Life Was Already Difficult for Formerly Incarcerated Trans People. Then COVID-19 Hit.

"It's very frustrating living day to day and not really being able to do [anything] for myself."

Candice Love was ready to move on with her life. After serving for nine years in the California Department of Corrections, the 34-year-old was released on March 10. Love had a position lined up in San Francisco providing legal aid and assistance for incarcerated LGBTQ people, which seemed like a natural use of the organizing skills she developed in prison. She started a transgender exercise group at her facility, which was successful enough that it was eventually opened to anyone who wished to join.

But Love’s probation officer in Los Angeles wouldn’t allow her to relocate to the Bay Area to take the job. “Because of the rules that they have in California and the fact that I hadn’t been out long enough, they weren’t going to do it,” she tells NewNowNext. She explains that she didn’t have any resources or support systems in L.A., but it didn’t matter. They even denied her food and clothing vouchers.

“There’s nothing we can do, and there’s nothing that we’re going to do,” Love remembers her probation officer telling her.

If being out on her own for the first time in almost a decade wasn’t difficult enough, the timing couldn’t have been worse. Just nine days after her release, California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order to halt the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) that made it virtually impossible for Love to work. The shelter where she was staying wouldn’t allow residents to leave unless they were “going down to their chow hall to get food.”

Because Love is allergic to milk, which was in most of the food, she had to smuggle in potato chips in order to have something to eat.

“When you come through the front door, you go through metal detectors,” she says. “Security then searches the stuff that you bring in. You’re not allowed to bring in any type of food or drinks into the place, and you’re not allowed to visit anybody else’s rooms. People can get in trouble for that. They keep you isolated, and this was even before the pandemic started kicking in.”

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Love’s friends eventually raised enough money to move her to a hotel, and in late March, she started a GoFundMe campaign to ensure she has “a safe place to call [her] own and food to eat,” as she explained on the page. With 39 donations at the time of publication, it has raised over $1,700 toward its $10,000 goal.

But Love is unsure of what’s next or how long she can survive with COVID-19 restricting her ability to bring in a paycheck. “It’s very frustrating living day to day and not really being able to do [anything] for myself,” she says.

This predicament is shared by many transgender people after they are released from prisons and lock-up facilities, as they find that the system isn’t set up to ensure they are able to thrive in the outside world. The national crisis sparked by the COVID-19 is only likely to exacerbate that problem, limiting opportunities for individuals like Love to ensure they have the means to not end up back in detention.

One of the key issues faced by transgender people who are formerly incarcerated is they often lack affirming identification after their release. Even if someone has taken the time and effort to have their driver’s license or state ID corrected to match their gender identity, individuals in detention typically have their property seized upon arrest. According to Mik Kinkead, staff attorney with Legal Aid Society of New York, those items are frequently lost or discarded by police.

“Let’s say you’re a trans man,” Kinkead tells NewNowNext. “You’ve had a legal name change, and you have your state ID in your correct name, then the police lose it, forget to put it in your bag, or think that it’s a fake ID because they think that you’re a ‘woman.’ They just never get their property back.”

Not having an ID that corresponds with a trans person’s sense of self greatly reduces the likelihood that they will find employment, especially for someone who is also dealing with the stigma of having a prison sentence on their record. A current photo ID is necessary for everything from signing a lease on an apartment and receiving government benefits to being hired for an unpaid internship, Kinkead explains.

While trans people are typically released with discharge papers that can in some cases serve as a temporary stand-in for an ID, Kinkead says those are sometimes issued “in the name that they were assigned at birth or their deadname, but not the name that they use or not their current legal name.”

“That just makes it all the harder to reestablish medical care, check back into the homeless shelter system, or assess where they’re going to be living,” he says.

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To make matters worse, many of the government offices set up to assist Love after incarceration were already closed. For the services that are still available, there may be extremely long wait times: Applications for the L.A. food stamps program have doubled, while an estimated one million people have filed for unemployment in the state of California, straining the ability of government workers to respond to claims.

These fears are not limited to Love’s state of residence. With national unemployment rates currently estimated at 13%—the highest level since 1940—many trans people who are formerly incarcerated question whether they will be able to compete in the job market when so many others are looking for work.

Dominique Morgan, executive director of the Omaha-based prison justice organization Black and Pink, flew to Austin, Texas, in late March to pick up a transgender woman who was being released on parole. The plan was to take her to a treatment facility for sobriety where she could take the next steps toward her road for recovery. As she was leaving prison, she was confused about why the streets were so empty. “Where’s everybody going to work?” she asked.

According to Morgan, officials inside the prison had offered very little information about the impact of COVID-19 on the economy or everyday life, and she doesn’t know what to do after she checks out of rehab. “She’s very afraid of what life is going to be like,” Morgan tells NewNowNext. “She doesn’t have a job, and she doesn’t have any work experience in the last decade.”

LGBTQ advocates believe that greater reforms are needed to ensure that trans people are able to fight for their survival during the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 10, a broad coalition of groups led by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights petitioned Gov. Newsom to ensure that “each person released from prison leaves with their prison ID and has direct access to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to secure a California ID or Driver’s license.”

“A legal identification card is a critical resource and could mean the difference between life or death during this time of COVID-19,” reads the letter, which was also signed by the Women’s Foundation of California and California Coalition for Women Prisoners.

Others say that state and federal governments need to do more to provide economic aid to formerly incarcerated trans people who are struggling amid the pandemic. Janetta Johnson, executive director of the TGI Justice Project, argues that “everybody should be released with at least a $3,000 stimulus check.” The IRS began rolling out $1,200 payments last week following the passage of a $2 trillion COVID-19 relief bill in March, but some individuals may not qualify.

TGIJP legal director Alex Binsfield adds that transgender people have extremely little money after being released from California detention centers, and without assistance, COVID-19 will only make that worse.

“Incarcerated folks make way less than minimum wage, and a lot of things inside are expensive,” Binsfield tells NewNowNext. “Until recently, there was a $5 fee if you wanted to even visit your doctor. Calls are incredibly expensive and folks making a little money and spending a lot of money come out with very little funds. It just leads to a situation where folks are going to be sent back to prison and jail.”

Being reincarcerated isn’t a position anyone wants to find themselves in, but it’s a particularly dangerous one for trans people. In 2019, Love filed a lawsuit against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) claiming that prison officials ignored rampant sexual abuse she faced from others held in the facility. Instead of receiving medical treatment or mental health care, she alleged in the suit that she was beaten by guards and placed into long periods of solitary confinement.

These experiences sadly are not unique: A 2009 study from the University of California Irvine found that 59% of trans people who had spent time in lock-up facilities were sexually assaulted, a rate 13 times higher than the general prison population.

That’s why Love says she’s going to keep advocating for herself and sharing her story, in hopes that others listen. “The old me would have went back to doing things that were illegal,” she says. “I don’t want to be that person, no matter how hard it is getting. I’ve just been trying to do anything that I can to reach out for help.”

Nico Lang is an award-winning journalist and editor. His work has been featured in INTO, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Esquire, and the L.A. Times.
@Nico_Lang