A new study has found that high incarceration rates among transgender women disproportionally affect women of color, and these women frequently experience victimization and negative health factors while behind bars. The report, “Racial/Ethnic Disparities in History of Incarceration, Experiences of Victimization, and Associated Health Indicators Among Transgender Women in the U.S.,” was researched and authored by Sari Reisner, ScD, Research Scientist at The Fenway Institute; Jae Sevelius, PhD, of the UCSF Center of Excellence for Transgender Health; and Zinzi Bailey, ScD, Post-Doctoral Fellow at McGill University Institute of Health & Social Policy.
The study documents racial and ethnic disparities in incarceration experiences and associated health indicators among 3,878 transgender women around the United States. Data for the study was drawn from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS) conducted by the National Center For Transgender Equality and the National LGBTQ Task Force.
Of the women surveyed, 19% had been in jail or prison in their lifetime. The burden fell heavily on transgender women of color, with 42% reporting a history of incarceration. The rate among Black (non-Hispanic) transgender women was especially high. The study found that a history of incarceration was associated with increased risk for adverse health indicators including HIV, smoking, substance abuse, and experiences of violence and victimization.
Among the 748 transgender women surveyed that reported an incarceration history, 47% also reported victimization and mistreatment while in jail or prison. Black (non-Hispanic), Hispanic/Latina, and mixed race/ethnicity women reported the highest prevalence of mistreatment and victimization during incarceration, compared to White (non-Hispanic) women. Furthermore, one in four incarcerated transgender women reported being denied healthcare services while behind bars.
“The disproportionate prevalence of incarceration among transgender women, especially those of color, is ultimately the product of larger issues of social marginalization and the intersectionality of racism, transphobia, sexism, and classism,” said Dr. Reisner. “Any system that enforces strict gender segregation will push transgender people to the margins, and we know that social marginalization is detrimental to health.”
This study’s publication in a journal centered around women’s health, while it contains sobering statistics, is in itself a breakthrough for transgender visibility, noted Emilia Dunham, a master’s student at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management. Dunham is also manager of The Fenway Institute’s LifeSkills study team, which is currently testing the efficacy of a group-delivered HIV prevention intervention with Boston transgender women.
“The inclusion of this paper in the journal Women & Health symbolizes the increasing validation of transgender identities,” Dunham said. “Historically, transgender women have often been included in projects and papers for gay men. A journal on women’s health is where transgender women’s health should be and makes an important statement.”
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