How the Connecticut Department of Children & Families is failing a trans girl of color

JailEditor’s note: This is a guest contribution from Chase Strangio. Chase is a Staff Attorney with the LGBT & AIDS Project of the American Civil Liberties Union and the co-founder of the Lorena Borjas Community Fund.

Jessica* is a 16 year-old transgender girl. She has been in and out of the foster care and juvenile justice systems since early childhood, surviving unthinkable trauma and demonstrating resilience and strength. As a ward of the Department of Children and Families (DCF), DCF is her legal parent and guardian, responsible for her care and well-being. Jessica was also in the custody of the juvenile justice side of DCF following a delinquency adjudication; she has never been convicted of a crime or faced adult criminal charges in Connecticut. Despite this, DCF is acting directly contrary to federal law and transferring her into the adult prison system without any criminal charges or convictions. It has been 14 years since DCF last invoked this exceptional and legally questionable procedure to transfer a young person into the adult prison system without charges.

On Tuesday, April 8, a Judge granted DCF’s request to move Jessica into an adult prison. When the transfer took place, DCF declined to comment. Since then, the agency has exaggerated the details of Jessica’s prior assaults, depicting her as a violent monster. The truth is she is a survivor of trauma and institutional violence. She is a trans girl of color failed by every system she has encountered.

The incident that triggered the transfer into DOC custody involved an alleged assault by Jessica on a staff member at a hospital in Massachusetts. The facts surrounding the case are unclear, but the criminal charges against Jessica were dropped and a staff member involved in the incident was fired. Yet, following the alleged assault Jessica was placed in near isolation in a boys’ facility. As punishment, they refused to house her with girls even though DCF had previously agreed that as a girl it would not be safe to house her with boys under any circumstances. She remained there during a six-week hearing in which experts and other witnesses testified about the dangers of transferring her into an adult prison.

The data is clear that youth, particularly transgender youth, are among the most vulnerable in prison settings. In 2005, for example, youth under the age of 18 made up less than 1 percent of all prisoners in US jails, yet comprised 21 percent of all victims of substantiated incidents of sexual abuse involving prisoners. The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission (NPREC), which was convened by Congress to study the problem of prison sexual assault, found that “juveniles in confinement are much more likely than incarcerated adults to be sexually abused, and they are particularly at risk when confined with adults. To be effective, sexual abuse prevention, investigation, and treatment must be tailored to the developmental capacities and needs of youth.”

Now, in contravention of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, the Connecticut Constitution and the Constitution of the United States, Jessica is being held in an adult women’s prison. By court order, the Connecticut Department of Corrections was given 72 hours to determine whether to house Jessica in a men’s or women’s prison. As of now, they have agreed to keep her at York Correctional Institution, a high-security facility for adult women. Jessica has maintained that under no circumstances should she be sent to a facility for men. DOC’s decision is a positive development in an otherwise horrific situation. But ultimately, Jessica should be sent back to DCF custody where she can receive services instead of punishment.

The Commissioner of DCF, Joette Katz, has the power to take Jessica back into custody without going to court and without further compromising her health and well-being. In the adult system she is likely to face an increased risk of sexual violence, fewer program and educational opportunities, and prolonged isolation for her own “protection.”

This story is a tragic example of how so-called justice systems fail transgender young people, particularly transgender young people of color. When I spoke to Jessica a few weeks ago, she told me that she was finding strength from the examples of Janet Mock and Laverne Cox. She wanted more than anything to ensure that the injustice she was experiencing would not be repeated in the future. We have an obligation to tell her story and make visible the violence of our incarceration systems.

There has already been significant public pressure on DCF, DOC and the Connecticut Governor to transfer Jessica back to DCF custody but we need the pressure to continue. Systems of incarceration perpetuate violence by removing decision makers from accountability and keeping their mechanisms of injustice away from public scrutiny. We can support Jessica by calling on DCF and the Governor to transfer her back to a DCF facility for girls, and particularly for people in Connecticut, calling on elected officials to take action against the injustice happening in your state.

Act now for Jessica and stand up for justice.

*Jessica is a pseudonym used to protect this young person’s identity.

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