How I Survived Men's Prison as a Woman

Kalani Key, 42, grew up in a mixed Hawaiian-Chinese-Filipino family in Hawaii, where transgender people, or "mahu," were traditionally revered. Born a boy, Key always identified as a woman and starting taking hormones and living openly as female at the age of 15. After experiencing a number of tragedies at a young age -- including the death of her mother, two sisters, and the brutal murder of her boyfriend -- Key turned to the street life. She became addicted to heroin, and worked as a prostitute, drug dealer and thief. Between 1987 and 2005, Key was housed in various men's prisons in California. Today, she is an advocate for transgender women in prison, and works for the TGI Justice Project in San Francisco as a coordinator of the Transforming Justice National Coalition.

I've been to prison 14 times. The first time I went to prison was in 1987 at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville. I was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon, and I got three years.

There were 150 of us transgender girls there. Vacaville was designed for trans women -- we were not mixed with the regular men in the prison. We were all in Category "B," which was for "effeminate homosexual." We were housed together, had access to bras, hormones, and make-up; make-up companies would even come into the prison to test make-up on us, and usually we had female officers dealing with us. I finally felt that this was where I belonged, because I was surrounded by women like me -- and I didn't have that on the outside. I also fell in love with a man named Bruce, who ran with the (Mexican gang) Norteños, and I was actually quite happy.

There were still problems though. There were a lot of blind spots there. A lot of girls were taken into dark corners and raped, but a lot of consensual sex happened too. Most of us had relationships in there; the correctional staff really pushed the girls to have relationships so they weren't running around. And many of the relationships were abusive. There are some men that are very aggressive and very pushy. And if you don't have a way of protecting yourself -- fighting, or having people you can go to -- then you are just left out there alone.

But we were unified, and we would always come together and deal with whatever situation arose. We felt like we ran the prison.

In 1992 I went back to prison on a grand theft conviction. I thought I was going back to the same prison, but I got the shock of my life when I learned they'd gotten rid of the Category "B," and trans girls were dispersed all over the state.

They sent me to Jamestown, which is up in the mountains, near Yosemite. They had never had a girl in the yard. When I got off the bus, the lieutenant took one look at me and said, "Oh no. Get that thing back on the bus."

But in the end they had to take me. They wanted me to go into protective custody because I looked like a female and they didn't want me in the yard. But I knew the system. I refused to sign the paper putting me in "protective custody." That's where they put all the child molesters, and I didn't want to be with them.

So they stuck me in the general population area (no cells -- just one big open space) but they put my cot in front of the officer's desk, and told me I couldn't move more than four feet in any direction.

I met Nacho in there. He was a Norteño, a homeboy of my old boyfriend Bruce, and he took me under his protection. The Asian Pacific Islander "car" (clique) got mad because I stayed with the Norteños in their dorm, but that's that only place I felt safe. I knew I could trust Nacho.

Within two weeks, I had pulled nine people out of the closet. They had been trying to play it straight, but I would walk around the yard and say to them, "I know you want to switch. Join my car!" And it worked.

When I first got to Jamestown, I was scared, but I'd learned that you don't show fear in prison. Later I felt safer because Nacho and his friends were respectful. They would even put up a shower curtain for me, and when they would do strip searches in the yard, the boys would form a human block around me. I was really grateful.

In prison, most cars are determined by race or gang: the white car, the black car, the Norteño car, the (rival Mexican gang) Sureño car. But there was also a gay car -- including trans girls -- and a Christian car. People in the gay car would also change cars, depending on whom they hooked up with. Many would join their boyfriend's car.

In my gay car, there were two Sureño gay boys, so they went to talk it over with the Sureño car, and I talked to the Norteños, and it was decided that when we were together as a gay car, we would stay away from any of the gangs. So if we were walking around the yard together and Nacho called me, I would go talk to him alone -- the Sureño girls wouldn't come along with me. We did this to avoid conflict.

Nacho was the shot-caller for the Norteños in Jamestown, which meant he had a lot of power. When I returned to Jamestown again in 1996 (after a parole violation), the sergeant, lieutenant and watch commander tried to use me as a pawn in prison politics. They wanted me to become Nacho's girlfriend and then give them information.

I refused. I told them I didn't want to have a relationship with Nacho, or with anyone in the yard, because it would cause too many conflicts. (I avoided getting into a relationship when I was in Jamestown, because the Norteños put me under their wing, and I didn't want to disrespect them by going with a man from another car.)

So the staff tried to lock me up in the hole (solitary confinement). It didn't work because I filed a grievance against them. The Norteños had a legal expert in prison (a fellow prisoner), so when I told Nacho what happened, he talked to him, and he told me what to do.

In 2000, I was sent to Santa Rita County Jail in Alameda County (east of San Francisco), and saw that the situation for transgender women in prison had not improved since the 1990s.

When I got there, they strip-searched me, but they couldn't see anything. I've been on hormones ever since I was 15, and I had my testicles removed in 1986, so when they strip-searched me they were confused, and the nurses didn't want to do a physical themselves.

So they stuck me in the psychiatric unit for a month, where I was supposedly waiting for a doctor. The problem was that parole lost my paperwork, so they didn't have any information about me. The only reason I got out of the psychiatric unit was that I would bang on the door whenever someone came into the unit and yell, "Are you a psychiatrist?" Finally a doctor saw me, and I was moved into the protective custody unit.

I spent my last stint in prison in San Quentin State Prison. I was there for seven months in 2005 for a violation of parole. The trans girls there were placed in the reception center, not the main yard. There were four of us.

I have to say that I met some good people in prison. I found a transgender community back in 1987. And there were also caseworkers, even sergeants who were good to me. In fact, it was because of a lieutenant in Vacaville that I got off of heroin. He locked me up in the hole because he wanted me to detox. When I was still able to access drugs in the hole, he put me behind the gate so only staff could get to me. He stuck by my side. He even came to the hospital to check on me.

We don't have records of how many trans people are in prison because there is no Category "B" anymore. But we do know that one in three of us has been incarcerated at some point because there is a lot of policing and profiling in our communities. Police always come by and harass us. I've been arrested for being a public nuisance just for standing on the sidewalk. Because many trans people can't get jobs, they end up doing criminal activity in some form to survive. This means we end up in prison at a higher rate, and many of the girls now go through hell when they're there.

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