The United States has the highest number of incarcerated people in the world – with 2.2 million people in jail ( Many of our jails and prisons are over capacitated and sadly this problem has only become worse in recent years. You can find someone from any walk of life in jail or prison these days. A jail is usually run by local law enforcement or local government and inmates only spend a short time there while awaiting trial. A prison holds inmates who have been convicted of crimes and sentenced to a longer stay.

I always believed that all incarcerated people were treated equally, until the fight for transgender equality in correctional facilities slowly crept into the mainstream media.

The abuse trans inmates suffer every day while incarcerated is unfathomable. The fight for inmate equality in prison and in jail is a pressing issue that more people should be talking about.

Transgender people have always been facing an uphill battle. From fighting for equality in the workplace to trying to end the violence directed at them everyday, it has not been easy. One issue that always seems to get pushed aside is how dangerous life is for transgender inmates in prison and jail.

The majority of transgender inmates are women who end up incarcerated with men. Recently, many startling statistics have come to surface, revealing the brutalities of incarcerated life for trans inmates.

brendan Goodwin / equinox staff

brendan Goodwin / equinox staff

In 2012, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 39.9 percent of transgender prison inmates and 26.8 percent of transgender jail inmates filed reports concerning unwanted sexual activity from other inmates and unwanted sexual activity with staff members.

These statistics are ten times higher than the general incarcerated population reports. Sixteen percent of all transgender inmates had been sent to jail or prison on a suspected crime, with little to no evidence to support the arrest. This is only 7.2 percent of the general population.

The transgender inmates who choose to report an assault or harassment are frequently put into solitary confinement. Officials say that they take this action for the sole protection of the inmate, without realizing that solitary confinement is very harmful to the inmate’s mental health. In my psychology class we talked about how humans need to be social.

Being around others, even if just for a meal, is beneficial to our mental health and well-being. Forcing transgender inmates into solitary confinement is doing more harm than good.

Instead of taking transgender inmates away from the others, the guards should be doing their jobs – looking after them and intervening when a conflict arises. This past June, Immigration and Customs Enforcement determined that transgender inmates should be housed according to their gender identity. The guards don’t care because they get to go home at the end of the day. Inmates are stuck, left to reflect on the struggles they faced during the day and worry about what tomorrow will bring.

Although the guards are supposed to protect all inmates, transgender inmates are often left to defend themselves in verbal and physical conflicts. Guards show little respect towards them.

The National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) has been working tirelessly to change and add new laws to make transgender inmates feel safer and more comfortable while incarcerated. Just last year the NCTE published a guide to reform incarceration policies.

Just because someone is incarcerated does not mean it is okay for staff and fellow inmates to abuse and degrade them. This past August, Rikers Island (New York) opened up a transgender women only unit. Although these steps have brought us closer to our goal, we still have a very long way to go.

Lizzie Zelenka can be contacted at

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