Being Transgender in San Quentin Prison, An Inside Report

January 30, 2014

Earlier this  month, Juan Haines, our blogger in San Quentin State Prison and Managing Editor of the San Quentin News, wrote to us that the San Quentin News has been suspended for 45 days. You can read more about the details of the suspension here. The paper is expected to be reinstated in mid-February. In the intervening time, Juan continues to report for LOTL. 

Transgender Emergence

by Juan Haines

According to regulations, 12 California prisons—including San Quentin—are designated to house inmates diagnosed as transgender. Nine of the prisons are designated for male to female transgenders, the other three for female to male.

Newly arrived transgenders at San Quentin say the accommodations are limited, but improving.

An issue resolved was brassieres. Current prison regulations allow bras for transgender inmates. However, bras were not available when they arrived at San Quentin. “It took me six months to get bras in my package,” said Seth “Venus” Rountree, 54. “The feel of a real bra on my skin is like the way a child covets a teddy-bear. Wearing it makes me feel comfortable with my body.”

Venus is one of about a half-dozen transgender inmates at San Quentin. She said it took the assistance of San Quentin prison staff to get a bra. “I would like to thank Kelly Mitchell, Debbie Pearl, Dr. Tootell, and Sgt. Puu for helping me.”

She said she began taking hormone treatments for male to female transformation in 2005. “I wanted to do this when I first came to prison,” Venus said. “But I was very uncomfortable with doing it. I was really scared.”

Venus is serving 16 years to life for second-degree murder. She said she has been incarcerated 32 years and has had only one rules violation. Venus attends Alcoholics Anonymous, creative writing, the Journalism Guild of San Quentin, Addictions to Recovery Counseling, and yoga.

Transgender Emergence by Arlene Istar Lev breaks down gender transformation into “States of Emergence,” and suggests various stages for therapists to focus on in gender-variant people.

The first stage, “Awareness,” recognizes that the person wants to live as the opposite gender.

“Being transgender is someone who was born one gender but identifies as the other,” said Crystal Gary, 24. “That’s the way they feel inside. That’s the way they live their lives, want to be respected, and represented,” adding, “Being transgender has nothing to do with sexual preference. A lot of people see transgender human beings as being homosexuals, gay or bi-sexual. It has nothing to do with sex.”

Crystal has been at San Quentin for about 18 months. Describing herself as an extravagant songstress and beauty cosmetologist, Crystal has completed a religious study program called “Boot Camp” and is actively participating in the church. She is also enrolled in school, studying for her GED.

“I think San Quentin is a fabulous place for a person trying to better their lives, especially transgender inmates,” Crystal said. “However, the unit where I’m housed has an issue about privacy at shower time, because of a dorm setting it’s wide open, whereas in other units the guards will allow us to shower separately.”

Transgender Emergence finds the “Seeking Information/Reaching Out” stage is when the person becomes educated about transgenderism, which leads to “Disclosure to Significant Others” or “coming out.” During these stages, the person is at ease with the concept of changing genders and is willing to speak openly about what they are going through.

Jarvis June “Lady Jae” Clark, 52, said, “As for as being transgender, I’ll only accept respect. The other day I was in the shower and it was a little crowded. Another inmate was looking at me in a derogatory manner. He said something very disrespectful to me. The old me would have confronted him and tested his manhood. But, the new me, since being at San Quentin, is a kinder gentler, more demur Jae. ‘Yes, I am a faggot,’ I said, but I am a transgender. Let’s get it right.’ The young man then dropped his head, and we don’t have a problem out of him anymore.”

Transgender inmates at San Quentin say they do not have very many difficulties interacting with other inmates.

“San Quentin has had many obstacles,” Lady Jae said. “The first was finding suitable housing. When I first got here, I ran into the stigma of being homosexual. I did not want to intrude onto anyone. I was fortunate to have a couple of very understanding cellies who knew I was put into a compromising position, so they worked with me.”

Lady Jae said she is in a relationship, but that her demeanor is not overbearing.

“Some homophobic straight men on a general population yard have a problem with transgenders. They choose to be disrespectful and judge transgenders, gays, homosexuals and bi-sexual people,” Crystal said. “But I’ve earned my respect in the prison system, so I don’t have that problem. Homophobic people have no understanding of human beings. Or. sometimes they’re just on the down-low, undercover men who give the facade of being straight.”

“Integration” is the acceptance and post-transition stage discussed in Transgender Emergence. The person seeks normalization in relationships and lifestyle after the transformation process is complete.

“My relationship with Miss Crystal is one of strong sisterhood,” said Lady Jae. “Having someone younger than me helps me better my life. I would hope having her as a little sister would also better her life.”

Arlene Istar Lev suggests that therapeutic assistance helps the person understand the process of transgender transformation so they may live normally.

California’s prison system provides mental health services to transgender inmates. However, Lady Jae said, “I think the mental health department misdiagnoses me, because they don’t fully understand what I’m going through.”

Venus said she became aware of her gender-variance in the 1980s but did not begin hormone treatment until she came to prison.

“When I was younger, I was a fun-loving person,” she said. “I was pretty much bi-sexual. I feel that I was a regular person growing up, but I had these feminine tendencies. I was also very shy.”

At San Quentin, there is an older population of inmates, which translates into a more mature atmosphere.

The inmates “accept me as one of the fellas, although you can see, I’m not just one of the fellas,” Lady Jae said. “There’s more discrimination from the officers than the inmates. I see myself as the peacemaker. The one who tries to bring all the transgenders together, in sisterhood. I consider myself the elder spokesperson as I’ve been around the block.”

With 70+ programs and more than 3,000 community volunteers assisting the inmates with reentry and other prosocial activities, prison officials have touted San Quentin as a model prison. Lady Jae said she participates in Narcotics Anonymous, Criminal Gangs Anonymous, is on the waiting list for prison industries and the prison’s college program. Most recently, Lady Jae was elected as the representative to the administration from West Block.

Crystal said she still struggles with joining into regular programs, like fully being accepted in the church as the person she is. “It is a work in progress,” Crystal said, “I’m confident we’ll be able to work it out.”

Federal law now protects transgenders, which according to Masen Davis, executive director of Transgender Law Center, “is especially critical for transgender people who live in the 34 states that lack transgender-inclusive nondiscrimination laws.”

“We don’t even like being identified as transgender. We like being respected, treated and addressed only as females, like miss, she and her,” said Crystal. “But, in the end, we’re all in prison, doing the time in the same place, as human beings.”

Image: Inside San Quentin. Nancy Mullane.