Bar Talk

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, trans Americans are more than twice as likely to be incarcerated than their cisgender peers due in large part to harassment, profiling, and abuse by law enforcement professionals. Incarcerated transgender and gender non-conforming (TGNC) individuals face unique challenges within the prison system, from a lack of gender-affirming medical care to increased rates of sexual assault. Moreover, when trying to get their needs addressed in court, TGNC prisoners often face the daunting task of having to represent themselves without the assistance of counsel. Enter Whit Washington, a young attorney working to change the way prison facilities treat TGNC inmates on both a macro and micro level.

Whit Washington is an Equal Justice Works Fellow and the project manager for the American University Washington College of Law Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Law’s Project for Transgender Incarcerated Survivors (“the Project”), sponsored by Uber Technologies, Inc., and Littler Mendelson, P.C. Through the Project, Whit provides direct services that address the needs of incarcerated TGNC individuals, particularly those who have been sexually assaulted or who are having issues accessing their medical needs. Gender-affirming medical needs include but are not limited to clothing that matches an individual’s gender identity and hormone replacement therapy. They describe what they encounter in their work as an “unhealthy mix” of sexual assault cases and complaints of lack of access to gender-affirming medical care. Whit does not litigate on behalf of complainants; instead, they provide resources and grievance assistance for incarcerated TGNC folks to more effectively represent themselves. For example, to assist with complaints of failure to provide gender-affirming medical care, Whit is creating a comprehensive list of citations from successful medical necessity legal arguments to quotations from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). For complaints of sexual assault, Whit sends victims resources including the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) standards to assist in building and substantiating their claims.

Since beginning the Project in October 2017, Whit has found that the most difficult aspect of their work is navigating the bureaucracy and lack of transparency inherent in the prison system. Facilities often stall the grievance process, with little oversight to prevent this obstruction. This problem is particularly salient in relation to the rampant sexual assault of TGNC individuals in custody: although PREA obligates facilities to track complaints of sexual assault, facilities sometimes underreport.  To this end, Whit plans to draft a report comparing the official facility PREA reports of sexual assault with the issues reported by the individuals who contact the Project.

Through the Project, Whit has made tremendous strides toward helping TGNC prisoners access the information they need to successfully plead their cases in court. However, Whit says that working on behalf of full equality for transgender prisoners is a Sisyphean endeavor. Whit encourages everyone interested in serving this community to educate themselves further, to get involved, and to volunteer.  As Whit observes, “We do not have the moral authority to judge folks on what they have done when we ourselves are not moral in how we treat them once they are incarcerated.” TGNC lives are on the line, and nothing less than the morality of the American judicial system is at stake.

To contact Whit for more information or to get involved, email them at  whitwash@wcl.american.edu.

Do you want to do more to aid transgender incarcerated survivors?
Check out this upcoming opportunity. 

The Project for Transgender Incarcerated Survivors Training Session
12 p.m.  to 1 p.m. on May 29
Eversheds Sutherland (US) LLP
700 6th St NW, 7th Floor, Washington, D.C, 20001

Equal Justice Works, the LGBT Bar Association of D.C., and Eversheds Sutherland invite you to a training session for The Project for Transgender Incarcerated Survivors (PTIS). PTIS works with incarcerated transgender and gender non-conforming (TGNC) individuals who are denied human rights while housed in prisons and jails.  PTIS aims at combatting the failure of facilities to adequately address sexual assault against TGNC individuals and to ensure that TGNC individuals are given medically necessary treatments. During this training, participants will learn about the status of the law related to prisoners’ rights generally and TGNC prisoners’ rights more specifically. Additionally, participants will learn the PTIS process and apply their knowledge to a hypothetical situation. There will be time at the end of the presentation to ask questions. Lunch will be served. Click here for more information.