According to the most recent numbers, one in six transgender individuals report having been imprisoned at some point in their lives. The history of horrific abuses they often suffered in jail have been well-documentedtrans* women housed with men and, so, subjected to rape and violent assault from fellow inmates while prison staff have looked the other way; denial of hormone medication or access to mental-health counseling; and sometimes extended periods of solitary confinement "for their own protection," which yields devastating psychological consequences.
However, the story of Donisha McShan indicates that those abuses do not necessarily end upon release from prison. As long as a trans*person remains a part of the correctional system, the dehumanization of that individual can continue unchecked. In McShan's case, it appeared to be policy.
McShan is a 39-year-old trans* woman who began her transition in 1998. Intelligent and pragmatic, it was not a decision she entered into without a great deal of soul-searching. Although raised Southern Baptist and estranged from her family, she recalled that she did not have to face too many challenges. She had a good job in Information Technology and there were no professional issues with her transition. "I was living on my own and self sustaining," she remembered. "It allowed me time to be comfortable with my transition before I expected other people to be. My friends were all very supportive and I took a good couple of years to be OK in my own skin."
At the time, she chose not to undergo reassignment surgery until she was 100-percent sure it was what she wanted. "I had waited a lot of years in order to reconcile myself to this spiritually," she said. "I knew that surgery was something so final that I didn't want to have any doubts on any level of my being. I wanted to be affirmed in the decision emotionally, mentally, psychologically and physically."
At the age of 35, she was convicted of mail fraud in Belleville, Illinois, and sentenced to two years in a federal prison for men. Along with her fellow trans* inmates, she was immediately ostracized by the general population. "Because the system was so hyper masculine, and a reputation was the most important thing the other prisoners had, being seen even socializing or speaking to a trans* woman was really taboo," McShan said. "It was a very lonely place."
McShan also remembered that the presence of trans* women seemed to be a headache for the prison's administration. As a result, there were a lot of double standards. "The other trans* women and myself were allowed to dress feminine, butfor example on the recreation yardthere were guys walking around in tank tops," she said. "We weren't allowed to wear tank tops because they would show our nipples and our breasts. The reality is that there are very few concessions made to incarcerated trans* women."
The terms of McShan's sentence included three years of supervised release. She was eventually sent to a halfway house in Marion Illinois run by The H Group. She had been addicted to crack cocaine since 2001 and the facility offered long-term rehabilitation.
A non-profit organization, The H Group has received funding from the Department of Health and Human Services and Early Head Start among others. According to the organization's website, their mission is to be a "healthcare partner for hope, growth and improved quality of life." They claim to value both their clients and "social, individual and cultural diversity."
McShan desperately wanted to regain the control of her life and she passionately threw herself into each of the group and private counseling sessions on offer while maintaining a job and going to school. However from the moment she arrived at The H Group's male residential facility in Marion on Oct. 17, 2013McShan's problems began to escalate in shocking and unexpected ways.
She had been there for less than 15 minutes when McShan said she was informed by the facility director and two other staff members that she would be referred to with male pronouns only. "I was told that I would be addressed as 'he'," she remembered. "I was completely taken aback. I was hurt. I felt likebefore I was even processed or before I could take part in any treatment plansthey had set the tone and were telling me who I was."
The gender marker on her state issued identification clearly indicated her as female. "The staff stated that they were just following orders," McShan said. "When it was learned that I was arriving there, the man at the Bureau of Prisons who oversees all of the halfway houses in this particular area of the country sent direct orders that they should house me with the men, treat me as a male and refer to me as 'he.'"
Terrified of being sent back to jail if she rocked the boat at all, McShan said nothing in her defense. She remembered that there were two halves to The H Group campustreatment and residential. At the treatment center, staff members were respectful of her gender identity but only in private. Her counselor was similarly compassionate and affirming. In fact, McShan stated it was his support that was quintessential in keeping her from giving up.
Life in the residential facility was another matter. "I was not allowed to wear clothes that were classified as too feminine, like dresses or skirts," McShan said. "They took my curling irons, make-up, hair rollers. They even confiscated my feminine body spray. They told me one of the coats I had was too feminine."
McShan claimed that she was searched every six weeks and something new was taken away every time, even her shower cap because it was pink. When she finally spoke up in protest, she was severely sanctioned through an internal disciplinary process. "I was allowed to express myself as a woman off the campus," she said. "But the rule wasonce I came back on the campusI had to look like a man."
She had to share a room and bathroom with four men. The atmosphere with them was consistently tense and they called her names. Howeveras a person who had always stood up for herselfthe derogatory terms didn't bother McShan so much as the fact that she felt unwelcome and consequently unsafe around her roommates.
Before she could go to school or a 12-step meeting, McShan would get ready in her bathrobe with the understanding thatonce she was dressed as herselfshe would immediately leave the campus. Eventually even that small freedom was removed and McShan had to get dressed for school in her car. "I was given conflicting reasons," she said. "Apparently one of my roommates had complained that I was dressing as a woman. The other reason I was given was that it was a part of my 'treatment plan.'"
Despite the confusing information, McShan came to believe that the ever increasing restrictions placed on her life and her identity were the result of directives being handed down from the Illinois Department of Correction's Residential Reentry Manager for the region. "He was sending correspondence to the halfway house to take my things," she alleged. "He said that if I didn't comply then he would have me sent back to prison for failure to obey the rules."
Psychologically, the isolation and constant degradation were taking a toll on McShan. "It was very depressing being there," she said. "If you can imagine being in a room with 75 or 80 people at a time and no one's talking to you or are afraid to sit by you. It's just so lonely."
She had a choiceacquiesce or fight. For McShan, it was the thought that other trans* women would have to endure the same treatment that resolved her to take action, despite the threat of being returned to jail.
In March of 2014, she called Lambda Legal. Jael Humphrey is a staff attorney with the organization.
"Donisha had contacted us andover the weeks we were talking to herthe persecution intensified," Humphrey recalled. "We worked with Donisha to send a demand letter to the halfway house andif the matter wasn't resolvedto pursue a legal action."
McShan was thrilled at the speed at which Lambda Legal moved on her case. "They let me know what I needed to do to start the process, gathered information and made sure that I protected myself legally," she said. "They were behind me every step of the way. Essentially, I raised my voice and they amplified it. They made the difference."
On May 1, the demand letter was sent to The H Group's administration and "several other parties."
Within days, all of McShan's rights and belongings were immediately restored and she was issued a formal apology. She was given a single room at the male facility until one became available in female housing. She was allowed to present as a woman on the campus and the staff began to refer to her with the correct pronoun of 'she.'
"It was fantastic how quick the response from the halfway house was," Humphrey said. "It was a striking turnaround in Donisha's treatment and the extent to which they were willing to apologize to her and to admit that they had not respected her gender identity."
Although Windy City Time's calls to the Illinois Department of Corrections were not returned, Humphrey recommends that anyone who may be going through a similar issue at a halfway house immediately reach out to a Lambda Legal office. "Contact me!" She stated. "All too often transgender people in custody face this sort of discrimination. We have represented them before and we were prepared to represent Donisha in this action had her demands not been met."
It is a sentiment McShan wholeheartedly agrees with. She has a message for any trans* person in her situation. "Always believe in yourself. Don't be afraid to affirm your right to be yourself. Never let anyone punish you for who you are."
She was released from the halfway house in early June. She is working towards a career as a musician and continuing her therapy. Meanwhile, she is pursuing advocacy for transgender rights in correctional facilities. "I can do it all," she said. "You are talking at the next great Diva. I've held onto this dream for long enough and now it's time to do it."