In the summer of 2013, Daniella Tavake woke up every day and cried. Some days, she slept for twelve hours straight, then woke up and glanced at her unshaven beard in the mirror, which caused her to break down again. At the time, Tavake, a transgender woman, was isolated in a cell in Salinas Valley State Prison — a California correctional facility for men. According to letters she wrote that July, as soon as the state transferred her to that prison, an inmate started harassing her, calling her “faggot,” and eventually physically attacking her. As a result of the incident, Tavake said she was separated in a cell by herself for weeks with no access to clippers — forcing her to wear a beard, which was painful because she has long identified as a woman. “To me, that’s not only mental abuse, but it’s abuse to your soul,” recalled Tavake, now forty years old, in a recent interview. “You’re telling me I can’t be me.”
Tavake, who lives in San Mateo after her release in December 2014, shared stories of her experiences behind bars as part of The Women of San Quentin: Soul Murder of Transgender Women in Male Prisons, a new nonfiction book from Berkeley-based journalist and photographer Kristin Schreier Lyseggen. Over the last two years, Lyseggen exchanged letters and conducted extensive interviews with nine trans women who were previously or are currently locked up in men’s prisons. Named after California’s oldest prison, Marin County’s San Quentin, the book offers a rare, in-depth look at the abuse, trauma, harassment, and violence that trans women face when they are trapped in a prison system that insists that they are men.
Unless transgender inmates have completed gender reassignment surgery, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) — like jail and prison systems across the country — houses them in facilities that correspond to the gender assigned to them at birth. In California’s prisons, hundreds of trans inmates are denied access to facilities that match their preferred gender. CDCR spokesperson Terry Thornton told me recently that there are currently 363 trans women living in men’s prisons — inmates who the state considers to be men, but who are undergoing hormone therapy for “gender dysphoria” — and 22 trans men in women’s prisons.
Lyseggen provides readers with a disturbing picture of the psychological impacts of a prison system that rejects the gender identities of the people it houses — whether inadequate medical and mental health treatment, physical violence, or repeated sexual assault. Lyseggen moved to Berkeley from her hometown of Norway in 2012 and said she was shocked to learn of the harsh prison system here — especially when it comes to the treatment of trans women. In Norway, the maximum prison sentence is 21 years and the number of prisoners per capita is a tiny fraction of the rate in the United States.
After reading about a trans female immigrant locked in solitary confinement, Lyseggen contacted the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP), an Oakland-based advocacy group that provides support to trans inmates. “I was really shocked that we weren’t talking about this,” she said. “This system is so horrendous and so inhumane.” In spring 2013, TGIJP connected Lyseggen to trans women living in men’s prisons, who then became the author’s regular pen pals.
Those communications, along with subsequent in-person meetings and photo shoots inside and outside the prisons, formed the basis of The Women of San Quentin. In the book, Lyseggen chronicles how the women got caught up in the criminal justice system, the discrimination they faced at home and behind bars, their uphill climb to reenter society, and how they overcame countless obstacles to live as women while incarcerated. Lyseggen describes her own experiences building relationships with her subjects through correspondences and meetings inside prison. But the most compelling sections are the lengthy inmate letters, which give readers a firsthand account of life behind bars. The unfiltered narratives of the letters offer an intimate look at the depression and fear of these women, their desires to tell their stories and connect to people on the outside, and the rare moments of hope they find in prison.
In Tavake’s letters, for example, she writes about falling in love behind bars, battling anxiety, the harmful side effects of changes in her hormone prescriptions, and her dreams of life after prison. “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,” she wrote in one of her final letters before her release.
Lyseggen is releasing her book amid numerous policy debates and legal battles surrounding the rights of incarcerated trans people. Notably, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department announced this month that it will allow transgender women to receive daytime programming in the women’s jail. And in August, as part of a lawsuit settlement, CDCR agreed to pay for the gender reassignment surgery of Shiloh Quine, a trans woman serving a life sentence for murder. Quine is also featured in Lyseggen’s book, and wrote letters to her about how access to surgery is just one of the many rights trans women are denied in prison.
Tavake — who spent 21 years in and out of prison for a range of offenses tied to her drug addiction — told me that she was immediately drawn to Lyseggen’s project as an opportunity to speak out about trans discrimination behind bars. California lets trans inmates receive hormone treatment, but prison staffers may refuse to refer to trans women as women or deny them access to basic commissary items such as bras and makeup, she said.
Noting that she felt luckier than most because she didn’t experience the kind of abuse and sexual assault that many of her fellow trans inmates did, Tavake said prison officials need to do a better job protecting trans women. One CDCR report, for example, found that while 4 percent of the general population of inmates report facing sexual assault, 59 percent of trans inmates said they were sexually assaulted. “The research does show that transgender people both in prison and outside of prison are unfortunately victimized more often,” said Thornton.
Tavake argued that prisons also need to provide appropriate psychological services for inmates who may be in the process of transitioning and, further, need to make it easier for them to return home, where it can be difficult to find safe housing and employment. “Prison officials just don’t give a damn about our plight and don’t care that we identify as women,” she said, adding that she worked hard to be herself behind bars — even if the system treated her like a man. “I’m a gentle woman who is kind, caring, loving, and loyal. And I had the spirit to survive and live.”