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Italy’s Transgender Prison: Safety or Segregation?

January 19, 2010

Last week, BBC News reported that Italy is set to open the world’s first transgender-only prison. With a building capacity of 30 inmates, the prison, located in the town of Pozzale, will house only transgender inmates, primarily convicted of prostitution and drug-related crimes.

From BBC News:

The BBC’s Duncan Kennedy, in Rome, says that until now transgender prisoners have been located in women’s prisons where they are often segregated for their own safety.

… Leading gay rights groups say they welcome the new prison as a dedicated space providing the psychological support transgender prisoners need.

Certainly, there is truth to the assertion that most prisons are unsafe spaces for transgender people. So the creation of a (theoretically) safer space for trans inmates may not necessarily be a bad idea. As Keri Renault wrote for The Bilerico Project:

If Italian detention centers share anything in common with US prisons, it’s likely that assaults of every kind are perpetrated against transgender inmates in greater statistical percentages than any other population demographic. An all-transgender prison may not be the ideal “safe space” but it should do a better job locking out verbal harassment, emotional abuse, assault and sexual abuse.

Furthermore, it’s possible that more gender divisions within prisons might lead to a more progressive view of gender in general. Since men and women are already segregated in prisons, what about people who identify as a gender outside of the male/female binary? While many transgender people do subscribe to a binary gender system, many do not. By expanding and enhancing government-run institutions to include spaces for people of different gender identities, rather than making everyone choose between one of two options, perhaps we are coming closer to creating a global safe space, where gender identifications are as varied and diverse as the people embodying them, and where those diverse identifications are legally recognized and socially respected.

That all being said, the expansion of the prison system is hardly a victory for transgender equality. While a prison exclusively for transgender people might provide temporary benefits for the inmates, it’s a solution that only addresses the symptoms of injustice, rather than the causes. Helen G. at Bird of Paradox sums it up well:

I simply cannot see how segregating all the “transgender inmates” in the country under one roof goes any way towards solving that problem and helping cis society to integrate fully with ours, to the point where these constructed divisions between us no longer (need to) exist.

Segregating transgender and cisgender inmates certainly might create temporary, isolated safe spaces for transgender people, but segregation never results in education or better understanding. In fact, the opposite is true — segregation of the transgender population, in any way, will make it so that population is ignored and forgotten by the cisgender population, so that when the two are integrated again, the safety risks for transgender people are only greater and more pronounced.

On a broader level, a transgender-only prison indicates an expansion of the prison-industrial complex — a larger, entirely different issue, but one that comes into play here and must be acknowledged. Zoe Kala highlights this intersection in a post for Queer Today:

Apparently, what is best for trans inmates is more prisons. Social support for homeless trans youth is merely an afterthought, if a thought at all. Of the estimated 1.6 million GLBT homeless youth in the US, many will inevitably be swept up into the PIC, as their illicit activities at the edge of survival (like prostitution and drugs) costs them their meager freedom. That’s one way to bring down the homeless population, but it definitely isn’t my way. While “gay rights groups” work hard for high visibility social privilege issues like gay marriage, the embarrassing “distractions” from these lawbreaking street queers can be neatly swept up and dumped into their own “specially equipped detention centre”.

Instead of using valuable resources to create new prisons exclusively for transgender people, shouldn’t the Italian government use such resources to fund better social services for the nation’s transgender population? If that money instead went to services to help homeless queer youth or treatment programs for drug-addicted transgender people, there may not be as high a number of transgender people in the prison system, negating the need for a transgender prison in the first place. A reallocation of resources could be all it would take to treat the cause, rather than the symptom, and the ultimate benefits for transgender people would be that much greater and more permanent.

Personally, I find myself torn on this issue. Greater safety of transgender people in the prison system — even temporarily — is hugely important and should be addressed. But is this how it should be done? What are your thoughts?

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