Cruel & Unusual Punishment: ‘Trans Supremacy’ Inside Women’s Prisons

Produced by: Kelsey Bolar & Andrea Mew

Champion Women Profile Written by: Charlotte Hays

When California’s “Transgender Respect, Agency, and Dignity Act”—Senate Bill 132—was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom in 2021, it set the stage for male prisoners to be housed with female prisoners. The male prisoners do not have to be in the process of “gender-affirming” treatment.

“We hadn’t really known what was going on,” said Amie Ichikawa, a founder of Woman II Woman, a support group for incarcerated women. “The bill was passed during COVID. I had no idea until the implementation started. Then I got calls, letters, and emails saying ‘Help us. There are men in our prison.’ I didn’t understand what was going on, but I’m not one to doubt when I’m getting a message from every yard and it’s the same thing. So, I researched the law, pulled it up, and read it about 20 times, and it just got worse every time I read it.

“The bill is marketed as if these rights, respect, agency, and dignity are being given back to a sector of the incarcerated community that it was robbed from, but nobody in prison has respect, agency, or dignity. That goes out the door as soon as you get in your handcuffs. So, to provide these special rights to a small privileged group that includes predators and manipulators has created a huge imbalance in power and an untouchable privileged group that is basically running the prison system right now.”

Amie Ichikawa, 42, now free after serving nearly five years at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, said that some male prisoners claim non-male identities because female prisons are, as a general rule, less violent than men’s prisons. “There was a male prisoner who had single-cell status in his all-male prison because he assaulted his bunkmates,” Ichikawa said. “He had been isolated in the male prison but they put him directly into the general population here in a room with seven ladies right off the bus.

“The cells were originally designed to house four people,” Ichikawa continued, “but they put in bunk beds so they have eight people. So, there are four bunk beds, a toilet, a shower, two sinks, a little desk, and a chair. And one window that faces outside, one window that faces in the hallway, and your door that is locked except for at the top of the hour and work release. But other than work release, that’s where you live. It’s a very small space. You share about six square feet with your bunky, and it’s already very tight when it’s all women, and then you put in a 6’2 man with a penis in there and it gets very crowded.

“I have a Freedom of Information Act response that says everybody who’s transferred from any male prison identifies as a woman,” Ichikawa said, “but they don’t even have to do that. The law states you can be non-binary, and if you’re non-binary, somehow the women’s prison becomes an option for you. There are some people who have fully transitioned, and there are people who can say they’re in the process, though that doesn’t seem to be the case, and there are some who have absolutely no intention of transitioning and are there just to abuse women and manipulate the system.”

Many men who identify as transgender women are sexually attracted to women. Though sex is illegal in every prison, “There’s always going to be some level of sex, and not everybody’s going to be ok with that,” said Ichikawa. “I remember how uncomfortable it was when there were women having sexual relations in my room.”

The forced integration of male prisoners into the female population has led to situations, Ichikawa said, where women have become unwilling participants in sexual misconduct. This was to be expected, according to Ichikawa.

“There are no honeymoon suites in prison,” she said. “These rooms house eight people, so if two people have sex, or if someone comes out of bounds to have sex, the entire room is involved, with or without their approval.”

Another problem, according to Ichikawa, is that male prisoners often import the “politics” of the men’s prison into their new environment. “In the men’s prison, there’s a lot of segregation,” Ichikawa said. “This is based on your security level, your race, your gang affiliation. And we don’t play that in the women’s prison. We don’t do any of that. We’re just women. There is no separation of security levels. So, you have people that are levels one through four all housed together, meaning there’s, you know, murderers and shoplifters together and it hasn’t really been an issue, but with male prisoners, it certainly is now. I learned about a male prisoner who tried to racially divide TV time, using racial slurs, trying to bring male prison politics into the women’s facility.”

This triggered the female inmates, said Ichikawa, who noted that most of them had been battered in severely abusive relationships—both verbal and physical. The male prisoner, she said, had provoked these women until he ended up attacked and stabbed.

“This isn’t living when you’re in a constant state of hypervigilance and you never really rest. What is this? It’s dying,” Ichikawa said. “They’re living dead people. Nobody can heal or rehabilitate under these circumstances. Not the men, not the women. Nobody. This is not benefiting anyone except for predators with predatory intentions,” she insisted.

Ichikawa has an unusual background for a convicted felon: she is the daughter of a retired Los Angeles County sheriff. “I grew up in Torrance in what I thought was a normal, happy home. I am an only child,” she told IWF. “I did struggle with some identity issues growing up. Being half Japanese and half white, I didn’t have a really strong cultural identity. My dad’s parents, my paternal grandparents, are internment survivors.”

Her story took a turn in 2009. “I had a great job,” she recalls. “I was working at a center that teaches adults with developmental disabilities and traumatic brain injuries life skills. It was my dream job. Nevertheless, I was selling drugs on the weekends because I wanted to maintain my independence. I was still really lonely. I still had that void. I still needed to fill that with something. And I ended up meeting a man, and within a six-month period, my life turned completely upside down.”

Ichikawa was convicted of kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon. The victim, she said, was a woman who owed money to her boyfriend. This woman survived though “traumatized.” Ichikawa described the incident as “just so ugly. I can’t believe it really happened.” But it did. As Ichikawa was parting from her boyfriend, she heard a police helicopter. “It was like the worst episode of Cops I’ve ever seen, but it was my life,” she told IWF. “I had sergeants and lieutenants yelling at me, like, how could you do this? Several knew my dad and were pretty taken aback to see me in this situation. I lost it, totally lost it, and was booked for like eight or nine felony charges.”

Although Ichikawa faced almost five years in prison, she was lucky in one aspect of her life. She had a supportive family. “My dad was my first visitor,” she recalled. “He came the following morning as soon as the sun came up. And he came to see me every month for almost five years. It was a little harder for my mom, having to hear the retelling of the commission of the crime, but she was a faithful visitor too, but my dad never ever missed a visit. And it’s not a fun drive from LA to Chowchilla. The drive is four hours of nothing. And he never hesitated. And even while I was fighting my case, he would come to see me twice a week because he was still on active duty.”

Ichikawa was released from Chowchilla in August 2013. She and two other women who had been incarcerated at Chowchilla founded Woman II Woman in March 2021. But as requests for help from desperate women came in after male prisoners began to be transferred to Chowchilla, Ichikawa realized that providing help was not going to be easy.

“I couldn’t get help anywhere,” she told IWF. “I contacted Senators, I contacted Congress people and Assembly members. My local Representative at the time was Maxine Waters, and I got the same letter from her that I got from the late Senator Dianne Feinstein saying that they were going to stand tall with their trans siblings and make sure that they received visibility and respect in the state of California.

“After a neo-Nazi white supremacist gang member from the men’s prison showed up and was using the phone in the day room, yelling, telling his friends to ‘get over here, it’s a gold mine,’ I got several phone calls that day from women who were just terrified saying, ‘When are they going to do something about this? Have you called the ACLU?’ And I thought, ‘How do I tell them that the ACLU isn’t an option anymore—that the places that you thought you could turn to for help are no longer available for women in need?’

“And I just kept pushing, I kept digging, I kept searching, and one day I just was like, ‘God, I don’t know what to do.’”

Help didn’t arrive until U.K. activist Kellie-Jay Keen—Posie Parker—introduced Amie to a group called Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF). Finally, someone was willing to listen. In November of 2021, WoLF filed a civil rights lawsuit against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation on behalf of Woman II Woman and four incarcerated women. WoLF is asking that SB 132 be overturned and declared unconstitutional.

Far from being supportive, the ACLU challenged the lawsuit. “The ACLU made a motion to intervene on behalf of two people in men’s prison, two people in women’s prison who are men, and they’re saying that our lawsuit is transphobic, bigoted, and a hateful complaint that has no standing. They are claiming it’s fear-mongering and spreading right-wing hateful rhetoric, which it isn’t. It’s a very basic lawsuit. It says that women’s most basic constitutional and civil rights are being violated by being forcibly housed in a coed prison. If they were sentenced to a coed prison, there might be justification, but they were sentenced to a women’s prison that is no longer a women’s prison.”

For Ichikawa, the opportunity to help a particularly vulnerable segment of the population is providential. “My arrest was the beginning of my advocacy,” she told IWF. “That is where it all started. I’m not happy that these things happened, but I definitely wouldn’t change much, aside from my crime. But at least that got me here, so I can be an advocate for vulnerable, incarcerated women.”

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