The Invisible Risk

How I survived New Orleans prison as a sex worker.

Tela La'Raine Love
Sep 9, 2015 · 6 min read

A Roundtable Discussion

I am one of the many transgender women living in the Greater New Orleans area who have been profiled and arrested simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, with the wrong shade of skin, in the wrong body. Once inside the dreadfully corrupt Orleans Parish Prison (OPP), we are reduced to our genitals and become just another number. When those of us who present as female in gender enter a heteronormative male space where females are not allowed, we are ultimately dehumanized. We become not only property of the state, and of the city, but of cisgender male inmates. We are immediately seen as prey by the inmates who view femininity as weakness.

I was 21 years old when I was first arrested. I was out doing sex work, just trying to survive. The cop took me to jail, unlike the others who picked me up and threatened to take me in if I didn’t perform oral sex on them. Most trans women would agree the environment in prison is almost like a stage set for depression and suicide. A lot of girls like me don’t even like to stand out anymore because of the constant profiling, so we seek desperately to blend in. Dressing fiercely used to be such a glamorous, extravagant art but society has found a way to force us to blend in. As the saying goes “if they can tell, you’re going to jail!”

That first time in jail was the scariest of all and possibly the time I became infected with HIV. For black trans women, this path is all too familiar. I have my assumption of how I contracted it, but there were honestly so many times I was in jail and participated in unprotected sex out of fear and necessity as a young woman that I can’t be sure. In order to preserve some safety and dignity, I always chose a man before one tried to impose his will on me.

The first ten times I was arrested I had little to no family support, so if I wanted anything more than what little the state provided while I was inside, I had to use what seemed to be at the time my most valuable commodity: my youthful body. I became a prison concubine to career criminals who had been in and out of the prison system nearly their entire lives, many of whom had been with just about every young trans woman who came through the door on sex work charges. We often had shorter stays, creating a turnover rate that allowed the men who were facing serious charges to be with the next girl after we were released. It’s a cycle that continues to this day. Keep in mind there are no condoms in jail, only plastic bread bags and limited access to rubber gloves. This is just one of the harsh realities of prison life for young, vulnerable trans women like me. It is truly bewildering that this reality was so commonly accepted among trans women of color. Reflecting back on those years, I realize we had internalized many ideas, which would soon translate into low self-worth. We were subconsciously being brainwashed by mainstream society and began to embrace our own oppression. We accepted so much, yet we remained silent through it all.

In prison, there are preachers who come weekly, teaching hate and ignorance to these inmates, perpetuating the image and stigma that has followed us our whole lives, telling us “if you don’t repent, you’re going to hell,” and saying things like, “man was made for woman” and “to live with another man is to open your eyes in HELL!” This kind of talk gives some cisgender inmates not only the mental support, but the permission they need to continue targeting us with hate crimes, acts of aggression, and sexual assault.

My last time in OPP was my longest stay ever — 104 days. It was also the worst time. By then I had legally changed my name, which was completely ignored once in prison, and I had advanced tremendously in my transition into womanhood. This turned out to be a curse, for we not only had to conform to the fact that we were inmates, but also had to accept the state’s ideals of us as men, which was an infringement on our rights as human beings. We were — and are — punished for being too feminine. I was placed in isolation for 11 days as punishment for not being able to defend myself against the constant threats and sexual advances of men. One of the staff told me, “You’re a man. Fight them if they’re bothering you.”

In the dead of winter, I was placed alone in a cell for days, without even running water. I had objects thrown in at me; I was harassed for sexual favors and strip-searched by staff so that they could look at my body. I was surrounded by men who were looking at 20 years to life, in maximum security — but believe me, if they are friends with the staff, “they can get to you.” That was a threat I often heard from fellow inmates, and I knew it was true. Certain inmates knew how to open their cells. When I walked from the end of the hall to the shower each morning in “the hole” — supposedly the most secured part of the jail — I could smell weed and cigarettes, and see men sharpening knives in their cells. And yet, I was the only one strip-searched.

Now, you tell me, where is the equality and justice in that?

While I was in the hole— a prison term for isolation or maximum security— I filed many complaints. After being there for more than 200 hours, I finally got a response from the Warden. Unless you act like an animal and behave completely insane while you’re in the hole, the guards won’t pay you any attention. You practically have to be bleeding to get one to come down the hall. And then when they do finally come, the transgender inmate is always the last to be heard, if heard at all.

Even the ranking officers in high positions have no tact in dealing with transgender people. They are equally rude, treating us like street dogs with rabies. The guards give men all the excess food & hygiene supplies on the basis of some common ground they share as men, and force trans people to degrade themselves, just to have the bare necessities, like a blanket to keep warm. “Pop it off” is what I was told, “or you gonna freeze tonight.” So if I didn’t want to freeze, I had to flash private parts of my body in order to get a blanket.

My story is horrible, but what makes it worse is that countless other young trans women have stories that are just as bad. I have personally witnessed the innocence, vibrancy, and youth snatched from numerous trans women of color — in particular those who were released into the streets no longer HIV negative. They had to participate in sex work outside as a means to survive, just as they’d had to do in jail. Many of them are not alive today. At least eight of my friends who were in and out of jail, who probably got infected in jail, are not here in the land of the living today. None of them made it to the age of 35. I live daily with this traumatic piece of truth — it was why I had to tell my story.

*My pronouns are she/her*

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Thanks to Meredith Talusan

Tela La'Raine Love

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