A Different Prison Environment

Editor’s note: content warning for rape/sexual coercion 

Fear is a tricky mistress. She wears many masks and often fools us into believing the story society wants us to tell.

I recently was moved from Washington State Reformatory (WSR) to Twin Rivers Unit (TRU) with a 3 month layover in the solitary confinement of the Intensive Management Unit (IMU). Now that I’m here I am experiencing a distinct and acute feeling of culture shock. Normally I have no problem moving from the cultural norms of one group of people to a radically different set of cultural norms of another group. But in this case…

I’m still in a Washington state prison, the rules as written are the same, many of the c/o’s are the same exact individuals I have dealt with at WSR and in the IMU, and most of the cultural norms are identical to the norms at WSR. However, there are some basic assumptions that are lacking which make it radically different in subtle was which keep surprising me. When this happens it is extremely disorienting and leaves me feeling shaken and unsure of the very reality I am interacting with.

I do not want to give an impression that this is only to the bad, since there are many other out trans women here (a dozen or so) this has in a way “normalized” transness. I don’t have to constantly correct and argue with others about my pronouns, I introduce myself as “Amber” and I’ll have people ask “Do you prefer she/her?” without any further prompting. There has even been one instance of one cis man telling another to wait until I’m done with my shower before going to the shower area because “there’s a girl in there and she needs some privacy.” I can’t even articulate how nice it is to have other trans women that I can talk to, especially nerdy redneck trans women who I share a lot of common lived experience with.

That being said, there are many things here that I simply do not understand and some which outright scare me. I have only been here two weeks and I have already witnessed someone taken to the hole for a PREA investigation because their cellie (who was chosen for them by the unit Sgt) told them “suck my d*** or I’ll file PREA on you.” There is so many things wrong with this that I don’t even know where to begin.

It’s not just the leveraging of intimidation for sex (which is rape) there is also the aspect of the threat itself being filing a false PREA complaint (which is snitching) and taken together cause harm to the individual on the receiving end of the false report and causes harm to everyone who need to file a legitimate PREA report (which is not snitching, just making that clear). Furthermore, apparently this tactic works or is normalized enough to be a pervasive problem because after it happened I was regaled with dozens of similar stories of many people using the “do thing or else I’ll tell lies to the cops” tactic.

I am completely shocked by this and cannot understand people acting in so completely a mercenary manner as to use any means necessary to get what they want with a complete disregard to the needs and wellbeing of the people around them. I am used to physical and verbal violence in prison, I am not used to violence which leverages the systemic oppression of the DOC to intimidate and harm others.

As a result many people’s small habits are different. For example, people do not stand with their back to the wall while standing in line, instead people make a point of being sociable as to prevent others from going back to the cell and writing a kite on them. This creates an edge to social interactions as people maneuver in conversation with the feral grace of duelists. I am used to uncertainty in every conversation, but it has been a long time since high school where power and social standing is traded in the coin of gossip and enforced with mutually assured (social) destruction.

And so, I am afraid. I wasn’t very good at this game back then. Sure, I’ve grown up and have since learned how to read a person’s intentions at a glance and play at “real politik” with a fair amount of skill, but when I can be placed back in the hole at any time on the whim of anyone who cares to make something up about me, I find the stakes to be not to my liking. Say what you will, but playing for the stakes of possibly being punched in the face is wonderfully simplistic by comparison.

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