UC Berkeley's Behind Bars

Tough love for California’s transgender inmates

Unique Roberts sprays Paris Hilton perfume on her neck. With perfectly lined eyes and cornrow hair, she’s on her way to meet her boyfriend in the yard of San Quentin State Prison, an all-male facility.

Roberts is not a visitor there. The 32-year-old is one of more than 300 California prison inmates who identify as transgender women and are being housed in male facilities because they are biologically male.

“I identify myself as a woman in the streets,” she said. “In here, they consider me just a male because I haven’t had any sex change operation or anything, but I consider myself a woman… And I was blessed to actually look the part,” she added.

Having a boyfriend inside seems to make life behind bars more bearable for Roberts, but some researchers believe such relationships in prison can be risky.

In the first-ever representative study on transgender prisoners, the Center for Evidence-Based Corrections at UC Irvine found that 59 percent of transgender women in California’s male prisons reported being victimized, compared to four percent of non-trans prisoners.

The results of the 2009 study revealed that transgender women in committed or sexual relationships with male inmates are more vulnerable to coercion and assault. They are analyzing the data and plan to publish a handful of articles next year offering further explanation and possible solutions to the problem.

Convicted of drug sale and possession, Berkeley-born Roberts expects to finish her sentence in October this year. Her partner, John Johnson, is serving a life sentence for second-degree murder. He’s been in prison for 27 years.

“I grew up in prison. I was 19 years old when I first was incarcerated,” Johnson said, uncomfortable talking about his crime. “Very young, immature, stupid.”

Confined to the prison walls and surrounded by barbed wire, the couple say they fell in love a few weeks after they met at the reception center in San Quentin, the cell block that houses the newly arrived inmates before they are assigned to dormitories. Johnson was doing inmate work as a counselor’s clerk when Roberts arrived.

At age 47, this is Johnson’s first romantic relationship with a transgender person. One he said he wants to “take to the streets” if granted parole.

“I fell in love with her up in here, you know, a love, a feeling I can’t explain,” he said.

Out of almost 5,000 inmates housed in San Quentin, only a handful identify as transgender. Unlike Roberts, many are reserved about their gender and sexuality. Being transgender often causes hostility and violence.

Another transgender inmate in the same prison, Punja Scott, who calls herself Jazzie, said sometimes just being put in a cell with a man for the first night in prison can be a risk and commonly ends in rape. After the first night, an inmate can request a different cell, but sometimes the damage has been done.

“It happens a lot to the girls that come through here, [those] that may not be strong-willed like myself,” she said.

The way transgender inmates are housed was a factor researchers had expected to affect the rate of victimization. In fact, the study done by UC Irvine was funded by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to find ways to house transgender inmates and protect them from abuse by other inmates, but the results showed no relation between housing and victimization.

Transgender inmates receive no special protection inside San Quentin, Public Information Officer Sam Robinson said. When transgender inmates report a crime committed against them, they are treated as any other inmate and the crime is investigated just as it would be outside.

Inside San Quentin, Roberts and Scott act and carry themselves as women but retain the physical strength that comes with having the body of a man. Around six feet tall and speaking in a strong, deep voice, Scott talks about how they keep each other company and protect each other. They both receive bi-weekly hormone therapy.

“They don’t need any protection from us here,” said Roberts’ partner Johnson. “We’ve got some big ones here.”

Yet, in an all-male corrections facility, transgender inmates who are not physically built to defend themselves are at risk.

The struggle that comes with being openly transgender turns into a harder battle inside the prison walls. There, even love makes transgender women more vulnerable to abuse.

Video by Jude Joffe-Block
Reporting by Isabella Cota and Karen McIntyre
Produced by Isabella Cota

This story was produced for the 2010 News21 project: “Behind Bars: The California Convict Cycle” at UC Berkeley.

Produced by Isabella Cota


Reporting by Karen McIntyre and Isabella Cota
Photography by Armand Emamdjomeh
Video by Jude Joffe-Block
Production by Isabella Cota