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Trans Behind Bars: Homophobia Persists At Shakopee Prison After End To No-Touch Policy

Editor’s Note

This article is the first installment in Adryan Corcione’s series, “Trans Behind Bars,” which explores the incarceration of transgender people in the United States. Adryan’s series is brought to you by Shadowproof’s members and readers, who fund 100% of our journalism. You can support the rest of this series by making a donation.

Incarcerated LGBTQ+ people at Shakopee, a state prison in Minnesota, ended a no-touch policy and have pushed for trans men to receive hormones. Still, a homophobic, transphobic culture persists, especially among the staff and administration. A person can still be punished for a simple high-five at Shakopee.

Located in Scott County, the only “women’s” facility in the state implemented a no-touch policy eight years ago that punished any incarcerated person who touched another incarcerated person. The facility invoked the policy to police platonic gestures, like helping someone out of a wheelchair, but more troubling, it is also used to target anyone who is an LGBTQ+ prisoner.

On June 22, 100 prisoners wore blue (the only color the prison allows them to wear), to speak out against the no-touch policy and the harassment of their LGBTQ+ peers. The policy was ended a month later.

Prisoners also succeeded in gaining access to hormonal therapy for prisoner Joe Vanderford, a 52-year-old transgender man who was denied hormonal treatment for over 20 years in prisons in Minnesota, California, and Oklahoma.

According to Southwest News Media, Vanderford was denied hormone replacement therapy (HRT)  in California and Oklahoma because he was incarcerated on behalf of Minnesota, asserting that such a decision was out of their jurisdiction.

Vanderford has been back in Minnesota Department of Corrections (MDOC) custody for six years. This should mean he meets the criteria to receive HRT per DOC Policy 202.045, which includes a diagnosis for gender dysphoria disorder. In fact, KSTP reported that six other transgender incarcerated people were currently receiving HRT from the MDOC.

Only on July 26 did Vanderford finally receive his first shot of testosterone. However, after five doses, the prison stopped his treatment.

“[The staff] skipped my weekly shot and didn’t bother to address me about it until people contacted them here five days later,” Vanderford told Shadowproof. “I took a weekly shot of 20mg that was just doubled to 40mg.”

***

While the struggle is far from over, what progress has been achieved can be attributed to the collaborative organizing between incarcerated LGBTQ+ folks at Shakopee and the Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee of the Industrial Workers of the World (Twin Cities IWOC), an outside organization that has been in touch with prisoners for at least a year.

Outside the walls, the Twin Cities IWOC circulated petitions online and at Twin Cities Pride in June. At least 500 signatures were collected.

“The television media, in particular, was important, even though the media story was very slanted, not in a positive way,” David Boehnke, a member of the Twin Cities IWOC, told Shadowproof. “The exposure was very helpful in putting that issue on the table and making it something that couldn’t be ignored.”

Media coverage honed in on Vanderford’s conviction rather than his medical needs. KSTP used Vanderford’s deadname several times. (Deadname refers to the legal name used by a transgender person who has since chosen a different name.)

While Southwest News Media allowed Vanderford to share his story, his trauma (like his childhood abuse and the charges brought against him) isn’t critical to reporting on his access to healthcare.

***

Homophobia persists at Shakopee, despite the demise of the no-touch policy.

An incarcerated gay woman at Shakopee, Simone K. Stillday Pendleton, said she and her wife are still harassed every day, even though the policy has ended.

“Just us sitting next to each other has been a problem,” Pendleton shared.

At one point, the couple was housed in the same unit for a day until a corrections officer found out. The officer wrote a report and the couple was promptly separated.

No-touch policies have a long history and take many forms in American prisons. In the activist publication No More Cages, Lee Jackson reported Oregon state prison administrators targeted lesbian women in “female” facilities by enforcing no-touch policies between incarcerated people in the ‘70s.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) can be used to police touch between LGBTQ+ prisoners.

PREA was passed with the hopes of protecting incarcerated people against sexual assault and harassment. Under PREA Standards 28 CFR section 115.78(g), an institution may prohibit all sexual activity between prisoners.

While a prison can punish prisoners for engaging in sexual activity, it “may not, however, deem such activity to constitute sexual abuse if it determines that the activity is not coerced.”

In practice, however, this provision is sometimes easily ignored, turning PREA into a means to harass and further marginalize prisoners.

“This happens both in formal ways—such as being written into ‘PREA policies’ and categorizing disciplinary charges related to consensual intimacy as ‘PREA violations’—and in informal ways, such as guards yelling ‘PREA!’ at inmates who are hugging, kissing, or holding hands,” Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy at the National Center for Transgender Equity, told Shadowproof in a statement.

”So, prisons had policies such as ‘no touch’ before PREA, but many now justify them based on PREA, even though that directly contradicts the standards.”

***

The next step in the struggle against the homophobic and transphobic prison environment, Boehnke stressed, involves building people power across facilities because Shakopee prisoners aren’t alone.

“Transformative prison change, in this country, is gonna happen because of the millions of prisoners, and tens of millions of ex-prisoners and families are going to get involved to create a mass movement that transforms how things operate,” Boehnke contended.

Twin Cities IWOC plans to follow up on promised support groups and sensitivity trainings, since they have yet to be scheduled. As of August, no time frame has been provided for the implementation of these projects. Additionally, Vanderford continues to fight to restore his access to HRT.

(Note: Also, according to the NCTE, “all facilities must train staff on a variety of issues related to sexual abuse prevention [under PREA], including interacting professionally with LGBT and gender-nonconforming people and those with intersex conditions.”)

Shakopee LGBTQ+ prisoners still demand an advocate to the DOC; an end to mail censorship, including for LGBTQ+ literature; an end to withholding medical care as punishment, including hormones; and to have trans representation on the committee that makes trans care decisions. These demands apply to the entire Minnesota Department of Corrections.

“You never know what will happen in prisons if we’re not careful and paying attention,” Boehnke emphasized.

If you have a tip related to transgender incarceration, please email editor@shadowproof.com including “TRANS BEHIND BARS” in the subject line. You can also send us mail at:

Shadowproof
c/o FDL Media Group
PO Box 5087
Portland, ME 04101

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Adryan Corcione

Adryan Corcione

Adryan Corcione is a freelance journalist covering cannabis and politics. Their reporting has been published in Teen Vogue, Playboy, Rolling Stone, Leafly, and more.