Nowhere to run
Female inmates face dangers as male prisoners who identify as women arrive at female prisons
The Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla is the nation’s largest female-only prison, stretching 640 acres across flat farmland and housing 2,640 inmates of all security levels. One inmate described cramped cells with eight women per room, bunk beds 4 feet apart, a shared restroom, and an uncovered shower.
The Chowchilla facility now houses 11 male inmates, including men convicted of rape and murder, said Lauren Adams, legal director for Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF).
More men will likely transfer to CCWF in coming months. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has received 255 requests from male inmates wishing to transfer to female prisons since a state law took effect on Jan. 1 permitting inmates who identify as transgender, intersex, and nonbinary to choose between male or female prisons, according to a Los Angeles Times report. Only six female inmates have requested transfers to male prisons.
Amie Ichikawa, a former CCWF inmate and founder and president of Woman II Woman, said California’s law has created a toxic environment where female inmates who experienced trauma are unable to heal. “Prison is already difficult,” she said. “Now they have to shower, use the toilet, and share 6 feet of personal space with violent men.”
Female inmates at CCWF and elsewhere have cause for concern as federal and state prisons increasingly open the gates of women’s prisons to incarcerated men, permitting them to choose housing based on their gender identity.
One women’s correctional facility in Washington houses half a dozen men—including a serial rapist—according to court filings obtained by WoLF. Officials in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Jersey have also permitted male inmates to transfer to women’s prisons.
Federal law requires prisons to make placement decisions on transgender-identifying inmates on a case-by-case basis, taking their safety into account. The Biden administration filed a statement of interest in April in a lawsuit filed by a male prisoner in Georgia who identifies as female and is seeking housing in a female prison after allegedly being sexually assaulted by other incarcerated men.
In a similar case, a biological male identifying as female won a discrimination lawsuit in Washington, D.C., on May 14 against district officials after being placed in a male prison on theft charges.
Women’s rights groups and family advocates argue that more male inmates will seek transfers under the proposed Equality Act and as the courts continue to define federal discrimination laws based on gender identity. Adams of WoLF said tracking reports of sexual violence within prisons is already difficult since women fear reporting incidents.
Earlier this year, an anonymous report of male-on-female sexual violence at the Washington Corrections Center for Women prompted several individuals and news outlets to file requests for records on incarcerated men identifying as females in the prison using the Freedom of Information Act. The American Civil Liberties Union and Disability Rights Washington sued the original petitioner, Andrea Kelly, to block the FOIA requests.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Rice on May 19 granted a preliminary order to seal public records from the Washington State Department of Corrections, calling the FOIA requests “more intrusive than necessary” and citing the potential harm transgender inmates would face if details about them become public.
In California, Ichikawa said the voices of incarcerated women have been lost in the debate over gender identity and prisons. One such woman wrote in an April 9 letter to Woman II Woman of her fear of living in close quarters with “a man [who] is very much stronger physically and can overpower me in any situation, a man that still has [male genitalia].”
The woman described herself as a victim of sexual abuse and domestic violence and wrote of her distress at the thought of being forced to undress, shower, and sleep near violent men: “We should not have to live with [male inmates] in fear of the unknown.”
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