Transgender Woman Forced Into Men’s Prison Dies

She is far from first to be misassigned—and data show that trans prisoners have lots to fear behind bars

Nov 20, 2015 at 5:43 PM ET

Vicky Thompson, a transgender woman, was found dead last week in a men’s prison in northern England. A prison spokesperson declined to release a cause of death and told Vocativ “there will be an investigation by the independent Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.” The 21-year-old told friends that she would kill herself if forced into a men’s facility. Her story, which started making headlines November 19, mere hours before November 20’s Transgender Day of Remembrance, is a tragic reminder of the staggering suicide attempt rate among trans people. But it is also raising alarm about the denial of transgender inmates’ gender identities and has led the British government to reconsider its policy on the matter.

This isn’t just an issue in the UK, though. The 2012 Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was designed in part to help fix this issue in the U.S.: It called for case-by-case decisions to be made on housing trans people, as opposed to default calls made based on a prisoner’s anatomy or the gender they were assigned at birth. But several states have opted out of the act, and many more have failed to implement it, according to activists.

As a result, trans prisoners continue to be inappropriately assigned. “Unfortunately, it remains almost universal in the U.S. right now,” said Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy at the National Center for Transgender Equality. There’s no good data on this, but Tobin says this assessment comes from the organization’s communication with trans prisoners, as well as legal organizations and prison officials. Jesse Lerner-Kinglake, communications director at Just Detention International, a human rights organization that seeks to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention, agreed. “Most agencies still house transgender prisoners according to their gender assigned at birth, rather than their gender identity,” said Lerner-Kinglake.

Activists say this leads to significant danger for transgender prisoners, especially trans women. A 2007 study out of UC Irvine found that sexual assault was 13 times more likely among transgender inmates in California state prisons. Roughly 4 percent of randomly selected inmates reported being sexually assaulted while in a California correctional facility, compared to a shocking 59 percent of transgender inmates. A national survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found a lower, although still substantial, rate of sexual abuse among trans inmates in state and federal prison: 39.9 percent.

In other words, misassigned prisoners like Thompson have every reason to be terrified.

It isn’t just sexual assault that threatens inmates whose gender identities are ignored. “It can mean being denied appropriate undergarments or having to live without a bra, even though you have breasts,” said Tobin. “It can mean, in some systems, having your hair forcibly cut short. It can mean being forced to shower in front of a bunch of male prisoners, and it can mean being denied access to appropriate medical assessment and treatment, which can be extremely destructive to people’s health.” Add to that “day-to-day grinding humiliation and harassment,” as Tobin put it.

These abuses are “routinely and illegally” added to transgender prisoners’ sentences, said Kris Hayashi, executive director of the Transgender Law Center, along with the fundamental “rejection of their identities and very humanity.” He added, “Abuse of transgender women in prison isn’t a matter of some bad actors or isolated facilities—it is built into how the correctional system works.”

Update: This post was edited on December 11 to include further information on the investigation into Vicky Thompson’s death.