The Cruel and the Unusual Punishment of She-Males

“Why Her Warden Calls the Lady Mister”
by Richard Linnett
Source: Hustler Magazine, May 1999

To be locked up on a cell block With sex-starved convicts is a soap dropper’s fantasy, but transsexuals sentenced to prison become targets for jailhouse rapists on the hunt for the closest thing to a female piece in the joint. HUSTLER talks to gender-benders behind the bars of America’s inhospitable holes.

Deidre Farmer sits in the visitors’ center at FCI Butner, a campuslike federal correctional institute for men in the wooded hills outside of Durham, North Carolina. In the yellow autumn light filtering into the visitors’ center, Farmer crosses her legs and pushes back her long, kinky hair. She wears a prison khaki jumpsuit with the sleeves tied at the waist like a schoolgirl. Unseen beneath her white T-shirt, which Deidre slides off one shoulder, are surgically enhanced breasts. Farmer says she is a woman, but according to correctional authorities, she’s a man. When she was arrested at the age of 18 for her involvement in an elaborate credit-card scam, some 15 years ago, the cop who searched her found, beneath her skirt, a penis.

Deidre Farmer, formerly Douglas Farmer, is now 32 years old. She is black and cuts an impressive figure at 6-3. Farmer has a tight-skinned face and narrow but gentle eyes. She is a self-taught jailhouse lawyer, known within the prison system and on the outside for having won a Supreme Court decision, Farmer v. Brennan, which has been hailed as a legal milestone by the ACLU and prisoner-rights organizations.

In 1991, Deidre Farmer sued federal prison officials for violating her Constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment after they placed her in the general male population of a maximum-security prison where, within a week, she was raped by another inmate.

The federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, is known as the House of Terror. Built in 1940 in an old warehouse district on the bleak banks of the Wabash River, USP Terre Haute houses some of the most violent criminals in the country. It is an aging complex, with cramped, filthy cells, poor heating, no air-conditioning and very little supervision.

When Dee was placed in the general male population at Terre Haute, it was like placing a lamb in a lion’s den. Within a week, she was a marked woman. “Somebody came and told me that this guy said that he was going to rape me,” Dee recalls, laughing uncomfortably. Her eyelids flutter when she speaks in her soft whisper of a voice. “I didn’t believe him. I said, ‘Oh, why would he say something like that?’ Five minutes later, the guy comes right into my cell, and he’s like, ‘You know what I want. What you gonna do about it?’” According to Dee, while another inmate watched, the rapist beat her, stripped off her clothes and threatened to kill her with a homemade knife if she didn’t have sex with him. The assault lasted 15 minutes.

Farmer sued the warden of USP Terre Haute and the Bureau of Prisons for “deliberate indifference” by placing her into a prison with a history of violence and rape even though she “projects feminine characteristics.” After a series of lower-court rulings against her suit, the U.S. Supreme Court heard her case in 1994. A unanimous opinion, written by Justice David Souter, declared that prison authorities can be sued for ignoring an obvious risk to an inmate’s well-being, including the possibility of sexual assault.

“Being violently assaulted in prison is simply not part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society,” Souter wrote.

According to Stop Prisoner Rape, an organization that filed an amicus brief in the case, the Farmer decision has become the basis for holding prison authorities accountable for injuries to prisoners.

Deidre Farmer, who prefers the diminutive Dee, is an unlikely jailhouse paladin. Wearing no makeup and dressed in drab prison garb, she looks rather like an off-duty drag queen. Starting at the age of 16, she used black-market estrogen pills to alter her appearance, but she hasn’t had hormone treatments since her first years of incarceration.

“I guess I should call him her,” says Robin Pitcairn, the executive assistant warden at Butner, referring to Farmer. Pitcairn is a heavyset, white woman. She sees the world through thick glasses, her eyes crossed. “He’s quite a character,” says Pitcairn. “If he’s in a good mood, he’ll talk your ear off.”

Dee was found guilty of credit-card fraud in 1986 and given an 18-year sentence, to be followed by a 30-year sentence for writing bad checks. Farmer’s stiff rap was due in part to her attorney’s lack of experience, but also, perhaps, to the fact that she showed up in court dressed as a woman. “It was strange,” Farmer remembers. “My side of the bench kept calling me her, and the other side kept calling me him. I think the jury was confused.”

“The vast majority of transsexuals in prison are in there for nonviolent crimes,” says Gianna E. Israel, a San Francisco-based transsexual therapist specializing in gender counseling. “When they go before very conservative judges, these judges just throw the book at them.”

Dee scans the visitors room at FCI Butner, her eyes passing a wall of soda and sandwich vending machines that bear placards warning, Inmates are not allowed to handle money. Nearby is a drab play area for children. “I’m tired of all this,” Dee says. Fourteen years of incarceration have exhausted her, especially the last four, which she has spent in isolation – 23 hours of the day in her cell, alone.

Dee also has a serious health problem, which is another reason why she is separated from the other prisoners. In 1985, one year before she was raped, Dee Farmer was diagnosed as HIV-positive.

There are no published census reports on the transgender population in this country. Anecdotal information suggests that male-to-female (MTF) transsexuals make up the largest transgender group. Some MTF transsexuals take hormones to develop breasts and other female attributes, but stop short of having their penises removed; others take hormones in preparation for what is known as “genital-reassignment surgery.” Both of these types are called pre-ops.

The United States and other Western countries recognize a vagina when they see one, even if a surgeon carves female genitals out of the body of a man. Accordingly, post-ops who are imprisoned in the U.S. are routinely placed in women’s facilities.

Leslie Ann Nelson, a 40-year-old go-go dancer formerly known as Glenn Nelson, was sentenced to death in 1997 for murdering a New Jersey policeman and a county investigator. The two men were serving a warrant to search Nelson’s home for firearms. Nelson reportedly knew they were coming and was prepared to die in a confrontation. Before they arrived, she bathed, styled her hair and donned her favorite go-go-dancer outfit – a halter top and G-string. She answered the door wielding the AK-47 she used to execute the two men.

Nelson spent a year on Death Row in Trenton State Prison, an all-male facility. Because of her post-op status, she was transferred, in August 1998, to the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, in Clinton, New Jersey.

Federal, state and city correctional officials are not in the practice of splitting hairs over a penis. If the genitalia is male, despite the fact that the rest of the body appears to be female, the offender goes straight to a male facility, which, for most pre-op transsexuals, often means going straight to hell.

“You know, really, to them it is a non-issue,” says Dee. “If you’re male, you’re a man; if you’re transgendered, they don’t want to hear about it.”

“We do not have a specific policy as to the incarceration of transsexuals,” says Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, as if in response to Farmer’s complaint.

In New York’s Riker’s Island prison, inmate Allan Tabor leans forward in the little desk chair he is squeezed into and says, “You know, they get operations to change their sex, but if they got just a little bit of skin down there, just hanging there,” he measures an inch with his thumb and index finger, “then they say you’re a man, and they put you in with us.”

“If there’s a question of the sex,” says Tom Antonin, a spokesman for Riker’s, “that question will be answered by medical staff, who will make a determination if a person is a male or is a female. Someone could be in the middle of a [sex change] process. Once the [gender] is established, the case will be looked at to determine the most appropriate housing.”

Sterling Fleming, another Riker’s inmate and a gay man whose short hair is dyed blond, avers that many transgenders don’t like being in prison, in spite of stereotypes to the contrary. “They have this fantasy about how great it could be, with all these men,” says Sterling. “But they get in and see that it’s not like the scene on the street, where they have a few guys here and there. It’s 40 or 50 men. The pressure just becomes too much.”

“I am a male-to-female transsexual who did prison time way back in the mid-’50s,” says Roni Soubrette, who heads a Washington State-based support group called Transsexuals in Prison, which mans a help line for troubled transsexuals. “I spent 12 years, 12 weeks and 12 days in a Midwestern prison on max every day,” says Soubrette. “Believe me, it is a jungle in there.”

The jungle she refers to is inhabited by sexual predators. “The plight of the transsexual inmate goes way beyond any gender segregation,” she says, “but more to the lack of it and the lack of protection from rape and assault by not only the inmates, but prison guards.”

One of Soubrette’s pen pals is Douglas W. Schwenk, a/k/a Crystal, a preoperative transsexual who claims that she was sexually abused by a prison guard at the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla. She has since sued correctional officials in a case that is still pending in a district court in Spokane. Crystal claims she was systematically stalked by a prison guard, who began watching her while she showered. The peeping escalated into outright harassment and, finally, an assault in Crystal’s cell. According to her complaint, the guard “touched her, fondled her, forcibly rubbed his penis on her buttocks and sexually terrorized her.”

Jeffry K. Finer, of Finer & Pugsley in Spokane, Washington, is Crystal’s attorney. Finer is using the Farmer v. Brennan decision to argue her case. “I added a violence-against-women-act claim,” he says. “It was, in our estimation, a gender-based attack. Gender in the sociological sense.”

“No one else has anything remotely like a preoperative transsexual in a violence-against-women-act case,” says Finer.

In the meantime, Crystal, 28, with long hair and a suppressed, very low voice, waits for her day in court.

Finer suggests that the money spent by the correctional system defending cases such as Crystal’s could be better spent on simply providing separate housing for transsexuals.

Protective custody (PC) is one way that correctional authorities attempt to deal with having transsexuals in their midst. It is only a temporary solution, one that is used primarily for gang members, child molesters, informers and homosexuals. PC is not favored by either the transsexuals or prison officials.

“You can’t have a prisoner come into the jail and say, ‘By the way, because I have some special disability or because I’m a preoperative transsexual, I want a room in the penthouse,’” says Joseph Curran, the Maryland attorney general who coordinated an amicus brief for 35 states against Dee Farmer in the Supreme Court case. “I mean, come on. Administrators have to make those decisions. Not the prisoners.”

“If courts carve out a special exception for these individuals [transsexuals], there’s no limit,” chimes in Andrew Baida, an assistant attorney general in Maryland. “How about prisoners with other sex orientations? And what about race? Do you give special status to prisoners in the minority?”

Prisoners who request segregation must prove that they are in danger in the general population. Often proof is not sufficiently demonstrated until there has been an incident. Sterling Fleming, the homosexual inmate at Riker’s, displays a long scar and says, “That’s how I got into PC.” Prison authorities hesitate to grant segregation because it is expensive. A PC cell for one inmate costs more than double the cost of housing inmates in a shared cell or in dormitory beds. In Arizona’s state penal system alone, it is estimated that protective segregation eats up approximately $2.3 million a year in extra prison expenditures.

“Segregation is not a pleasant ordeal,” says Valjean Royal, a transsexual serving 2 to 21 years for manslaughter and a concurrent life sentence for the murder of a prison guard. “You don’t have any real privileges. And if you are a PC case, you are kept alone all of the time. It is solitary confinement.”

Valjean, 45, is incarcerated at FCI Jessup, in Georgia. She ran away from home at the age of 14 and supported herself through prostitution and working as a female impersonator in nightclubs. She first entered the prison system at the age of 19. In 1978, she was convicted of the murder of a correctional officer.

Valjean’s murder trial took place in the small Indiana town of Valparaiso. Valjean’s mother, Jessie, attended. “Val showed up with makeup and tight, white pants,” says Jessie, “and the jury, they were all white. I could see it in their eyes – I knew by the look – they just hated him because of the way he looked.”

“I’m black and transsexual,” says Valjean. “My innocence didn’t mean jacksh*t.”

Valjean claims that she was raped by an inmate while being held in a disciplinary-segregation unit at FCI Memphis, in Tennessee, in 1991. “The officer in charge of the special-housing unit unlocked my door,” she says, “and let the inmate into my room for the purpose of sexually assaulting me.” Valjean complained that she was ignored by prison authorities after she reported the rape. “I was transferred to another institution,” she says, “and the whole thing was sorta swept under the rug.”

Valjean is 5-10 and has brown eyes and brown hair, with a deep-yellow complexion. She wears her long, relaxed hair in braids. Valjean refuses to be put into segregation because she prefers the company of other men in the general population. She also refuses incarceration in a woman’s prison.

“I would never request to be placed in an all-female facility,” says Valjean. “I don’t want any man raping me, but I love men, and I like having a man’s arms to fall into. I’m very much in love with the man I’ve lived with for the past three years. We pray that we will always hold on to our love for each other. I couldn’t have the comforts of this kind of love and relationship in a female facility.”

While Valjean requires the service of personal protectors Shannon Landry and Dale Washington, two heavily muscled fellow inmates, to keep her safe from attack, she seems relatively content with the accommodations at FCI Jessup. “There is a lot of privacy for a relationship,” she says. “Most couples live together. If you don’t live together, there are many places where you can find privacy.” FCI Butner, Royal remembers, was even more permissive. “There was a housing unit full of transsexuals at Butner,” Valjean recalls. “The yard was like a lovers’ lane.”

After Dee Farmer dropped out of high school and left home at the age of 16, she lived in downtown Baltimore, sharing hotel rooms with transsexual prostitutes. She considered prostitution, but too many prostitutes she knew were being beaten and knifed. She started writing bad checks. “It was so much easier,” she says. Dee was taking black-market estrogen at the time, her breasts were growing, and she longed for other changes.

Farmer visited a black-market doctor in New York. “What the doctor was supposed to have done was sever the testicles from the body,” Dee says. “There’s some kind of string that links them so that they produce testosterone. He was supposed to remove that to prevent the testosterone from circulating. He made an incision straight down the middle of the testicles.”

The doctor also implanted silicone gels into her breasts. “He put the gel in,” says Dee, “and I was supposed to come back to have put the silicone in. But I never went back. I went to prison instead.”

It was 1986. Dee was sentenced to a total of 48 years in prison.

Against her counsel’s wishes, Dee appeared in court wearing makeup and a short skirt, with her long legs clad in stockings. The judge and jury, according to Dee, were appalled. Medical inspectors determined that despite her partial-sex-change surgery, breast implants and black-market estrogen therapy, she was male. They sent her to the maximum-security penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, which has a reputation for housing hard-core, violent prisoners. “But when I got there,” says Dee with a nervous laugh, “the warden and the captain took one look at me and said, ‘No, there’s just no way we’re gonna put you in here.’”

After a series of transfers, including stints at the medium-security FCI in Oxford, Wisconsin, and another medium-security facility in Petersburg, Virginia, Farmer wound up at USP Terre Haute. Her suit against the prison was thrown out of two lower courts in nonjury, summary judgments, both handed down by the same U.S. district judge, John C. Shabaz, a justice with a history of conservative rulings.

Within three months of the Supreme Court’s Farmer v. Brennan decision, Shabaz again dismissed Farmer’s case, apparently ruling that the Supreme Court decision did not apply to its namesake’s case. Dee, however, did not give up. She petitioned a federal appeals court.

The trial lasted two days. The jury, according to Dee, was all white. And the judge, once again, was Shabaz. She lost the case.

“It’s a tragedy,” says Jeffry Finer, Crystal Schwenk’s attorney. “Dee put a lot of work into that suit. Thank God it doesn’t affect the case law. Farmer v. Brennan is still a solid precedent.”

“It’s over,” says Dee. She has no plans to pursue the suit any further.

Dee has been accepted to the law school at Northeastern University, in Boston. She is working on having her state sentence reduced so that she can get her degree. “My intentions are to go to Northeastern for my J.D.,” says Dee, “then either go to Georgetown or Harvard for my L.L.D. and then go and teach.” She also hopes to complete the transition from man to woman when she gets out. “I have to find a surgeon who is willing to do it with my HIV,” she says.

Dee expects to be released from federal custody in September 1999. Her 18-year sentence was reduced to 14 for good behavior. She will then be transferred to a state prison in Maryland, where she will begin serving 30 more years.

As for the prisoner who raped her, Dee never named him in her lawsuit, but she did see him again.

“I was in Atlanta in the USP, and I was in seg, and I saw him walking around the cage. He gave a note to the orderly, and he wrote, ‘What I did to you, that just shows how much I like you.’” Dee laughs. “What a fool,” she says. According to Dee, her rapist did not know that she was HIV-positive.

Dee prepares to return to her cell in isolation. She stares out at the yard at FCI Butner, where a dozen men in prison garb sit on benches. “Nothing’s worth this,” she says.

Dee turns to the guard on duty. “I’m ready,” she says. The guard guides Dee, swinging her hips, through the double doors of the visitors’ room. She smiles over her shoulder as she is led into the prison yard full of men.

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