So why am I here?
This is the question asked by cartoon-form Mara Ellis in the start of the web comic about his time in prison. The artistic graphic story by Sam Luke chronicles Mara’s experience spending 4 months in prison. It is hosted by ABC and was the subject of an article and a 40 minute podcast.
I want to examine some aspects of the narrative we are presented about this transgender woman’s experience. In several states, people are sent to a male or female prison according to their stated gender identity rather than their actual sex, and some males may be sent to female prisons on an ad hoc basis.
Mara is a Victim, Of Course
To be clear: Mara is a violent.
He was incarcerated for violence toward a partner and violence toward the police. During his incarceration he continues to be violent and when punished, interprets this as transphobia.
The narrative maintains Mara as a victim. All violence is downplayed, excused and blamed on other people. There is a mystical essence about the trans-women-as-victim narrative. Victims have no culpability, and fulfilling their every need is mitzvah. I first read about Mara in an article in Junkee promoting a GoFundMe to aid transgender women in prisons. Note that special items being funded include gender-affirming underwear.
There’s something not quite right in here. On Maslow’s hierarchy of need, wouldn’t specialist lingerie come at the top, nearer to the things you buy for yourself and not with charity? Somewhere after fresh coffee and a good book.
Everything is Transphobic
Mara interprets many events during his stay as prejudicial.
He is strip-searched by female guards on the top half and by male guards on the bottom half.
This seems like a clunky attempt to maintain a male/female boundary for a sensitive individual.
This is interpreted by Mara as deliberately dehumanising and disassociating his male and ‘female’ parts.
He gets into an altercation with a man who calls Mara a “f*ggot” while Mara is using the telephone. So Mara punches him in the face. As a result he put into solitary for punishment.
The story casts this as unfair because of the homophobic slur. However Mara is not “fighting the good fight”. He’s in prison alongside violent men and rules are enforced across the board. When riled, he lashes out because he is violent.
Punching up, though, is an accepted tactic in identitarian circles. If we see Mara as a victim, a woman out of their league in a male prison, his violence becomes an act of girl power.
Mara goes back and forth between Unit One and Mainstream. Unit One is a special area and also contains the solitary confinement cells.
As a transgender prisoner he starts in Unit One as a safety measure – keeping him out of the larger Mainstream community. The article and the graphic story paint this as illegal continuous solitary confinement. However he states he is out of his cell, and is able to mingle enough to get into an altercation.
After the violent outburst while using the telephone, he’s punished with solitary confinement. “When my punishment ends they take me to a different part of Unit One”. The narrative is quite slippery on the timelines and the exact nature of these accomodations. With the exception of noting that it is “excruciating“.
Later, another violent outburst sees Mara being sent to Mainstream, but this isn’t what he wanted either.
I’ve never been to prison, but I gather it’s not a place where you get what you want very often.
Sexual Harassment: Bucketloads of Cognitive Dissonance
Imagine being a vulnerable prisoner, alone in your cell. Two men approach: stronger, larger than you. There’s no one around and they tell you to suck their dicks.
You don’t want to be beaten up or anything.
What choice do you have? All power has been taken from you. Nobody should be put in this situation.
But this is where Mara would put all female prisoners.
If Mara, a male person with a penis, should go to a female prison because he says so then any male can go to a female prison because he says so.
Women, alone in their cells. Locked in at night with men who are bigger, stronger, heavier. Women with reproductive systems capable of becoming pregnant when raped. These women have a lot to lose and it’s not too much to give them this one basic protection.
Why is Mara in a Male Prison?
In a word: numbers.
There are 43 000 prisoners in Australia, 8% of whom are women, and less than 1% (estimated 200 to 400) are trans- and gender-diverse.
In WA where Mara’s story takes place there are 6900 prisoners, 10% of whom are female and are housed in female-only prisons. It is not known how many transgender prisoners are incarcerated in WA. They are housed under special arrangements according to individual prison rules, and prisons have wide latitude here.
There are no firm rules about where transgender prisoners serve time, and they may be housed on a case by case basis. Mara still has a penis, and is a violent offender. This may be why he was directed to a male facility. Or it may be due to capacity in the female prisons.
There are 18 prisons in WA, 15 male and 3 female. In operational terms: it is easy for the vast male population across 13 prisons to absorb a few hundred prisoners under special arrangements.
Is it transphobic to house a violent prisoner, in full possession of a penis, with a similar cohort? Or is it a sensible operational policy?
I’m simply going to quote the ABC’s expert, Chairperson of the NSW Trans and Gender Diverse Criminal Justice System Advisory Council, Kaz Zinnetti.
But Ms Zinnetti said her preference is for trans women to be housed in women’s prisons,
“I believe separate facilities to accommodate trans and gender diverse individuals potentially places them at risk of further stigmatisation and discrimination,” she said.
Let’s see that again. Her preference is for trans women to be housed in women’s prisons because prisons designed for trans people would be stigmatising. In the same way that low-security prisons stigmatise non-violent offenders? In the same way than drug rehab stigmatises drug addicts?
This expert of gender-diverse justice tells us that creating a service designed for her constituents would stigmatise them. Her answer isn’t housing them in male prisons, but telling women to make room.
Why We Can’t Let This Stand
If Mara is a woman (and the ABC says he is one) then he is a victim. A victim of a system not set up for him, of cis-normativity. A victim of male violence. Incarcerated with men, he is even more of a victim that female prisoners. He has even fewer rights than female prisoners.
This means women should make room for someone less fortunate. Someone who is ‘just like them’. It’s in the name, after all. Trans-woman.
It means that women should ignore the danger of males in their spaces while they are vulnerable. It means women should avoid “stigmatising” trans women by making them sleep elsewhere.
Should we forget Mara’s history of violence? That he was incarcerated for partner violence and assaulting police. That he continued to act violently in prison. Would he have behaved differently in a female prison?
I’ll say this again: the ABC, our national broadcaster, is telling us that women should move over for men who say they are women. Our national broadcaster put a spotlight on the experience of a violent male in a male prison so they can make the argument that men belong in women’s spaces.
Last But Not Least
No one has broached the issue of whether trans men are safe in male prisons.
References & Attribution
Screenshots are taken from the hauntingly beautiful graphic story by Samuel Luke.
Do go and read the whole thing. There is an overview at the end about the status of trans prisoner rights / treatment in Australia. There are also links to a 40 minute audio documentary and a news article on trans prisoners. It’s all cast in the same vein – “why are women in men’s prisons?”
Geek Feminism is where I got the definition of “Punching Up“. It’s not a great definition but I want to quote their example: the ethics of doxxing someone who is harassing you are different from those of doxxing a woman whose technical opinions you slightly dislike. In other words, it’s OK to doxx as long as you’re doxxing the right person.
Australian Bureau of Statistics holds data on prison populations and crime.
In case it needs to be said
- no, violence is not acceptable
- being in prison is already hard I don’t believe for a minute that prisoners deserve additional bad treatment like sexual assault
- no, no-one should be raped or sexually assaulted ever
- trans women generally are NOT more vulnerable than women generally
- Mara seems like he’s had a tough life and I have sympathy for that
- no, no, no, the answer to protecting Mara is NOT to house him in a female facility