by angelina katsanis
In November of 2022, Mohagany Foster was released from prison after serving 20 years behind bars.
Mohagany’s stay inside of the men’s prison led to a questioning of identity and overwhelming trauma upon re-entry.
Thousands of transgender prisoners like Mohagany continue to face discrimination and violence as a result of improper gender placement.
Life At the "Bottom of the Totem Pole"
When the clock struck noon on Nov. 8, 2023, Mohagany Foster was free from New Hanover Correctional Center in Wilmington, North Carolina. Free from the prison walls, yes, but she knew her journey to true freedom was just beginning. As a transgender woman who spent 20 years incarcerated in a men’s facility, she had many steps ahead on the path to reclaiming her feminine identity and surviving in a world that isn’t kind toward Black transgender people nor former convicts.
The experience of transgender people in America is riddled with social, political, medical and emotional complications. But within the prison-industrial complex, these complications are exacerbated, and few living outside of the system understand what transgender incarcerated individuals go through as far as harassment, isolation and abuse.
"How are we all going to be second class citizens in prison, at the bottom of the totem pole, and I'm still somehow below you?” Mohagany asked. “Just because I'm trans and you're cis?"
During the prison intake process, transgender inmates are stripped of gender expression and lose their gender autonomy. Transgender women, for example, must remove any weaves or braids, take off their nails, abstain from any makeup, and fit the dress code for the men’s uniform. In male facilities, any possessions that could be viewed as “feminine” are confiscated, and the inmates are penalized for any “changes to their appearance” once inside.
The Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA, was passed unanimously in Congress in 2003. The act focuses mostly on policy surrounding sexual harassment and assault, and it requires that prisons make housing decisions for transgender inmate placement on a case-by-case basis. However, nearly every case of a transgender prisoner has led to placement with their assigned gender at birth.
“They really masculinize you in there. I’m hoping to scrub all that off of me now,” Mohagany said.
One Day at a Time:
6 months of post-release life
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Sexual assault and harrassment
According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), 2-4% of all prisoners have reported* experiencing sexual assault, either by fellow inmates or by officers, while serving time. This number increases to 37% for transgender prisoners.
An overwhelming majority of trans inmates are housed with individuals whose gender identity doesn’t match their own. People such as Mohagany who are medically transitioning and are already into their transition also have breasts, hips and other feminine aspects of their body, making them sexual targets.
There are also very few privacy barriers, particularly in men’s facilities. Female transgender inmates often bunk with at least 50 men, share bathrooms and showers without coverings in the upper half of their body, and are strip searched in groups.
“Guys would come to the bathroom and just play with their winkies while you’re in the shower. And there’s nothing you can do about it or else you’re a snitch,” Mohagany said.
The Vera Institute of Justice reports that many correctional officers and administrators cite the high sexual assault rates for transgender inmates as an excuse to further isolate the population. For example, they will put trans prisoners in solitary confinement or remove their recreational time for their “protection.”
These punitive so-called solutions can be psychologically detrimental.
Mohagany said, “We trans girls are around men who haven’t had sex with women in months, maybe years. Of course they’re going to rape us.”
*Sexual harassment and assault is a largely under-reported act, so the true percentage is likely higher than data shows.
Trans healthcare behind bars
The N.C. Department Of Corrections mandates that inmates have access to prescription medication while behind bars. For transgender inmates, this can include hormonal injections. But there’s a catch: inmates only have that access if they have an active prescription before incarceration.
This policy essentially “freezes” their pre-existing prescription and dosage, even though people who take hormones are supposed to constantly increase their dosage to be most effective.
While behind bars, trans individuals who have medically transitioned seldom receive healthcare related to their gender. In addition to no dosage updates, there are no check-ups to ensure their hormones are working as they should.
Mohagany has been incarcerated 11 total times, which familiarized her with these caveats. After her most recent arrest, she was quick to find a doctor and increase her feminizing hormone therapy (estrogen and testosterone blockers) before she was taken in. But according to Ash Johnson, an N.C.-based advocate for transgender inmates, many transgender inmates and first-time offenders assume they will receive the healthcare they need to continue their transition, only to find this isn’t the case.
For transgender individuals receiving gender-affirming medical care, this often causes a regression in their medical transition. The longer their prison sentence, the more damaging this can be to their transition.
“Of course they're going to rape us.”
Re-entry into society
Life after incarceration for anyone is difficult. But it can be even worse when you have to re-construct both your life and your gender identity.
Prisoners are usually paired with case workers (check) that connect them with the resources they need to resume their life in the real world. These case workers have access to extensive databases to best meet the needs of their assigned inmate.
There are no resources in this database yet for transgender inmates.
But those resources are crucial. Many institutions, especially in the South, hold prejudices against hiring transgender individuals, especially if they were previously incarcerated. It can also be difficult to find housing and doctors in a new area that will support the needs of transgender former inmates.
Gemynii Black, the director of housing at the Durham LGBTQ+ Center, said that it is this lack of resources and support system post-incarceration is what leads to so many transgender individuals like Mohagany ending up right back behind bars. If they receive resources such as contacts for doctors in their new area, workplaces that are accepting of transgender workers and former inmates and psychological care, they may have a better chance at success outside of prison.
The difference for Mohagany laid in finding the Durham LGBTQ+ Center. There has been a growing microcosm of transgender former inmates in Durham, North Carolina and the greater Triangle area (Raleigh, Chapel Hill) that has taken Mohagany under its wing.
Soon after Mohagany was arrested most recently, she learned that one of the women in her halfway house stole all of her possessions, leaving her to completely start her life over at age 44. This made the role of the LGBTQ+ Center essential. The center arranged free temporary housing and crowdsourced money for groceries, transportation and other basic needs.
The week of her release, Mohagany’s support team threw a “welcome home” party where she could meet even more Black transgender individuals that have been in her shoes and can help her land on her feet.
Mohagany is still searching for a job, but hopes to go into advocacy work and use her experience inside the system to fight for the rights of other transgender individuals behind bars.
“Prison is already Hell on Earth,” Mohagany said. “The best I can do now is be a voice for the girls still in there.”