By Seth Hemmelgarn, Special for PQ Monthly
A new book chronicling the lives of nine transgender women across the country who have been incarcerated comes amid historic progress for such prisoners.
“The Women of San Quentin: Soul Murder of Transgender Women in Male Prisons,” by Kristin Schreier Lyseggen, was released in September.
Schreier Lyseggen, who lives in Berkeley, Calif., traveled around the United States to speak with incarcerated trans women about their experiences with rape, assault and trying to get access to hormones.
On one front, at least, there has been some good news, as California prison officials recently announced they would provide gender-affirming surgery for a transgender inmate.
Additionally, a transgender woman in Georgia was recently released, apparently due to pressure form a lawsuit.
But Schreier Lyseggen, who didn’t give her age, indicated, despite progress, problems are likely to persist for many people.
“In order to find solutions, we have to see, how did these people end up in prison in the first place?” Schreier Lyseggen said, adding, “it is a race issue. Transgender women of color are suffering the most. They are down at the bottom of the caste system we have,” frequently struggling with a lack of employment, health care and other problems.
Asked about solutions, Schreier Lyseggen said, “First, we have to make them safe. We can’t just sit and watch them being raped.”
She added, “People like me who are white, privileged and straight” need to “start getting involved and not treat these people as second- and third-class citizens.”
One of the people featured in “The Women of San Quentin” is Shiloh Quine.
In August, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reached a groundbreaking settlement with Quine, 56, to provide surgery and other medical care.
“After so many years of almost giving up on myself, I will finally be liberated from the prison within a prison I felt trapped in, and feel whole, both as a woman and as a human being,” Quine said in a news release from the Oakland-based Transgender Law Center, which has been helping to represent Quine.
Quine has been serving a term of life without the possibility of parole since 1981 after being convicted in Los Angeles County for first-degree murder, kidnapping and robbery. She’s being held in Mule Creek State Prison, a men’s facility in Ione, Calif.
According to the book, Quine wrote to Schreier Lyseggen that she’d told police in 1980 “that the gun used to murder someone was hers, even though it wasn’t. She was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for a murder she said she did not commit.”
In its news release, Flor Bermudez, TLC’s detention project director, said, “Ms. Quine will be the first transgender inmate in the country to receive gender-affirming surgery while incarcerated, to our knowledge.”
TLC executive director Kris Hayashi said, “This historic settlement is a tremendous victory, not just for Shiloh and transgender people in prison, but for all transgender people who have ever been denied medical care or basic recognition of our humanity just because of who we are.”
In an email, CDCR spokesman Jeffrey Callison said officials treat situations like Quine’s on a “case-by-case basis.”
Callison said his agency “evaluates every case individually and, in the Quine case, every medical doctor and mental-health clinician who has reviewed this case, including two independent mental-health experts, determined that this surgery is medically necessary for Quine.”
In a phone interview last month, CDCR spokeswoman Terry Thornton noted another part of the settlement is that the agency’s policy will allow transgender people access to all the items listed in prison catalogs.
“If a transgender inmate wants female items, and she’s in a male institution, she’ll have access to those items as well now,” Thornton said.
Another woman Schreier Lyseggen profiled has also been in the news recently.
Ashley Diamond, 37, is suing the Georgia Department of Corrections for denying her hormone treatments, which she had received before being incarcerated, and a safe environment, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Diamond was released in August from Augusta State Medical Prison after serving almost three years of an 11-year sentence for “a nonviolent offense,” according to SPLC, which filed a lawsuit on Diamond’s behalf in February.
The organization said in a news release that Diamond had been housed with male prisoners and was “sexually assaulted eight times.”
Diamond was going to be up for parole this fall, but SPLC attributed her release to the lawsuit.
“I’m overjoyed to be with my family again and out of harm’s way,” Diamond said in the nonprofit’s statement. “Although the systematic abuse and assaults I faced for more than three years have left me emotionally and physically scarred, I’ll continue to fight for justice and to shine a light on the gross mistreatment of transgender inmates in Georgia and nationwide.”
Facing scrutiny, GDC has “revised its gender-dysphoria policy and adopted new guidelines to provide constitutionally appropriate treatment,” SPLC said, and the state agency agreed to give Diamond access to hormones. However, the dosage was “inadequate for months,” the group said.
GDC spokeswomen didn’t respond to the Bay Area Reporter’s requests for comment.
In response to an emailed question about why she used San Quentin in her book’s title, Schreier Lyseggen said, among other reasons, the northern California institution “has been a symbol of prison life in America,” and two of the women she wrote about have been incarcerated there.
Seth Hemmelgarn is an assistant editor at the Bay Area Reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.