By Adrien Weibgen
A 16-year-old transgender girl is currently being held in an adult prison in Connecticut even though she has not been convicted of any crime and has no criminal charges against her. This is the first time in over a decade that the state’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) has placed a child in an adult prison. A survivor of numerous instances of violence and abuse – including at the hands of DCF staff – Jane Doe is now being held in isolation for 22-23 hours per day, without access to education or contact with peers her own age.
Before being transferred to prison, Jane was in the custody of Connecticut’s DCF for many years. In a rare move, the DCF petitioned to have Jane transferred out of DCF’s care and into an adult male prison. Under heavy criticism and increasing public outrage about this decision, DCF Commissioner Joette Katz recently took to the pages of the Hartford Courant to argue that placing Jane in prison was “the only acceptable option to ensure the safety of the other youths” in DCF’s care. But placing any child in an adult prison is far from “acceptable” – it is dangerous, unjust, and inhumane.
Queer and trans women of color have all too often been painted as uniquely violent, even where violence has been directed against them (as it very often is).
In her public statements about the case, Katz has engaged in a lot of fear-mongering, urging the people of Connecticut and others concerned about Jane’s welfare to take Katz’s word for it that Jane was far too dangerous to remain in DCF’s care. The official story is that Jane endangered other youth in DCF’s custody, and Katz had no option but to send Jane to an adult prison. We do not underestimate the difficulty of managing the competing needs of the youth in DCF’s care, especially since many of these young people, like Jane, have been victims of violence and sexual abuse and exhibit trauma-responsive behaviors as a result. But the fact that the job is a difficult one does not mean that Connecticut should settle for less for Jane or any other child in need. When the Commissioner of DCF begins to describe long-term isolation of any traumatized child as an “acceptable option,” that is a serious problem, and it’s one we shouldn’t stand for.
DCF’s job is to care for all children, and many of the children DCF cares for struggle with outbursts of violence. So why is Jane Doe the only child in fourteen years DCF has sought to have transferred to an adult prison? Transphobia may be part of the answer. DCF previously placed Jane in a facility for boys, then petitioned the court to have her transferred to Manson, an adult male prison facility. Jane is now at a women’s prison, but that is the result of a decision by Department of Corrections (DoC), not DCF. It is also an exception to the DoC’s standard policy of placing transgender women in male prisons – a policy DCF knew about when it moved to have Jane transferred to the DoC.
Is it possible that Jane is the most dangerous young person DCF has seen in fourteen years? Maybe. Or maybe DCF just needs to believe that she is, because believing otherwise would mean acknowledging that it is the system that has failed Jane, and not the other way around.
Commissioner Katz’s language also reflects her limited ability to understand Jane’s gender identity or needs. In her article in the Courant, Katz consistently refers to Jane as “the youth” or “the transgender youth,” while referring to Jane’s supposed “targets” as “girls and female staff members” and “very vulnerable girls.” Words matter, and Katz’s reveal an ugly truth: when push comes to shove, Katz views Jane differently than other vulnerable girls, and her needs are less of a priority than theirs. Although Katz regards Jane as exceptionally dangerous, queer and trans women of color have all too often been painted as uniquely violent, even where violence has been directed against them (as it very often is). Just ask CeCe McDonald, a trans woman who was imprisoned for almost two years after defending herself from a racist and transphobic attack, or Jewelyes Gutierrez, who faced criminal charges after defending herself against repeated attacks by fellow students. The New Jersey Seven also know how racism and homophobia can color perceptions of dangerousness – that group of Black women faced prosecution and harsh sentences after fighting back against homophobic street harassment, and the media sensationally condemned them as “lesbian killers” despite the thin evidence against those charged. Is it possible that Jane is the most dangerous young person DCF has seen in fourteen years? Maybe. Or maybe DCF just needs to believe that she is, because believing otherwise would mean acknowledging that it is the system that has failed Jane, and not the other way around.
There is much to support this latter point of view. Jane has provided many details of her sad and disturbing history of sexual violence, and although Katz alludes to the fact that Jane “suffered horrible abuse before she entered the care of the DCF,” Katz fails to acknowledge that this abuse occurred while Jane was in DCF’s care, too. According to Jane, she was repeatedly raped while in DCF’s custody and care, including by DCF staff members, other adults, and other youth in DCF’s care. Although DCF has, to its credit, launched investigations into Jane’s allegations, Katz nevertheless shrugs her shoulders at DCF’s present inability to meet Jane’s needs, writing that in the last two years, “nfortunately, her behavior grew too dangerous to place her…” It is difficult to imagine another young woman being repeatedly raped while in DCF’s care, only to be locked in prison for being too “dangerous.” In this context, Katz’s observation that Jane’s “transition [to prison] might even have been smoother had the youth been willing to work with us” is nothing short of inhumane. As Jane has said, “I feel that DCF has failed to protect me from harm and I am now thrown into prison because they have refused to help me . . . I can feel myself growing more and more isolated, frustrated, and . . . alone in my current isolation.”
Jane is currently being housed in the mental health unit of a prison for adult women, but the Department of Corrections has indicated that it may transfer Jane to a prison for men. If Jane stays where she is, she will continue to experience severe psychological and emotional harm as a result of her isolation. If she is transferred to the men’s prison, her life will be in danger, and she will be put at extremely high risk for abuse and sexual assault. Jane should be returned to a DCF facility for youth immediately; every day that she spends in prison is a day too long.
Jane’s case raises difficult questions. How could a young woman be repeatedly raped while in the care of the state? How can the Department of Children and Families better support survivors of sexual violence and other trauma? Why does state law permit DCF to send a young person who has not been charged with any crime to an adult prison? But we part ways with DCF in one crucial respect: we do not think Jane Doe should languish in prison while we debate the answers. DCF should take Jane Doe back into its custody immediately and place her in a safe facility for girls, and citizens of Connecticut should demand that the law be reformed so that no vulnerable children are ever imprisoned in this manner again.
Connecticut Department of Children and Families: Remove “Jane Doe” immediately from the York Correctional Facility and place her in a safe, accepting, therapeutic environment. Immediately restore Jane’s access to therapy, educational materials and regular human interaction.
Connecticut Department of Corrections: Do not violate “Jane Doe’s” protected status as a transgender woman by transferring her to a male facility.
Connecticut General Assembly: Repeal CT state statute 17A-12, which is the statute DCF used to unjustly imprison “Jane Doe”
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
1. Sign the Change.org petition in support of Jane’s transfer out of prison: http://t.co/jhhN27ESkf
2. Contact Governor Dannel Malloy and tell him that this teen should be released from prison, returned to state custody, and placed in a juvenile facility with youth of her expressed, not assigned, gender. Email him at Governor.Malloy@CT.gov and call him at (800) 406-1527.
3. Write a letter to Jane to show your support. Jane needs to know that folks care about her and are standing behind her, and you can get a letter to Jane through her attorney, Aaron Romano (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Adrien Weibgen is a student at Yale Law School and an organizer of the Justice for Jane coalition. J4J will be hosting rallies to protest Jane’s detention in Hartford, Connecticut and New York City on Friday, April 25 at 1 p.m. More information is at http://bit.ly/j4jrally and http://bit.ly/j4jrallynyc.