Hello my name is sticker where the border is the trans pride flag, on an orange prison jumpsuit.

First Person

How the Justice System Erases Trans Identities

The Department of Corrections fails to acknowledge incarcerated trans identities. A first-hand account by a trans woman who is fighting for prisoners to have their authentic selves be documented.

This article was made possible because of the generous support of DAME members.  We urgently need your help to keep publishing. Will you contribute just $5 a month to support our journalism?

Locating and communicating with Jessica Sylvia is a confusing and difficult task. According to Washington Department of Health records, Jessica was born in Tacoma, Washington, on December 20, 1975. Jessica is believed to be held as a prisoner, who is serving time for a domestic violence–related crime, in the state of Washington. She is very open about her identity as a post-transition transgender woman who is on hormones and is eager to move forward with a consultation for gender-affirming surgery. Jessica has even changed her legal identity documents to reflect her female identity. She got a certified legal-name-change order signed by a Snohomish County District judge on January 31, 2019. She then had her birth certificate amended with the new name, Jessica Phoenix Sylvia, and had the gender marker changed to female on May 1, 2019. So, why is it that when you search for her nothing comes up?

The erasure of trans identities of prisoners has not really been talked about until now. My identity documents are official, but the Department of Corrections simply doesn’t honor them. Essentially, I am being told that I was sentenced not only as a male in 2005 but to be male until my sentence ends in 2024. My reality is absurd. In existential terms, I am not yet who I have become, while being who I no longer am. I have become Jessica Sylvia, but only in subjective terms. Objectively, my female identity is being erased in every way. I am forced to communicate with friends and family through the identity of a man who no longer exists, whom I never wanted to be. It is not as though honoring my legal identity gets me out of prison. I just want my due dignity, as one who is allowed to be fully human while serving her sentence. That is why I started the Gender Identity Justice campaign.

It is extremely difficult to do community organizing from a prison cell. Communication is limited, and I can’t accomplish anything without dedicated folks to help with the work. I am working with a small network of people and a couple of organizations that are supporting me. The support has been great and the people making posters and raising awareness don’t want any credit; they are just average people offering mutual aid and making a difference. Now hopefully prison officials will hear the outpouring of support and decide to do the right thing. It is time to respect trans identities by honoring legal identity documents.

Department of Corrections representative Jeannie Miller says that the role of the department is to carry out a sentence that has been imposed. Records staff tell me that the Judgement and Sentence document that was signed on May 31, 2005 lists my first name as Ernest and my sex as male, so that is all that matters. At that time, I was not yet able to access medical interventions due to poverty and a lack of health insurance. I did not yet have the ability to change my identity documents, either. I don’t understand what this has to do with carrying out my sentence. A county judge can’t sentence me to be male until a date in the future, can they? How can they make gender part of punishment while ignoring legal identity documents? 

The Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 72.09.540 is an old law that states that the department may require a prisoner to use an incarcerated name for the duration of their sentence. Records staff insist that this means that they simply don’t have the power to update my name or gender information in the system.The truth is that language matters: In legal language, when the word “shall” is used, it expresses an imperative, an obligation if you will. When the word “may” is written into law, as in this case, it means that there is discretion in exercising power. Simply put, under the current laws, if prison officials want to use my old incarcerated name, they have a right to. They also have a right to honor my legal name change and respect trans identities. They just choose not to and then deny that they have a choice, which appears to be a way to deflect criticism. At the time this law was written, society viewed matters of gender differently and surely trans identities were not considered. This is why the Gender Identity Justice campaign is important now.

In recent years, there have been a number of policy changes made for trans prisoners. Disability Rights Washington’s Trans in Prison Justice Project has created changes in health care, housing, property, and searches by litigation efforts. Recently, several trans prisoners in Washington state have been transferred from men’s facilities to a women’s prison. I refused a gender-affirming transfer because I feel dehumanized at the prospect of having to use a male name. I am horrified at potentially walking into a women’s prison and being humiliated. I am not going until I can take my name with me.

As it stands, I am forced to use a male name and gender throughout my sentence. That includes probation. What happens when I am released and my probation officer or other authorities are looking for Ernest Sylvia where I live or work? If I were actually dangerous, this is a critical error. My landlord, employer, and everyone I know will know me as a woman named Jessica. This could actually make it easier to hide from the authorities. So what is the solution? Do the officials have a right to continually out me as trans and reveal sensitive medical information to the world as part of their job? Where does the wanton infliction of pain end? Is the goal to get me killed or make me kill myself? The dehumanization must stop. Enough is enough!

Even after death, trans prisoners are subject to gender injustice. On December 10, 2020 at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, Washington, a trans woman died while sick with COVID. The DOC reported that an unnamed man had died, adding insult to the prisoner’s death.

The most important action a trans person can take in self-determination of identity is to choose a name. A name is a representation of one’s self and communicates a message interpersonally. One of those messages concerns the aspect of gender. I am asking the community to support the Gender Identity Justice campaign now. It’s time to demand that the DOC respect trans identities by honoring legal identity documents immediately.

Before you go, we hope you’ll consider supporting DAME’s journalism.

Today, just tiny number of corporations and billionaire owners are in control the news we watch and read. That influence shapes our culture and our understanding of the world. But at DAME, we serve as a counterbalance by doing things differently. We’re reader funded, which means our only agenda is to serve our readers. No both sides, no false equivalencies, no billionaire interests. Just our mission to publish the information and reporting that help you navigate the most complex issues we face.

But to keep publishing, stay independent and paywall free for all, we urgently need more support. During our Spring Membership drive, we hope you’ll join the community helping to build a more equitable media landscape with a monthly membership of just $5.00 per month or one-time gift in any amount.

Support Dame Today

Become a member!