"My crime was to get funds for gender-affirming surgery," says Shagasyia "Shea" Diamond. "I was criminalized because I couldn’t endure living in a gender that wasn’t my own."
Diamond's story is a common narrative among transgender women unable to afford necessary healthcare: In her case, she committed armed robbery and was sent to several men's prisons in Michigan from ages 20 to 30. "I acted out of duress and desperation to live my truth as the female I am," says Diamond, now 39.
According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, trans individuals are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of the general public, but the rate of imprisonment for black trans women is particularly shocking at 47%.
Since her release in 2009, Diamond, now a New York City singer-songwriter, has been an advocate for incarcerated trans women: She's working to transform prisons and post-release programs as part of the Women and Justice Project's Working Group based in The Women’s Building, a converted women’s prison in Chelsea that will be a space for female-focused advocacy groups. Though the project is not exclusive to trans women, Diamond is creating tools specifically to help current and formerly incarcerated women live safely in their gender identity with access to proper healthcare services.
Diamond spoke with NewNowNext about her experience as a trans woman in a men’s prison and how to make meaningful institutional change.
What was it like to be a trans woman in the criminal justice system?
I began my transition when I was 14 years old and in the foster care system. And in many ways being trans in the criminal justice system was similar to being trans in the foster care system: Nobody wants a trans child and no one wants a trans prisoner.
I was shuffled between homes and I was shuffled between prisons—put in a higher level of security because my appearance was too feminine and it was claimed that my appearance would create a security risk in the men’s prison. I was penalized just for being myself, for my appearance—it was claimed that my lips were too pink so I must be wearing makeup, or that my clothes were altered when they didn’t fit right on my body.
How were you treated in men's prisons?
It was demanded that I present as male. I was misgendered, I got in trouble for being too effeminate. I was strip searched by two males without a female present and my breasts were commented on—and I couldn’t do anything about it. I could write a grievance, but it wouldn’t go anywhere. It was a system designed to break me down, strip away my transness, and force me to conform into this male expectation, which I couldn’t.
There’s no way to safely and humanely incarcerate a trans woman as long as our existence is criminalized both outside and inside the system. When we’re denied jobs, denied housing, denied safety, and then when we do what we have to do to survive and they put us in prison, well, until we get to the root of things and, say, stop hurting trans people, stop killing trans people, we can’t expect the system to respond differently once we’re incarcerated.
Are there any immediate ways the penal system could better treat trans women, given that it's so slow to change?
A trans woman should not be placed in danger or physically assaulted, not be degraded by strip searches without a female officer present. We can’t even ask trans people within that system what the issues are because we’re not allowed to communicate with them. Getting surveys into the prisons and actually hearing from currently incarcerated women what the issues are is essential for us to begin addressing their needs.
We know trans women in prison are being punished not only for their crimes but for being themselves—because they’re punished on the streets for being themselves, too.
What steps can trans and LGBT advocacy groups take to support incarcerated and formerly incarcerated trans women?
We need emotional and financial support for individuals because they don’t have family support. We need people reaching out, writing letters, sending surveys into the prisons to find out what they’re facing, and to keep them a part of the conversation because their needs are always changing and policies are always changing against them.
We need more support for groups like the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, the Anti-Violence Project, and NYTAG—the NY Transgender Advocacy Group—and, of course, The Women’s Building.
How did you find The Women's Building?
I wrote a song in prison in 2001 titled “I Am Her” and I was given the chance to sing [it at The Women's Building], and to be free in this space, a former prison being turned into an inclusive place where all women can find support.
How has working with The Women's Building progressed your activism?
We are building a space for women and girls like me and all women everywhere in order for us to dismantle systems of oppression within all these institutions—to give all women who are already doing this amazing work a space to come and do it globally. I believe that working with them is one of the most rewarding things I can do with my life.
Follow the Women and Justice Project's advocacy at The Women's Building here.