Transgender inmates say the way they're treated in Kansas prisons puts them in danger
Transgender inmates say they were targets of harassment by staff and inmates that put them in danger.
Rayne Bennett hadn’t begun her gender transition the first time she was sent to a state prison. She was held in a men’s prison and that felt like the right choice.
Upon reflection and meditation, she decided while in that men’s facility to begin her transition to female.
“Obviously,” Bennett said, “this is who I am.”
After her release from prison, she began taking hormone therapy, got a gender doctor and a gender therapist. She began dressing as a woman. Eventually, she became more comfortable with herself.
“Not only are the looks different, the personality is dramatically different. Not just confidence, not just self-esteem, not just an actual smile. But, in reality, it’s that sense of peace,” Bennett said. “I feel better than I felt in my entire life.”
Prisons and jails can be difficult places for transgender people. Staff and other inmates treat them poorly, they struggle for basic necessities and even fear for their safety. Trans inmates say Kansas prisons fail to recognize their gender identity or protect them from violence and staff harassment.
Bennett would end up back in Kansas prisons. She said her first sentence in state prison “was a breeze.” In her second stint, that gender transition was well underway, she struggled immensely. The only difference was how she looked.
The second time Bennett was arrested, she was placed in a men's prison despite identifying as female. That’s common practice. Prison officials have the authority to decide where to place transgender inmates.
She met with a behavioral health professional at the prison expecting a diagnosis for gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria isn’t the same as being transgender, but it is when someone is distressed because they don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. The diagnosis also helps transgender inmates get the services they need to live in their gender identity while they’re in prison.
But prison medical staff rejected the idea that Bennett was transgender at all. She wanted to seek a second opinion but wasn’t able to get one.
Bennett struggled to get diagnosed because Corizon Health, which used to hold the state’s prison medical care contract, told its staff not to diagnose inmates with gender dysphoria, former staff members say. Those former Corizon workers told the Kansas News Service that another medical professional was called in to make the diagnosis even if the first specialist was qualified.
Corizon denied the allegations and said it knows of 145 inmates with gender dysphoria in Michigan. Charles Seigel, spokesperson for Corizon, said the company has a process for people to seek another opinion if they believe they were misdiagnosed.
“If we found out someone was doing the opposite of our policy,” he said, “we would certainly take some kinds of actions depending on what that was.”
Corizon is no longer the medical services contractor for Kansas prisons. Centurion of Kansas currently works with KDOC and it deferred any questions to the department. Bennett said both providers treated her poorly, but Centurion eventually recognized her transition.
Multiple transgender inmates in state prisons also said they were told they weren’t transgender or had to prove they were trans by going through what they called a “disturbing” interview process.
Emily Feingold, who used to work as a behavioral health professional for Corizon, said there were at least five times she would have diagnosed someone with gender dysphoria but couldn't.
“I'm literally not allowed to click on that diagnosis and have that appear in your chart,” she said. “I have the degree, I have the license. I have the power (to make that diagnosis). That power was taken away from me.”
Problems for transgender inmates didn’t stop there. Five current and former transgender inmates said Kansas prisons discriminated against them because they were trans. They said their hormone therapy was not at the proper dosage or difficult to get, they feared for their safety and were constantly misgendered or called the wrong name.
Transgender inmates said it it is harder to be transgender in a Kansas prison than on the outside.
“Every day is the day where I have to worry about: Is this person going to hurt me? Are they gonna kill me?” Bennett said. “(Prison) broke me. It destroyed a part of me. A good part of me.”
Multiple transgender inmates contacted by the Kansas News Service said the treatment inside Kansas prisons made them consider or attempt suicide.
“It’s not easy living in a body that doesn’t belong to you,” Bennett said.
The Kansas Department of Corrections said it has no documented complaints from Bennett and declined any interview requests.
Bennett provided the Kansas News Service with unofficial complaints she filed and said if the department was tracking and investigating the complaints as they happened, it would have enough information on the allegations.
'They punish us worse. They treat us worse'
KDOC spokesperson Carol Pitts said in an email the department will use the complaints to inform policy decisions and training in the future.
Transgender inmates’ complaints range from struggling to get underwear that fit their gender identity to harrassment by staff.
Tredessa Donnell, an inmate at Topeka’s Women's Facility, said staff will call him “ma’am” or “miss” because he is a women's facility, but those aren’t his pronouns.
“I can’t say nothing because I'm going to get (disciplined),” he said. “I’m going to get consequences if I say something or try to stand up for myself.”
Donnell, and multiple other current and former inmates, told the Kansas News Service they have filed complaints against staff for a variety of alleged transgender discrimination. But as they write more reports, the inmates said, they become more of a target.
“They punish us worse. They treat us worse,” he said. “They use terms to classify us as aggressive, victimizers, manipulators and that’s how they treat us. So you don’t even have a fair shake.”
Donnell, who is Black, said treatment can be worse for Black transgender people.
Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality/NCTE Action Fund, said transgender discrimination is common in correctional facilities. Transgender inmates in Georgia, New Jersey and Virgina sued correctional facilities for being denied access to gender-affirming surgery, alleged assualts or for alleged sexual assault.
“No one should be discriminated against just because of who they are,” Heng-Lehtinen said. “When someone is behind bars, they shouldn't be singled out for harassment, or denied their humanity just because they happen to be transgender.”
Heng-Lehtinen said creating an inclusive environment for all inmates shouldn’t be hard. He said allegations of mistreatment would be clearly seen as discriminatory if they weren’t about transgender people.
Simple policies, like using the right name or allowing people to get a wig, can make a difference, Heng-Lehtinen said.
“These things that might sound small … (but) are actually really about authenticity and being seen as who you are,” he said. “In the most extreme cases, they can make a difference on your safety.”
Bennett said she was raped multiple times in Kansas prisons due in part to what she said is KDOC’s lack of interest in keeping her safe. She said she was raped by other inmates because she was transgender, and she raised her safety concerns to KDOC but not enough was done.
“As a male, I would have been left alone because it’s well known that feminine-looking inmates are pretty prized,” Bennett said. “Why in the hell would you put a trans inmate that is identifying as female, dresses as female in the prison with a bunch of sex-starved males?”
Bennett said her rape claims also weren’t investigated properly. She said that in one instance, she had both DNA inside of her and on her clothing but no rape kit was done and KDOC didn’t ask for her clothes for a week.
KDOC promised to be better
Nathaniel Callaway spent decades in Kansas prisons and served time before Bennett or Donnell were incarcerated. He had similar issues to inmates today, like misgendering.
“For the first 12 or so years of my incarceration, I walked around, I say bare a** because I refuse to wear women's underwear,” Callaway said. “Everything was a fight for me when it wasn't a fight for everyone else. Anything that I got had to be a fight.”
He said one deputy warden admitted the department made mistakes and tried to make things better.
One inmate who spoke with the Kansas News Service said they didn’t mind their treatment at KDOC. They were allowed to shower at different times and given access to products that matched their gender. Staff who used to work at the department decades ago said they implemented some changes, like housing trans inmates in cells by themselves, and they made life easier for transgender people.
Callaway did get the Department of Corrections to pay for his top surgery, but he suspects that was to avoid repercussions from a complaint. He thought the department had made meaningful change since he was incarcerated, but he was disappointed to hear allegations of discrimination are still ongoing.
“They (implied) to me that it was gonna make it easier for the next people,” Callaway said. “It just lets me know that they didn't change their mindset, it didn't change anything.”
Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.
Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.