respondents reported being sexually assaulted by either another inmate or a staff member in jail/prison; 41% of African-American respondents reported being imprisoned because of their race and gender identity alone; a whopping 47% reported having been in jail or prison for any reason.

According to this article, transgender people are 10-15 times more likely to be incarcerated at some point in their life, and have to face the horrifying circumstances outlined above. Additionally, prior to their incarceration, they often feel unable to rely on the police for protection because the police are often perpetrators of crimes against them. Over 50% of trans* people, notwithstanding incarceration, have been victim to some sort of violence; self-report surveys vary but a significant number of these attacks are sexual violence. 43% of trans* rape victims (both FTM and MTF) who participated in self-report surveys believed their perpetrators homophobia to be the motivation for the assault while 35% suggested transphobia to be the motivation.

[imagebrowser id=3]I applaud President Obama for concluding recently that PREA will apply to all Federal confinement facilities. President Obama has included language that acknowledges the concerns that I have for CeCe and all LGBTQQI people that may be incarcerated at some point. I do have wonders for the general public though; and the main one would be exactly how effective the Prison Rape Elimination Act would be henceforth. A few of the guidelines that detention centers must follow in order to be in compliance with the new guidelines under PREA is that they must:

• Staff should be trained on effective and professional communication with our communities.

• Housing assignments should take into consideration individual vulnerabilities but do not, in most circumstances, place [LGTBQQI] in inferior wings or pods.

• An analysis is required of whether an abuser was motivated by bias against [LGBTQQI], if abuse does occur.

• Transgender detainees cannot be searched solely to determine their genitalia, and determinations must be made on a case-by-case basis about whether [LGBTQQI] should be held in a men’s or women’s facility and cannot be based solely on genital status.

President Obama and company have included many great provisions for trans* inmates, including that they must be given the opportunity to shower separately from other inmates. And while one would hope that these provisions would provide some safety for transgender men and women prisoners, I wonder how effectively it is enforced and how much protection they are really being provided. CeCe will still be housed in a prison of men.

Also, if prison staff are part of the problem, how effective will PREA be? And if trans* people are afraid (with very good reason) to come forward and make staff aware of their rights and request their protections, what can be done? And if, by the counts of transwomen who wrote a prison survival guide for transwomen, prison politics outweigh prison policies, what good is PREA exactly?

What will happen to the CeCes of our community?