Breaking into prison walls
13-year-old Xena Grandichelli recalls standing in a noisy crowd, holding on to her mother outside Stonewall Inn. As the crowd turned violent, Gandichelli ducked to protect herself from the stones being pelted at them by the police officers. Forty seven years on, she is still fighting the battles her mother fought.
Grandichelli was raised by Sylvia Rivera, one of the prominent transgender activist who led the Stonewall Inn riot with Marsha Johnson in 1969. One of the historic moments in the gay liberation movement, the riots was a direct response to the increasing police brutality against gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer, or LGBTQ community.
Now, 60, Grandechelli is a transgender advocate fighting sexual assault against incarcerated transgender prisoners, and is angry with the Department of Correction’s decision to shut down the transgender housing unity at Rikers.
“It is a very bad move,” she says in her baritone. The Board of Corrections unanimously passed new rules that mandate Rikers to shut down the separate transgender housing unit to comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act. Passed in 2003, law penalizes sexual misconduct in all federal, state, and local prisons and jails.
While the board gave no further clarification on the guidelines, Mik Kinkead, director of Prison Justice Project at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, criticize the board for misconstruing the guidelines. “PREA only states that the facility shall not place transgender inmates in involuntary segregated housing.” However, the current housing unit at Rikers was set up after transgender prisoners demanded a separate space for themselves. “It is definitely not involuntary,” she explained.
Grandichelli’s lips tightened and her faint smile faded as she began talking about the police brutalities faced by trans women, both in and out of prison. She says those outside face continual harassment at the hands of the police on the streets, a phenomenon the community calls “walking while trans”, and the situation inside correctional facilities is worse.
Having spent four months in Rikers, she says is a victim of sexual assault at the hands of a correctional officer. As someone who has been working for safe housing of incarcerated trans women even before she went to prison, Grandichelli says the need for safe spaces inside correctional facilities is more important now than ever before.
Yet, the issue of segregated housing is still contentious for most trans activists.
“The problem with segregated housing in correctional facilities is that it may make the community feel more isolated,” says Victoria Rodriguez-Roldan, a trans woman who works as policy counsel of Trans/GNC Justice Project at the National LGBTQ Task Force.
Having worked as a trans advocate for over a decade now, Rodriguez pointed out how placing inmates in isolated units may be used as a form of punishment by officers. “Prisons in themselves are totalitarian in nature. Solitary confinement of trans people in prisons is a huge issue, and I feel that segregated housing may make the situation worse,” she says.
Her colleague, Meghan Maury, , senior counsel of Criminal and Economic Justice Project at the same organization, agrees that states usually put down laws that seem to benefit trans people, but might actually be used to isolate trans people from the rest of the community. “The decision needs to be taken based on identity and choice of the individual concerned, as mandated by law,” she says.
Kinkead points out that the federal rules require correctional officers to counsel inmates and understand their needs. However, since the rules are long and complicated, they are almost never followed. For example, if a trans person wants to be placed in the separate housing unit in Rikers, there is a three-step process of application and interviews they need to pass. She says, “Even choice is highly regulated”.
For Grandichelli, the federal guidelines need a lot more thought. “It’s important to have outside investigations to the complaints of sexual violence in prison, as opposed to trusting corrections officers because most of the time, they turn out to be the perpetrators,” she says.
Grandichelli has other ideas for better housing facilities for trans inmates. She empty jail cells in the five boroughs of New York city could be better used to provide adequate and safe housing to protect trans women from acts of sexual violence.
While she is optimistic of Mayor Bill De Blasio, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s efforts to discuss the concerns plaguing trans people, the result of the presidential election earlier this month has fractured the spirit of the community. Though Grandichelli says deep uncertainty exists in the minds of fellow trans people, she believes that the struggle has now shifted dramatically from one individual raising her voice, to a community demanding its fair share.
“The lady who raised me, taught me well. I’m not going to quit. I’m going to do what I do till I can’t (do it) anymore,” she says. Following what feels like a deliberate pause, she continues, “My community comes first.”