“CRUEL AND UNUSUAL”–transgender criminals


Transgender Criminals

Amos Lassen

Alluvial Filmworks has just released an amazing documentary which deals with transgender in men’s prisons. I do not assume that got too much attention but let me say that “Cruel and Unusual” is one of the most interesting and fascinating movies I have seen in a long time. Janet Baus, Dan Hunt and Reid Williams have taken on a subject that most of us know nothing about and have done an incredible job of bringing the issue to the public. The film is an in depth study of male to female transgender prisoners in United States prison and the reality of the topic is at times shocking yet thoughtful. They have approached the topic that the treatment of the transgender population is a violation of their human rights which the Constitution of the United States grants them. It is dismaying to see how these people are treated by prison officials and judges. What is even worse it that they are often forgotten in the prison population and ignored by officials.

It is difficult to imagine being a woman in a man’s prison. It seems that the American penal system places convicted individuals in prisons based upon their sexual apparatus and not upon their gender identity. The five “women” in the film describe the treatment they received behind bars and some of those experiences include rape, chastisement, violence, solitary confinement and more than all else, denial of proper medical care. I found my own opinions about transgender people challenged and the reality of the stories related by the interviewees here made me look at the issue in a completely different way. It wasn’t until recently that I began to understand the whole nature of what gender really means and to see people have the problems that these people have is a real eye opener. Perhaps I should add that the problems are unnecessarily thrust upon a group of people who have no way to fight the system.

Although the characters portrayed here are biologically male, after listening to their stories it is very clear that they are men only because they have male sexual organs. Otherwise they are women—they act as women, they think like women. Yet they are incarcerated in an atmosphere that can only bring them harm. It is easy to have the attitude that since they are criminals, we should not be bothered with them. It is very important to remember that criminals are also humans and these “women” show their human sides in this film. Two of the people studied resorted to self mutilation—the removal of the testicles and the penis by their own hands and there are shocking stories. The fact that they had been refused hormone therapy while in jail—after having been involved with it before incarceration caused attempts at suicide as well as other horrible things.

The “women” are candid in admitting their guilt for the crimes they committed and they agree that they must serve their sentences but why is it that they are denied any treatment? The American Psychiatric Society recognizes gender Identity disorder as a legitimate condition. If this is so, why are the transgender denied the right to proper medical services? An even deeper issue to consider is just how far prisons should go in dealing with matters like this. Is it because these people are behind bars reason enough to ignore their needs and violates their human rights?

This is moving and thoughtful look at the abuse, the isolation and poor medical care provided by the American prison system. I learned how difficult it is to stand up and be different in a situation where everyone is supposed to be the same. The five women in this film will cause the hardest heart to break. Their courage and their desire to be who they feel they are show us a new kind of hero.

Try and imagine what it would be like to be a non-protected citizen of the U.S. Then try to imagine yourself behind bars as a gay person. Compound that with the idea that you have trouble deciding what gender you are. If you can do this, then you have an idea how these people have suffered. I feel as if I learned a great deal from this movie and if nothing else it surely made me look at being different in a completely different way.

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