by Fatima Malika Shabazz

From PHN Issue 24, Spring 2015

   My name is Fatima Malika Shabazz. I am an African American transwoman currently incarcerated in the gulags of California. It is great that we can get feminizing hormone treatments in the system now. But there is still the problem of presentation. That is, being able to present every day as a woman, beyond the breast growth that comes along with being on hormones.

   Two years ago, this facility was designated as a transgender hub, for medical reasons, mostly because we get hormone shots. Because of this, I am at a Level 2 facility when my level is 1. But I am not allowed to present as a woman in regard to makeup or style of dress. If I alter my clothing, I am subject to having it confiscated. If I wear makeup (homemade), I am subject to being written up for altering my appearance. All of the canteen items are made for men. We are being denied the right to live as women, and we are being denied the right to properly prepare ourselves for life on the outside as women, because of this forced masculinity.

   We are constantly harassed in this facility. Being told, “You ain’t no woman!” is disrespectful. Being patted down coming out of the dining hall is degrading. Being considered mentally ill because I identify as a woman is also degrading.

   We get hormones and bras because of a lawsuit, not because they really want us to have those things. We are not provided with female items in the canteen, because we are not considered women. The state of California has no clear policy for how prisons and prison staff should treat transgender people, and it does not seem to be making any real effort to create one.

   The medical department is not concerned with transgender-specific care. And even the mental health department does not fully comprehend what we go through psychologically in our daily lives. When will the mental trauma we suffer through every day be properly attended to?

   Why does the prison system not pay for sexual reassignment surgery? This can be deemed a medical need, not much different from me needing to have orthoscopic surgery 18 months ago. These are very big mental roadblocks. I go to bed every night wishing I were more physically presentable as a woman. I wake up feeling that way. I go through my day feeling that way, every day, all day.

   Being denied the opportunity to make that a reality is mentally destroying me. And not recognizing that it is mentally destroying me means that the Department of Corrections is not properly taking care of my mental health, which I perceive as a violation of my 8th amendment rights. Denying me what is needed to properly prepare for living as a woman in society is a violation. And allowing the staff to treat me and any transgender person in their care as degenerates unworthy of respect is also cruel and unusual punishment.  

I’ll offer a few things that may be of use to the readers:

  1. Always be yourself. Even if people don’t agree with your lifestyle, they can respect you for being who you are. That has been a big plus for me.
  2. I’m sure you are around a lot of attractive men, and some of them may have conversations from time to time. Many people in prison have no problem with gay or transgender people and are very comfortable being around us or talking openly, but that does not mean he is date- or boyfriend-approachable. When you push that boundary, you tread on dangerous ground. Use your gaydar, girl.
  3. Always show respect to not only the people around you, but to yourself as well. You have to teach people how to treat you. Watch your mouth. If you feel as if something someone says to you or calls you is derogatory or would be disrespectful to a member of your family, then take care not to use that language yourself. Not doing so gives you legs to stand on when you tell people not to speak to you in negative terms.
  4. In conflicts with staff, use your best tool—the almighty ball-point pen. It’s their best weapon against you. Learn how to use it against them.
  5. If you have to create makeup, here are a few tips. For nail polish, paint is great. Try to get a good water-based paint, and after you put it on, coat it with floor wax. Yes, floor wax. This works best on your toes, but you also need to coat them a lot of times for it to harden well enough to wear for a while. For lipstick, find a grease pencil in the color you want, grind it up well, then mix it with a tube of chapstick. Let the chapstick harden. Some of these things take a little trial and error to get them right, but once you do, it’s beautiful to be able to have a little girly thing going on.
  6. Bed-time. Find a big, long T-shirt and make yourself a nightgown.

   Well, my sisters. I hope this helps, but if you have any questions, feel free to ask.

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