2021 Theses Doctoral
Gender Bound: Prisons, Trans Lives, and the Politics of Violence
The criminal justice system is a primary driver of racial and gender injustice. While research and policy advocacy tends to center the most typical criminalized subjects— black, and more recently Latino, men— unique insights into the dynamics of race, gender, and punishment emerge when we focus on a more unique group: transgender people of color. Nearly half of black transgender people experience incarceration over the course of their lives. The extreme criminalization of transgender people of color highlights the intersectional nature of carceral violence, and the ways state violence operates alongside social exclusion and structural abandonment. The carceral state produces and maintains social divisions. This dissertation investigates how the penal definition and management of racialized gender boundaries produces vulnerability and constrains life chances for transgender and gender-nonconforming people. I also demonstrate how, in the face of state coercion, criminalized gender-nonconforming people navigate and seek to mitigate vulnerability.
The empirical context for this work is the California state prison system and the reentry ecosystem of San Francisco. Drawing on extensive archival research, 20 months of ethnographic observation in transgender prisoner advocacy organizations, and 136 interviews with formerly incarcerated transgender people, advocates, policymakers, and former prison staff, this dissertation shows how racialized gender regulation operates, transforms, and is resisted in penal organizations. This study traces racialized gender regulation over time— from 1941 to 2018— and across the carceral continuum, examining the management and navigation of racialized gender boundaries behind prison walls and in reentry organizations upon transgender people’s release. While transgender prisoner discourse foregrounds issues of identity, I find that neither identity nor accounts of race and gender as stable and transportable structures are sufficient to explain the ways racialized gender boundaries operate at the meso-level of penal organizations. Prison administrators and reentry staff articulate and regulate racialized gender boundaries based on historically-specific organizational imperatives (e.g. to distinguish between reformable and incurable prisoners, or to allocate limited reentry resources). Currently and formerly incarcerated transgender people, in turn, engage with classification pragmatically and pursue safety strategies designed to minimize vulnerability to both interpersonal and state violence. I arrive at these findings through three papers that focus on different dimensions of organizational practice and pragmatic survival strategies.
In the first paper, I argue that, rather than emphasizing a categorical conflict between an institutionalized gender binary and gender-nonconformity, we should analyze how the nature of prison gender boundaries arises from the historically evolving nature of racialized punishment and the inherently coercive nature of classification in a total institution. Prison gender boundaries reflect an evolving conflict between the prison’s efforts to label, control, and confine bodies, and prisoners’ capacity to resist. Prison administrators make and manage gender boundary violation based on the evolving penal logics and resources at their disposal; from 1941-2018, administrators successively use strategies of segregation, treatment, risk management, and bureaucratic assimilation. Prisoners, in turn, express or repress non-normative gender identifications based on the consequences of classification in changing penal regimes.
In the second paper, I extend research that has explained incarcerated transgender women’s high rates of victimization based on the prison’s rigid institutionalization of the gender binary. Employing an intersectional approach, I demonstrate that trans women of color in men's prisons are vulnerable because their restricted mobility, subjection to guard coercion, and material deprivation facilitates sexual assault.
In this context, trans women of color use embodied, social, and economic resources to avoid victimization. Lastly, I examine how racialized gender regulation persists in the reentry organizations transgender people encounter upon release. Examining the gender rules and gendered interactions fostered by reentry housing programs, I show how the repudiation and regulation of black trans women’s womanhood leads to their exclusion from reentry resources and heightened reentry hardship. Together, these three papers work to explain how racialized gender regulation in the penal system generates complex, intersectional inequality, while also illuminating the ways criminalized transgender people of color understand, navigate, and resist these conditions.
This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2026-11-19.
More About This Work
- Academic Units
- Thesis Advisors
- Reich, Adam Dalton
- Meadow, Tey
- Ph.D., Columbia University
- Published Here
- November 24, 2021