As Latin American countries continue to grapple with worsening prison conditions, overcrowding, and the potentially devastating impact of COVID-19 in such prisons, a new report found an alarming absence of standards and public policies to protect an often-overlooked population: trans women deprived of liberty. The report—the first-ever regional study of its kind—underscores the urgent need to release as many people behind bars as possible before COVID-19 enters the region’s crumbling prison infrastructure.
Drawing on a participatory research process led by formerly incarcerated trans women, the study, Trans Women Deprived of Liberty: Invisible Stories Behind Bars, is the result of a collaboration between nine human rights and advocacy organizations: Almas Cautivas, Casa de las Muñecas Tiresias, Casa Hogar Paola Buenrostro, the Corpora en Libertad Network, Dejusticia, Equis: Justice for Women, the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), the Prison Ombudsman’s National Office in Argentina, and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
The report describes the failures of Latin American governments to implement basic measures to protect trans women deprived of liberty from violence and abuse. As a result, trans women are subjected to discrimination, stigmatization, and criminalization at every stage of interaction with the criminal justice system, the report found.
Because of the challenges and vulnerabilities associated with gender identity, trans women behind bars are at heightened risk of experiencing inhumane and unsafe incarceration conditions. Governments across the region need to implement comprehensive policies to guarantee the protection of incarcerated trans women and their rights.
The report details the risks faced by trans women inside prison—dangers that are often exacerbated by the lack of policies that address their unique needs. Trans women are often placed in men’s prisons, without their consent, which violates their identity rights and increases the risk of sexual violence. Across the region, trans women frequently lack adequate access to health care oriented towards their unique needs and educational opportunities. Additionally, they report suffering prolonged solitary confinement, invasive body searches, frequent prison transfers, and other forms of ill-treatment.
The report’s findings also highlight the dearth of statistical information about Latin America’s LGBTI+ population behind bars. Few countries in the region have produced disaggregated data to analyze broader trends concerning trans people deprived of liberty, leaving policymakers with few tools to design and implement specific policies for this group at higher risk. What little data exists points to the role of punitive drug policies in the incarceration of trans people in the region; in Argentina, for example, 70 percent of trans people in prison were incarcerated for drug-related offenses in 2017.
Debates about the devastating harm of Latin America’s “drug war” often fail to account for the impact on LGBTI+ communities, a problem that is compounded by the failure of state authorities to collect more disaggregated data. Across the Americas, governments have made the LGBTI+ population behind bars invisible. When the government refuses to see you, it’s refusing to take the action needed to protect your basic rights.
In the face of these challenges, the report found promising examples of reforms, from Brazil to Colombia to Costa Rica, that acknowledge and aim to address the vulnerabilities faced by trans women in prison. Trans women who have been behind bars are playing a critical role in advocating for these reforms and for the protection of the human rights of LGBTI+ persons deprived of liberty.
It is past time for Latin America’s governments to stop targeting transgender women for detention and prosecution, and for criminal justice systems to implement detention conditions that are in line with international standards to protect trans people. Without better regulations, trans women, their families, and communities will remain disproportionately affected by incarceration.