Editor’s note: This article is an opinion piece written by a former convict and based on his perceptions of life in federal prison. In its original version, it suggested that prison rape is rare. In fact, according to the advocacy group Just Detention International, 200,000 adults and children are sexually abused in American detention facilities every year. This trauma can carry serious emotional and physical consequences, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and the risk of exposure to sexually transmitted infections.
The most bloodcurdling sound I’ve ever heard came from the throat of a prisoner as a 10-gallon vat of boiling-hot cooking oil was dumped on his head in the chow hall at Kentucky’s Ashland federal prison. The man—a huge, strapping bodybuilder—had slapped a small, effeminate gay inmate two days prior for laughing at him as he busted out of a poker game.
The bodybuilding bully was carried out on a stretcher, never again seen on the compound, and the gay man who meted out the prison justice got the minimum amount of time allowable (two years) tacked onto his already long sentence. No one ever slapped him again, at least that I’m aware of.
The question of how Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning) will fare in a male prison now that the WikiLeaks informant has come out as a transgender individual is impossible to answer with any degree of certainty. It could be terrible. But based on my personal experience serving time in federal prisons—and in contrast with the horrible images of repeated sexual assault that many have no doubt conjured up already—transgender and gay inmates are often treated quite well.
To be sure, many transgender inmates face a daunting life behind bars. A 2012 report from the Department of Justice found that more than a third of transgender former inmates were sexually assaulted in prison. The same report found that transgender women are 13 times more likely to be assaulted than other inmates. (The Department of Justice does not oversee military prisons such as Fort Leavenworth, where Manning will serve his sentence. Such statistics for military prisons aren’t available; the scourge of male rape in the military itself is well documented.)
But life in prison is more complex than many statistics suggest. When I was in the joint, rape wasn’t just something you could let happen to you. In fact, you’d better get another set of eyes in the back of your head if you want to force yourself on someone and make them an unwilling participant in a sex act. You see, the victim can slip up behind you on any given day and stick a shank in your ribs—or pay someone else to do it. And this potential for retribution serves as the best deterrent against unwanted sexual advances, and keeps the general order in prisons as well.
From what I witnessed, it was quite common for a transgender inmate to get “married” behind bars. And her “husband” would, in all probability, be that big, dreaded prison dude known as “Bubba.” And Bubba wouldn’t have to say a word to the other prisoners in regards to keeping their grimy mitts off his “wife.”
Others took up prostitution. In those cases, Bubba would become a pimp, and both of them would be “prison rich” as the johns line up outside her cell to pay for her sexual favors. As Bob Seger once sang—and it’s doubly true in prison—“they got the fire down below.”
Another option, although highly unlikely, is that the feds will allow Manning to have sexual-reassignment surgery performed (which she may or may not desire), and in that case she could be transferred to a women’s prison. But this scenario is truly a long shot.
One thing is almost a certainty: celibacy probably won’t be an option for Chelsea Manning, but she will have choices in regard to how she wants to spend her years behind bars. With that said, we need to keep in mind that one person’s prison is another person’s palace. Chelsea Manning could become the queen bee.