Trans Inmates in Florida Allege Abuse: “Our Only Remedy Is Solitary Confinement”

“Verbal, mental, emotional abuses are daily occurrences."

Editor’s Note: ProPublica reporter Lucas Waldron first contacted Kat Thomas and shared her information and preliminary reporting for this story.

They wouldn’t stop cutting her hair.

Two years after the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) approved Kat Thomas, 67, for hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to transition to female, staff at the Dade Correctional Institution, located an hour south of Miami, were still mocking her for having bras and panties, she says.

Thomas told doctors there that if she couldn’t live as a woman, she didn’t want to live at all.

“I can’t describe the anguish it causes to be forced to have my hair cut,” she wrote in an email to NewNowNext from the men’s prison. “They force you to get it all cut off to one fourth an inch or less even though the FDC policies for male hairstyles is off the collar and off the ears, and short to medium length.”

On May 24, after two years of asking, FDC reevaluated Thomas’ accommodations and agreed to issue her female canteen items and bras. The decision came three days after a media inquiry from NewNowNext seeking clarity on the conditions of her detainment.

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Thomas has spent most of her adult life behind bars. The child of a drug-addicted mother, she grew up in foster care and was passed from home to home.

“I never had a childhood or a life,” she says. “I grew up isolated, alienated, and estranged from what others might consider as the human norm, completely lacking in social skills.”

Thomas says she learned “at the point of fist, boot, and various instruments used to beat the lessons into me,” and describes a childhood marked by physical, sexual, and mental abuse. She innately knew she was female, but it wasn’t until two years ago that she decided to come out and transition within the walls of prison.

It took almost two years after being approved for HRT for the prison to actually provide hormones, she recalls.

ProPublica reporter Lucas Waldron first contacted Thomas for the story. According to records obtained by Waldron, Thomas was convicted of armed burglary and aggravated assault in 1975 and sent to prison. She was just 23. She was paroled in 1998, but was convicted again in 2004 of burglary. She has been incarcerated ever since.

“I thought that I was prepared to function within the outside society, I was wrong,” she writes. “The damage to my psyche I had sustained through the years of institutions proved to be insurmountable and after a few years I crashed and burned.”

Thomas alleges that over the past two years, prison staff has refused to acknowledge her as female. Her request to be moved to a women’s prison was denied, and she also claims guards have referred to her with male pronouns, denied her female canteen items, and even assaulted her.

“Staff would confiscate the bras and panties during searches of the dorms, cells, and my property if I couldn’t bluff them into thinking I was approved to have them,” says Thomas. “They would make disgusted and ridiculing remarks to demean me while holding them up for the prisoners’ purview to embarrass and humiliate me.”

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On October 23, 2018, Thomas said one guard body slammed her in a hallway and another grabbed her breast. Thomas claims that the incident was captured on the prison’s video cameras. ProPublica submitted records requests for the video footage, but FDC rejected the request.

Thomas’ situation echoes that of Reiyn Keohane’s, another trans woman who won her 2014 federal lawsuit against FDC. Keohane also claimed that prison officials denied her female undergarments and forcibly shaved her head. She, too, said the Department wouldn’t let her medically transition to female because its “freeze-frame” policy prevents transgender people from accessing gender-affirming care they were not receiving prior to incarceration.

Daniel Tilley, legal director of the ACLU of Florida and Keohane’s attorney, said the Department’s treatment of trans women has historically been “barbaric”—and in 2016, Chief United States District Judge Mark Walker ruled against FDC in Keohane’s case.

“Ultimately, this case is about whether the law, and this Court by extension, recognizes Ms. Keohane’s humanity as a transgender woman,” Walker wrote in 2016. “The answer is simple. It does, and I do.”

FDC has appealed the decision, however. The appeal will be argued in August.

FDC is not alone in placing its trans inmates solely on their birth sex. Last November, Colorado reported that not one of its trans inmates has ever been housed in a prison facility that aligns with their gender identity. Illinois is facing its third lawsuit in just a year from a transgender woman seeking to be transferred to a women’s prison.

FDC currently has 235 transgender inmates in custody, according to a records request filed by NewNowNext. Those inmates are supposed to be evaluated and housed on a case-by-case basis per the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). The law requires states to consider where trans inmates will be safest and interview them before deciding whether to place them in male or female prisons.

Thomas said she unsuccessfully lobbied to be moved to a women’s facility. She argues that she simply isn’t safe in men’s prison.

“Verbal, mental, emotional abuses are daily occurrences,” she says. “Sexual exploitation or victimization is the norm and not the exception. [O]ur only remedy is to check into solitary confinement, [where] conditions are deliberately stark.”

National data on transgender people in prison supports Thomas’ claims. The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey reported that trans people were nine times as likely to be sexually assaulted behind bars than the general population. Thirty-seven percent of trans people who had been incarcerated said staff denied them hormone prescriptions they had prior to detention.

In a statement to NewNowNext, FDC Press Secretary Rob Klepper said the department is unable to specify exactly where transgender inmates are housed because “the population is fluid.” But the department treats all allegations of assault seriously, he said.

“Charges can result in termination and/or arrest,” Klepper added. “Investigation of such allegations would include review of any and all available camera footage.”

Klepper did not comment on Thomas’ specific case, but did add that the department provides all “constitutionally mandated health care.”

The state was found to be PREA compliant in 2017, the latest year for which data is available. However, three days after NewNowNext first contacted the Department, Thomas said Dade Correctional reconsidered her case.

“They approved me for all the accommodations hairstyle, grooming, and dress as a female,” Thomas says. “I can’t tell you how happy this makes me and how much of a relief it is to know that I have standing to assert my right of identity whenever staff attempts to deny or deprive me of it.”

The canteen items have yet to come, however, and Thomas remains in a men’s prison.

Kate Sosin is an award-winning, trans-identified news and investigative reporter.
@shoeleatherkate