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Life Inside

What Being Trans in Prison Is Really Like

Amid a wave of anti-trans legislation, and the violence that often follows, four people share their experiences in the criminal justice system.

The last few years have brought a wave of anti-trans legislation. Hundreds of bills have aimed to prevent trans teens from using certain bathrooms, teachers from using kids’ preferred names or pronouns, student-athletes from competing on the teams they feel comfortable on and medical providers from prescribing gender-affirming medical care. Some states have even tried to send parents, medical personnel, educators and others to jail or prison for providing gender-affirming health care to minors and adults.

Lawmakers supporting these bills refer to transgender people’s lives as a “woke social experiment” or “left-wing gender insanity.” Partly because of this rhetoric, trans and gender-expansive people are disproportionately targeted by violence, both inside and outside the criminal justice system. Transgender people are more than four times more likely than others to be the victims of violent crime, according to one study, and are more commonly targeted by sexual assaults in prisons and jails. Amid the noise of the latest culture war, we rarely hear the voices of trans people themselves, especially those who are incarcerated. So we gathered their voices from prisons around the country, conducting interviews over the phone, via video visitation and through Plexiglas in a prison visiting room.

We also commissioned artist Chris Cortez to draw portraits of each person as they would want to be seen if they had more agency over their appearance: what jewelry, makeup, clothing and hairstyle they would choose if they were not incarcerated.

A major takeaway: When prison systems refuse to let trans people live authentically and safely as themselves, that refusal becomes part of their punishment.


Willow Eva Williams is a 58-year-old trans woman who has served 27 years in Texas men’s prisons. Williams is a poet and former small business owner.

I’m kind of like a loner. It’s not that I’m an introvert; I love people. But I avoid conflict by being by myself.

I never go to chow. I come out of my cell, shower, go to the commissary and go back into the cell. I pass the time playing video games and watching movies, and I’m writing a book of poems.

I would like to go to the dayroom and interact with people. But I can’t just walk up to somebody and [say], “Hey, how’s it going? My name is Willow. What’s your name?” They might take it the wrong way.

When I got to prison 25-plus years ago, I told them I was transgender immediately. The CO was like, “Please don’t tell nobody that. You tell the warden that, they’re going to put you in seg” — that’s solitary confinement 23 hours a day.

Back then, I didn’t know about the hormone pills, but I had always lived like I live now. I’d been on my own since I was 16, being me. Or trying to be me.

I started staying away from people because of the stuff that used to happen with my pops. When I was 6, he pulled a pistol on me. I was in the kitchen helping my stepmom cook, and I had my hand on my hip. My father grabbed me, slammed me up against the refrigerator and said, “Men don’t do that!”

I was traumatized and blocked this experience out until 1999, when I was gang raped at Coffield Unit men’s prison. Back then, nobody cared about whatever happened to prisoners. There was no [Prison Rape Elimination Act] back then.

The incident started when a guy came up behind me and grabbed me in the shower. I turned and pushed him and he fell. Everybody started laughing. He got irate.

After a few months passed, I was thinking, It’s nothing. Then my door rolled open one night. One inmate after another assaulted me. Fourteen different individuals. An officer stood there and watched the whole thing, chanting, “Yeah! Do it!” I couldn’t fight them. I was tired. So I just lay there. Let them finish.

I went to the infirmary. They basically said, “You’re alright. You’ll heal.” They gave me some triple antibiotic ointment, and that was it. No paperwork, no nothing. They just like covered it up, [like] Get him off the unit. That’s how I ended up here. I’ve been in nine or 10 prison units in the system, in 27 years.

About five years later, in 2014, I just woke up one morning and I didn’t care. Like something just washed over me. I was thinking, You want to put me in seg, put me in seg. So I filed all the necessary paperwork to get on hormone medications. It was a yearslong process. Finally, in 2018 I started. The treatment makes me feel better about myself.

Inmates, they vary just like anybody else — like any other human beings. Some will [say], “Man, I don’t care about that. Whatever your preference is, I ain’t got nothing to do with that. God gave you that body, you do what you want with it.” … And then you got other ones: “Man. Nah! Get your ass out of here. We don’t need no punks over here.” I’m like, “I’m not a punk. I’m transgender. There’s a difference.”

The officers still call me by the wrong name and pronouns all the time. They’ll say “sir,” or “Mr. Williams.” I always say, “Stop. Do not call me sir. If you need to refer to me, just refer to me as ‘Williams.’” If I say nothing, that’s giving the illusion that I’m OK with what you’re saying to me, and I’m not. Because it’s not me. I don’t want to hide who I am.

I’m balding, and there’s nothing I can do. They don’t let you get lace-front [wigs] here. They don’t let you get heels here. They don’t let you get blouses. The bra that they have, if you alter it to lift your breasts, they’ll say, “Hey, give me that. It’s altered. I’m going to write you a case because you altered state property.”

So I picture myself back home in my house, wearing the clothes I want to wear. I do that a lot. I know that I’m gonna be happy. I know that I’m gonna look the way that I want to look. And I’m going to live the rest of my life as who I am: Willow.

Williams is serving a life sentence for charges that include sexual assault of a child.

In response to questions about Williams’ prison intake, her gang rape by other incarcerated people, a lack of medical care after the assault and misgendering by staff, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s communications department wrote, “TDCJ is fully compliant with PREA standards.”


Ronnie Fuller is a 45-year-old trans man serving time in a Georgia women’s prison. In 2023, he submitted an affidavit in support of a lawsuit challenging the state’s blanket ban on providing gender-affirming surgery to incarcerated people. Fuller is an ordained minister through the International Christian College and Seminary’s correspondence program.

I’ve identified as a male since I was a kid, but I didn’t understand why. I’d never even heard of the word “transgender” until a few years into my prison sentence, and that started in 2004. I can’t say that I needed to change my appearance at all, because I’d always looked masculine. But now I understand why I always felt different, and now I can live my truth.

Around 2016 I found out that the state had started giving testosterone shots to inmates. I went to my mental health counselor, and she put in for me. It took them over a year and a half for me to even go see the endocrinologist to start the shots. Every time I would have an appointment scheduled, it would be canceled. That was really stressful because I knew other people going out and seeing the endocrinologist. I just didn’t understand what was taking so long with me to get it.

In 2018, I finally saw an endocrinologist for exactly 10 minutes. I started my shots a week after that. That’s also when I started asking for top surgery to remove my breasts.

Once you start the transition process — when your voice changes and hair starts growing on your face — you’re left feeling like a bearded woman because you still have breasts. You feel like something from the circus.

Prison staff have said that the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) won’t pay for the surgery. Or they’ll say that they’re already giving me hormones, the treatment that’s within GDC standards.

A few years ago, after I wrote to the assistant commissioner in charge of health services, I really thought it was going somewhere. But it seems like they’re stalling. They’ve said my surgery is before the gender dysphoria committee. Now they’re saying a physician is reviewing it.

When you think the process is moving, you just get excited. And then it doesn’t happen. And the more you ask, it kind of makes you seem like you’re a troublemaker. And they treat you differently. The grievance process is a part of the policy, and it says you’re not supposed to be retaliated against. But you know, that’s just a piece of paper with some words. Because they will retaliate. And then when you do need help for something — it could be as simple as wanting to change your room or anything like that — it’s hard to get help.

I know three women who’ve had breast cancer. It was medically necessary to have their breasts removed. But then they were approved to get their breasts reconstructed. That’s really a cosmetic surgery. When prison officials talk about it, it’s like they want the woman to feel “whole and complete.” So my argument is, the removal of my breasts will make me feel whole and complete. And so this should be no different.

I’m a big believer in my relationship with God. I want to be the best person that God created me to be. But I’m also human too. And it’s really difficult when you’re surrounded by so many people who are hateful. This might sound crazy, but it seems like there’s a requirement for a lot of staff to come and work in an environment like this, that they have to be hateful. They kind of laugh [at me]. Or they’ll be like, “This is a women’s facility.”

Staff who treat you like a human being, they’re considered the outcasts or “inmate lovers.” Other staff members think that they’re doing something personal with you.

Sometimes even inmates still say “she.” So I’d rather just isolate myself. But then that gets lonely. Put aside the gender dysphoria diagnosis, being transgender — just being a human being in corrections is hard. I miss my family. I want to go home.

Fuller is serving a life sentence for murder.

The communications office of the Georgia Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment.


Reiyn Keohane is a 30-year-old trans woman serving time in a Florida men’s prison. Keohane was the lead plaintiff in the 2016 lawsuit that led to Florida providing hormone therapy to transgender people in the state’s prisons.

When I was a teenager, my psychiatrist diagnosed me with gender identity disorder, as it was called in the early 2000s. At 14, I was starting this social transition of going by a female name and pronouns. One of the medical treatments available back then was hormone therapy at age 16 with parental permission. My mother refused, which caused a lot of fights. I tried to kill myself multiple times. I was extremely depressed and miserable.

So I moved out as soon as I was able to. I had some financial help from my grandfather, who was actually very supportive. He’s a career Marine, did four tours in Vietnam and was awarded the Silver Star. When I first came out as trans at 14, his reaction was, “Alright, that’s cool. What’s for dinner?” He never got a name or pronoun wrong.

Once I was living on my own, I started getting on hormones myself. I was on them only two months or so before I went to jail.

I was in county jail from 2013 to 2016. They said, “Give us your records, and we will give you the hormones.” I gave them the records and the prescription notices and everything. And then they just never did it.

I was told the prison system would do a better job of taking care of it, so [I would] get them in there for sure. So when I ended up in prison, I had all my medical records and prescriptions [ready].

But prison officials were like, “Because you were interrupted by being in [county jail], you weren’t taking them when you came to the Department of Corrections. So we’re not gonna give them to you.”

I’m pretty sure that they actually quoted the “freeze-frame” policy to me, which is like, “Hormones will only be prescribed to those who have documentation that they were taking them prior to incarceration.” Even though I did have that, they still denied me. They just make totally arbitrary decisions and absolutely refuse to change them. They may as well flip a coin to determine what they’ll actually do on any given day.

The day that me and the ACLU filed the lawsuit against the Department of Corrections, DOC took me to outpatient endocrinology and went and got the hormones. Because they knew they were wrong, even under their own policy, which was found unconstitutional.

Before I started hormones, it was hard to control my anger. There’s a lot of predators and nasty people in this place and my immediate reaction was to get very angry and fight them. I would have an adrenaline spike, then headaches and shakiness, and then I would crash. It felt really bad.

For whatever reason, taking hormones made it so that I get that kind of response to things…basically never. I still get angry, but it doesn’t feel like a thundercloud in my head where I can’t even think or see through it.

Even with hormones, it’s still so dehumanizing to be defined by a body part that I would absolutely get rid of if I could. I would pay for it myself, and they won’t even let me do that. Mental health and officers are like, “Well, that’s prison. That’s how it is. You’ve got to deal with that.” Like that’s part of the punishment.

Another punishment was getting my head forcibly shaved. They’d take me out of the cell, put me in the chair and then [hold] me there. I would just go limp. I wasn’t fighting or trying to get up or run away. It was passive resistance.

They made an even bigger deal of the haircuts when I was suing them for it. They would call in an extraction team and have them drag me out of the cell and use violence to forcibly cut my hair. They would shove me down into the wall or into the ground. Or they would bodyslam me into the wall.

One sergeant took the clippers himself because the inmate barber refused to have anything to do with this. He used the hair clippers to shave my head. And cut my scalp in the process of doing that.

In 2017, a year after I filed my lawsuit, the judge in my case ordered an injunction [to stop] this hair-shaving process. He said that it was totally unnecessary, didn’t have any kind of obvious penal justification and was just causing harm. So he ordered them not to do it until the decision in the case. But even when they were under a federal order that they could not cut my hair, officers still wrote me [disciplinary reports] for refusing haircuts. They also put me in confinement for refusing to get haircuts. Those punishments are on my record.

Nobody wants the government coming in and telling you that you have to wear these clothes, you can’t wear what you want to wear. I never wore boxers in my life until the government tried to make me. … How does the government have an interest in forcing people to wear a certain kind of underwear?

Keohane is serving a 15-year sentence for attempted murder.

The communications office of the Florida Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment.


April Turner Cassadine is a 32-year-old trans woman who has been incarcerated in a Tennessee men’s prison since 2016. Prior to her incarceration, she won titles in plus-size trans beauty pageants.

I was identifying as transgender before I came into prison at age 23. I had always felt like a woman: I started dressing up at 13, and I knew then that I felt like I was in the right body in the right place.

The first time I first got arrested, I was placed in a women’s jail by accident, which made the news nationwide. When I was locked up again, I wanted to be housed in a women’s prison, but unfortunately, that couldn’t happen.

In November 2023, during 9 p.m. count time, an officer came into my cell and said he was conducting a random cell search. I was [already] asleep, so I told him I needed to put on a T-shirt and slippers so I could leave my cell while the search was conducted. That’s when he grabbed my arm, pulled his private part out and forced me to give him oral sex. I knew he was an authority. I knew he had power over me. So I knew I had to do what I had to do.

But then it kept happening. It took a lot for me to report him because I was afraid. He was calling me out of my name — he called me a “trifling Black bitch.” When he started threatening my family on the outside, that’s when I came forward and told another officer.

Officials didn’t really believe me at first, but I had [saved] his DNA in my mouth and spat it in a shirt. They fired him, but I still don’t feel safe. I’m still traumatized and I have nightmares.

That wasn’t the first time something like this had happened to me while incarcerated. I got stabbed before by one of my cellies because I wouldn’t engage in sexual activity with him. He stabbed me 13 times.

The [officer raping me] felt worse than being stabbed because I felt betrayed. He was supposed to keep me safe. And I’m constantly going through retaliation and harassment. Staff have been coming at me, telling me I’m a homewrecker and a whore, because I think he was married. Inmates ask me for sexual favors.

In late February. I was assaulted again, by an inmate. He was asking me for sexual favors, which I rejected. He pulled a knife on me and beat me with a broomstick. My arm was swollen real bad, and my wrist was busted open. They were supposedly charging both of us, but they put me in the hole and kept him in the general population.

Recently I’ve been signing up for mental health care, and they’ve been ignoring my requests. And they just abruptly stopped my hormones. I don’t know why. When you stop a transgender person’s hormones, you just fuck with them mentally, emotionally. I think they’re doing it to punish me.

Cassadine is serving a 25-year sentence for second-degree murder.

The communications office of the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDC) did not respond to The Marshall Project’s questions about the former corrections officer whom Cassadine reported for sexual violence; reprisals by remaining staff; or assaults by other incarcerated people.

The former corrections officer Cassadine reported for sexual assault did not respond to social media outreach, email or certified letters delivered to addresses found in a public records database. When reached by phone, he declined to speak with us. His employment records, obtained through a public records request, did not contain information about his separation from the TDC but did list four disciplinary infractions, including one for “insubordination/negligence/use of force.”

Marianna Bacallao of WPLN contributed reporting.

Beth Schwartzapfel Twitter Email is a staff writer who often covers addiction and health, probation and parole, and LGBTQ+ issues. She is the reporter and host of Violation, a podcast examining an unthinkable crime, second chances, and who pulls the levers of power in the justice system.