The Feminization of Transgender Women in Prisons for Men: How Prison as a Total Institution Shapes Gender

Date01 May 2020
Published date01 May 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2020, Vol. 36(2) 182 –205
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1043986219894422
The Feminization of
Transgender Women in
Prisons for Men: How
Prison as a Total
Institution Shapes Gender
Valerie Jenness1 and Julie Gerlinger2
In this article, we investigate the degree to which prison shapes transgender women’s
perceptions of themselves as gendered people in prisons for men. Drawing on original
data collected from 315 transgender women in 27 prisons for men in California, a
mixed-methods analysis reveals that transgender women in prisons for men report
higher levels of self-perceptions of femininity while incarcerated, especially for those
who report sexual victimization by other prisoners. The implications of these and
other findings are discussed in light of recent calls for more theory and research on
femininities as well as the policies and practices that undergird prisons as one of the
most sex-segregated institutions.
corrections, femininity, gender, prisons, transgender
For decades social science research has revealed the multitude of ways organizations
shape social identities and subjectivities; indeed, it is a sociological truism that orga-
nizational context matters when it comes to understanding individual and collective
perceptions of ourselves. This is particularly pronounced when the organizational con-
text is understood to be a total institution—in the classic Goffmanian (1961) sense of
the term—and when the dimensions of the self are interwoven with major axes of
1University of California, Irvine, USA
2The University of Oklahoma, Norman, USA
Corresponding Author:
Valerie Jenness, University of California, Irvine, CA 92697-7080, USA.
894422CCJXXX10.1177/1043986219894422Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeJenness and Gerlinger
Jenness and Gerlinger 183
differentiation that define larger stratification orders, such as age, race, class, gender,
and nationality. As decades of research reveal, this truism is certainly the case with
prisons as a total institution and gender as both an organizing principle of prison life
and a key dimension of prisoners’ identities and subjectivities.
A high profile example of how prison life contextualizes identity and attendant
subjectivities appeared in a front page story in The New York Times. With the headline
“Transgender Woman Cites Attacks and Abuse in Men’s Prisons,” this article reported
in stark terms how prison provides a context for the “deliberate defeminizing” of
transgender women (Sontag, 2015, p. 1). The article told Ashley Diamond’s story:
“Ordered to strip alongside male inmates, she froze but ultimately removed her long
hair and the Hannah Montana pajamas in which she had been taken into custody, she
said. She hugged her rounded breasts protectively” (Sontag, 2015, p. 1). Thus began
the 3 years of abuse that included the denial of hormone therapy, near constant sexual
harassment, and repeated targeting for sexual assault while in a Georgia prison for
Ms. Diamond also secretly made a video from inside the prison in which she was
incarcerated. She describes the horrors of “sexual violence as a way of life” in the
prison for men and the consequences of being denied the medically necessary hor-
mone therapy she had been taking for 17 years:
Not only has my body made dreadful changes, but the effects of not having hormones
have caused the dysphoria of my condition to deteriorate. My body shape has changed
and so too has the way my skin looks and feels. Morally and ethically, everything that has
happened to me is wrong. (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2015)
After being released from prison, she explained that “the state of Georgia was going to
make a man out of me” (McCray, 2017, p. 1).
This high profile case puts front and center—and makes painfully vivid—an
array of challenges transgender women in men’s prisons face. Most notably, for the
purposes of this article, it raises the issue of “deliberate defeminizing” as a feature
of correctional control for transgender women. To put this issue in context, trans-
gender women are almost always housed in facilities for men (Sumner & Jenness,
2014) and they endure and respond to unique “pains of imprisonment” (Sykes,
2007) borne of the multitude of ways carceral institutions systematically deny their
gender identity and attendant expression. For this and other reasons, Stohr (2015)
calls the carceral environments in which transgender women live a war zone (see
also Lyseggen, 2015; Oparah, 2010; Sevelius & Jenness, 2017). These institutional
spaces are known as locales with exceptionally high sexual assault rates for trans-
gender women in prison (Jenness et al., 2019; Jenness & Fenstermaker, 2016;
Meyer et al., 2017).
This article draws on original and official data to empirically assess the degree to
which prison—as a total institution organized around masculinity and heteronorma-
tivity—shapes transgender women’s perceptions of themselves as gendered beings.
Specifically, we ask: do prisons for men defeminize transgender women, enhance

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