Inside The Brutal Struggle For Trans Care In Prison

Inside The Brutal Struggle For Trans Care In Prison

Trans people across the country are facing an assault on their right to exist — but being transgender in prison is uniquely difficult.

By Jessica Schulberg  |  Published Nov 28, 2023

The first person she came out to as transgender was her pen pal in New Zealand. Incarcerated in a men’s prison in Washington state, facing a sentence of life without parole, she had no idea how or when she could safely present as female, but choosing her name felt like a good first step. Her pen pal recommended she start by writing down names she liked and crossing off those she didn’t want to use.

She was drawn to “Guinevere” because of her Celtic ancestry, but she could never remember how it was spelled. She liked “Wren,” but felt that naming herself after a small, twitchy brown bird was a bit too on the nose. She landed on “Amber,” the name of her favorite stone. Made from fossilized tree resin, it’s one of the few precious gems that was once a living thing.

As a child, Amber Kim kept her hair long and jumped at the chance to wear her sister’s clothes when they played dress-up. She realized at a very young age that she was “no good at being a boy but not allowed to be a girl,” she told a psychiatrist during a 2022 evaluation. “She felt that the way she had to move through the world was a ‘lie,’” the psychiatrist noted in his evaluation report.

Kim’s conservative Christian parents sometimes mocked her for being too effeminate, she said, and at times punished her with physical violence. Some of her earliest memories are of her father beating her with a leather belt. Her mother would stand nearby and count the lashings — usually between 20 and 25, Kim told the psychiatrist. The beatings continued once or twice a week until she was 13 and began to fight back, she said, which eventually resulted in time in juvenile detention. She still has scars across her back: her “tiger stripes,” as she calls them. 

When Kim was 14, her father found women’s clothing in her bedroom. He called her into a room where he was cleaning his guns to discuss his discovery. It was the first time she felt he had implicitly threatened to kill her, she told the psychiatrist. 

Kim became depressed, anxious and suicidal. She sometimes hid out in the woods for days and repeatedly tried to move out, but her parents blocked her each time. In December 2006, during her senior year of high school, she and her father got into a fight over her failed attempt to move out. At one point, she told the psychiatrist that her father told her, “You are my child and I will do with you what I please, and that includes putting you in the ground if I damn well please.” It felt like a threat.

Kim fatally stabbed her father and killed her motherwhen she returned home. Kim, 18 at the time, was sentenced to die in prison. Her plans of coming out now seemed impossible.

Throughout the country, transgender people are facing an assault on their right to exist. Depending on where they live, they can be blocked from accessing life-saving gender-affirming health care, being identified by their correct name and pronouns, playing sports and even using public restrooms. But being transgender in prison is uniquely difficult because of the near-total control the state exercises over the people in its custody — including their housing, health care, jobs, clothing and even relationships.

Trans people face disproportionate rates of incarceration, and once locked up, they are disproportionately likely to be victims of violence. Many prisons, especially those in rural areas, attract conservative staffers with transphobic views who proactively endanger trans prisoners. Unlike people on the outside, trans prisoners cannot move to a state with more progressive policies. Even if they could, there is no state that makes it easy for trans people to access gender-affirming housing and health care in prison. 

Each state and the federal government treat trans prisoners differently, but the default in most places is to house people in prisons that match the sex they were assigned at birth. Some places have explicit restrictions on gender-affirming health care; others don’t even acknowledge the existence of trans people in their policies. Even the places that theoretically allow gender-affirming housing and health care typically grant permission on a case-by-case basis after the individual seeking care navigates an opaque and complex bureaucratic process. 

“To be transgender in prison versus on the outside — it’s beyond horrible,” said George Brown, a psychiatry professor at East Tennessee State University and one of the authors of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health’s current Standards of Care. “Because of all of the lack of control over all aspects of life, for example, battling for just underwear.”

I spoke with Kim for the first time in March 2020, when her prison became one of the first in the country to experience a COVID-19 outbreak. We kept in touch, discussing her 15-year fight for gender-affirming health care and housing in prison. When she first got to prison in 2008, Washington’s Department of Corrections had no policies in place to address the specific needs of the trans people it incarcerated. Every aspect of living life as a woman has required Kim to fight against a system that aggressively enforces the status quo. Today, Washington’s prison system is on track to have some of the most progressive policies for trans prisoners in the U.S. — largely a result of Kim and others advocating for themselves and their community.

“The thing to understand about the DOC is that it is an inherently conservative organization even though it claims not to be,” Kim said in an interview with HuffPost. “They claim inclusion and diversity while still causing all these harms. They infract people for hugging!”

“All of the organization that we’ve had to do was literally to create space for our own existence,” she said.

Washington’s corrections department declined to answer specific questions for this story.

“It is DOC’s position that a person’s right to safe and humane treatment does not change based on their gender identity,” Rachel Ericson, DOC’s deputy communications director, wrote in an email. “The department has come a long way in its care and treatment for those in our custody regardless of whether they are transgender or not.”

‘I Was Scared All The Time’

Because of the nature of her crime, Kim was required to spend at least four years in a closed custody prison, which is a facility for those believed to be among the most dangerous. She was surrounded by “racism, homophobia, violence,” Kim said. “Literal neo-Nazis with swastika tattoos.” 

The other prisoners called her “twig,” a reference to her 5-foot-9-inch, 125-pound frame. Some of them beat her; she can recall two fights she believes would have ended in rape if she had not fended off the assailants. Being labeled a snitch would have only put her in more danger, so she kept the assaults to herself. “There was absolutely no way I could come out in closed custody,” she said.

She worked to stay out of trouble and complete the classes and rehabilitative programs available to her, hoping to earn a transfer into a medium custody facility. She also enlisted outside help, sending dozens of letters a week to any prison reform or abolition activists whose addresses she could find. But after five years, she had gotten nowhere. Desperate, she quietly disclosed to the DOC that she was transgender.

At the time, the DOC’s only policy related to transgender housing came from the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a law intended to deter sexual assault in prison. The law, which was passed in 2003 but not implemented until 2012, gave state prison agencies millions of dollars to implement its standards and reporting requirements. Critics of the law say it is ineffective at preventing assault, and point to ways it is used to punish consensual acts of affection — and even weaponized through false accusations, especially against transgender prisoners. 

Under PREA, corrections departments are required to conduct housing reviews for incarcerated trans people at least twice a year to determine, on a case-by-case basis, where they should be imprisoned. The law requires the individual’s views on their own safety “be given serious consideration,” but with no meaningful guidance on how housing decisions should be made, these reviews often amount to little more than a box-checking activity. 

“DOC remains in compliance with PREA and considers their policy an additional layer of fair and equitable processes for the humane treatment of the incarcerated,” Ericson wrote in an email. 

After Kim disclosed to staff that she was trans, she begged to go to the medical unit, in hopes of being diagnosed and treated for gender dysphoria, the distress a person experiences when their gender identity does not match their sex assigned at birth. Untreated gender dysphoria is linked to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, self-harm and suicide. 

Kim spent weeks in the medical unit in de facto solitary confinement with limited access to showers before she was finally interviewed by a staffer about her housing assignment. But nothing changed. She returned to her cell with no gender dysphoria diagnosis, no treatment and no prospects of moving somewhere safer. And now, she faced additional scrutiny from people who wanted to know why she had disappeared.

“I was scared all the time that if somebody figured out I was trans, I’d be done for,” she said.  

After her fifth denial for a transfer, Kim appealed to DOC Headquarters in 2016 with an urgent plea: “I’m in closed custody, I’m small, I’m trans, I’m being victimized all the fucking time here, please do something,” as she later summarized the letter.

Kim never heard back about her appeal, but weeks later, she was sent to a medium security prison at Monroe Correctional Complex, about 40 miles north of Seattle. She was still scared to come out there, but she had resolved to do it. 

“I got on the bus as Twig, and I got off the bus and said, ‘I’m Amber and I use she/her pronouns,’” she said. 

“Everyone was like, ‘What the fuck is this shit?’” Kim said. “Every moment, someone was using the three-letter f-word to describe me. Every moment someone was heckling me. But nobody was punching me in the face just for being trans, so I called that a win.”

‘We Had To Fight For Every Little Thing’

In 1976, the Supreme Court held that because prisoners are forced to rely on prison authorities for their medical needs, the government is obligated to provide prisoners with medical care. Refusing to treat serious medical needs because of deliberate indifference, the court held, amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

Deliberate indifference is an incredibly high standard to prove, and plenty of people who experience medical neglect in prison find no relief in the courts. But the 1976 case did create a legal precedent to compel prisons to treat gender dysphoria. In 2011, for example, a federal appellate panel invoked the case in a decision overturning a Wisconsin law that banned prison doctors from prescribing hormone treatment or gender-affirming surgery to incarcerated trans people. 

Hailey Ockinga came out as trans in 2013, the same year as Kim. She was about five years into her prison sentence, and she didn’t have enough time left to want to fight to go to the women’s prison. But she did want gender-affirming care. She was one of three openly trans women at Airway Heights Corrections Center, a men’s prison in the eastern, more conservative part of Washington. 

The corrections department’s unofficial policy was, “We don’t deal with transgenders,” Ockinga said in an interview for the University of Minnesota’s transgender oral history project.

By refusing to acknowledge the existence of trans women in their custody, prison officials were also ignoring the women’s untreated gender dysphoria. If they acknowledged that the women were suffering from gender dysphoria, after all, they would be legally obligated to provide treatment.  

Ockinga knew that the only way to change the prison’s policies was through litigation — or at least the threat of a lawsuit. 

Under federal law, before an individual can litigate over prison conditions, they are required to first exhaust all administrative remedies. Ockinga and the other trans women at Airway Heights started filing grievances over the prison’s refusal to diagnose their gender dysphoria. 

“Every step of the way, we let every single person know, we expect you to deny our grievances, we expect you to deny our requests, we’re just doing the pre-work of filing a lawsuit against you,” Ockinga said. 

In 2015, the Justice Department came out in support of Ashley Diamond, a trans woman incarcerated in Georgia who was suing the state’s corrections department for cutting off her hormone treatment. 

“Terminating her hormone therapy created painful side effects, including chest pains, heart palpitations, clinically significant depression, and increased thoughts of suicide, hopelessness and anxiety,” a Justice Department lawyer wrote in a statement of interest in the case. “According to Ms. Diamond, her gender dysphoria is so severe that she has attempted suicide and self-castration on multiple occasions during her incarceration.” 

Georgia’s State Department of Corrections agreed to settle the lawsuit in early 2016, and rescinded its policy of denying hormone therapy to people who did not receive it before they were incarcerated. 

“Washington knew that now we have precedent, and they just started caving on a bunch more demands,” Ockinga said. “But we had to fight for every little thing.”

Still, there was no department-wide policy around gender-affirming hormone therapy or surgeries, so the level of care available often came down to the individual preferences of the doctor an individual was assigned to see. Kim said she was ignored the first time she requested feminizing hormone therapy. The second time, the doctor evaluating her greeted her as “Mr. Kim.” 

“It’s Miss Kim,” she corrected him. 

The doctor continued to insist that she was a man and denied her request for hormone therapy. 

Finally, Kim was assigned a new therapist who recognized Kim as a transgender woman in desperate need of health care. With an advocate on the inside, Kim received approval from prison officials for hormone therapy in early 2017, nearly three years after her first request. 

“It felt like a huge weight off my back. All this tension I had been carrying, the need to hold back everything I say — it evaporated.”— Amber Kim

But every win presented a new set of obstacles. There were repeated errors in testing Kim’s blood samples, which further delayed the process. When she was finally prescribed hormone therapy, prison medical officials prescribed her estrogen but no anti-androgen, an ineffective regiment that failed to produce feminizing effects.

For most patients, that regiment “makes absolutely no medical sense whatsoever,” said Brown, the WPATH Standards of Care co-author. 

Kim felt overwhelming pressure to keep her frustrations in check. She worried that if she lost her temper, even once, the prison would cut off hormone therapy altogether. With help from an outside advocate, Kim finally gained access to an anti-androgen and started seeing the effects a few months later.

“It felt like a huge weight off my back,” she said. “All this tension I had been carrying, the need to hold back everything I say — it evaporated.”

When Kim started researching the process for a legal name change, she quickly realized it would be impossible to do on her own. 

She contacted a lawyer named Catherine West, who agreed to represent her pro bono. After an initial meeting at the prison, West went to the Snohomish County courthouse, picked up the necessary paperwork, took it back to the prison for Kim to sign, brought the signed paperwork to the courthouse to be filed, went back to the prison to give the superintendent notice of the proposed name change (a requirement for incarcerated individuals), and did the legal wrangling to convince the court to allow Kim to appear by phone at her hearing. The process took about three months, and cost Kim — who made 42 cents an hour at her prison job — $160. It was only the second time she withdrew money from her savings account since coming to prison. 

In April 2017, she legally changed her name to Amber Fayefox Kim, the name she had chosen years earlier. 

Even a state-recognized name change wasn’t enough to stop the prison from referring to her by her birth-assigned “deadname.” For years, the corrections department claimed it did not have the technological ability to input name changes in their internal systems. As a result, her prison ID card continued to display her deadname, with the option to put “AKA Amber Kim” underneath. Anyone corresponding with her was forced to use her deadname to ensure she would receive letters. 

Then, one day in 2021, I opened my JPay account, the pay-per-message email-like system that her prison used at the time. An unread message from “Amber Kim” sat at the top of my inbox. Washington’s corrections department had updated its name change policy to recognize legal name changes as the individual’s “primary” name.

But prison staffers continued to deadname Kim almost daily for about another year. “It always hurts. It hurts like a papercut,” she said. 

“You get one paper cut, who cares, two and it’s a bad day, but whatever,” she said. “Thirty paper cuts and you’re bleeding.”

‘An Outlier In The Field Of Gender Dysphoria’

When Kim was still in a maximum security prison, one of the people who answered her letters pleading for help was a law student named Danny Waxwing. They kept in touch as Waxwing graduated and started working at Disability Rights Washington, part of a nationwide network of nonprofit agencies that are designated under federal law to protect the rights of people with disabilities.

DRW began investigating DOC’s treatment of transgender people with disabilities in 2017, around the same time that Kim started hormone therapy. The following year, Washington’s corrections department hired psychiatrist Stephen Levine to “provide much-needed psychiatric services for Gender Dysphoric incarcerated individuals,” according to a copy of his contract obtained by HuffPost. 

Waxwing was horrified. 

In the late 1990s, Levine chaired the organization now known as WPATH and worked on the fifth version of the Standards of Care. But he cut ties several years later, after transgender people started to exert more influence in the guidelines. “Advocacy meant that science was secondary to these poor, suffering people needing to have exactly what they want,” Levine told Wired in 2021.

In 2006, Levine agreed to evaluate one of the first trans prisoners to sue for gender-affirming surgery. Several specialists had already recommended she receive the surgery, but Levine sided with the state.  After that, corrections departments throughout the U.S. turned to Levine, who could lend the appearance of scientific legitimacy to denying trans prisoners the health care they desperately sought. He popped up in courtrooms around the country, suggesting that gender dysphoria is often the result of unresolved childhood trauma or even sexual deviancy, a baseless trope often used against LGBTQ+ people.

Not all judges bought it, though. “This court gives very little weight to the opinions of Levine,” a federal judge in California wrote in a 2015 ruling. Levine’s “report misrepresents the Standards of Care; overwhelmingly relies on generalizations about gender dysphoric prisoners, rather than an individualized assessment [of the plaintiff], contains illogical inferences; and admittedly includes references to a fabricated anecdote,” the judge continued. 

Levine said in an email that he did not have time to respond to a detailed list of questions, which he described as containing “a bit of truth and a heap of distortion.” He added that he has a copy of the case that the California judge said was a fabricated anecdote.

Washington’s corrections department decided to work with Levine, despite Waxwing sounding the alarm over the psychiatrist’s record. After lifting an effective ban on gender-affirming surgeries, DOC hired Levine to evaluate people who requested surgeries. It also hired Levine to provide “expert consultation to Department Staff regarding Gender Dysphoria,” according to the contract. The agency agreed to pay him $4,000 per day for “psychiatric services,” $3,000 for an eight-hour day of consultation, and up to $3,000 per trip for travel expenses.

“He’s probably the only psychiatrist they can hire anymore who will say that trans inmates shouldn’t have access to gender appropriate care.”— George Brown, WPATH Standards of Care author

A 93-slide presentation obtained by HuffPost offers a look at the kind of training Levine offered prison employees. Titled “Towards Understanding Transgenderism Among Inmates,” the September 2018 presentation posited a variety of manipulative, pathological and frivolous reasons prisoners might claim to experience gender dysphoria. 

According to Levine, “motivations” for “new gender dysphoria among inmates” include boredom, having a friend who is trans, not wanting to be seen as gay, “perceived advantages” in housing or work assignments, wanting to thwart the corrections department through legal proceedings, and “masochistic paraphilia eroticism.” In another section of his presentation, Levine suggested that people become trans because of “intrapsychic pleasure of being part of the revolution. We are overthrowing the established order, and creating a vital social experience (analogous to fighting for the caliphate or draining the swamp).”

Levine attributed the acceptance of the WPATH Standards of Care in medicine and law as the result of “fear of retaliation by trans stakeholders,” a claim that wildly distorts the influence of trans people, who account for a small minority in the U.S. and face rampant discrimination and marginalization. 

Three months after Levine’s presentation, a federal judge overseeing a separate case in Idaho dismissed Levine as “an outlier in the field of gender dysphoria” whose “training materials do not reflect opinions that are generally accepted in the field.”

But Levine continued evaluating people in Washington prisons who requested gender-affirming surgery. One had previously been evaluated by medical providers in a different correctional institution, as well as outside experts, all of whom had recommended surgery as medically necessary. 

Levine, however, did not. He claimed that the individual was “a case of the evolution of S&M into Gender Dysphoria, a situation that is not widely appreciated,” and recommended “a more confrontative psychotherapeutic approach,” according to court filings. After reading Levine’s report, the individual experienced “prolonged and severe suicidality and depression,” the court documents said.

DRW hired psychiatrist and gender dysphoria expert Dan Karasic to conduct a separate evaluation. Karasic recommended surgery as medically necessary and said that Levine’s theories about the individual’s gender dysphoria were baseless, according tocourt filings. The corrections department eventually approved the surgery, although the procedure was further delayed by the department sending the wrong report to potential surgeons, DRW alleged in court filings. The individual finally got surgery in 2022, more than five years after first receiving approval and three years after being approved by the Department of Corrections. 

In December 2019, DRW and the Washington Department of Corrections entered into structured negotiations — a process that provides an alternative to litigation — to address the department’s treatment of transgender people with disabilities.

“We believed that working collaboratively through structured negotiations would be the best way to facilitate systemic reforms for our constituents,” said Waxwing.

Washington’s prison system no longer works with Levine, but he has built a lucrative careertestifying in support of efforts to restrict trans rights. He has appeared as a witness in multiple cases brought by the Alliance Defending Freedom — a conservative Christian legal group that helped overturn Roe v. Wade — including a bid to overturn Washington’s ban on conversion therapy for minors, and multipleefforts to block schools from allowing kids to go by their preferred name and pronoun at school. He still gets prison work, too.

“He’s probably the only psychiatrist they can hire anymore who will say that trans inmates shouldn’t have access to gender appropriate care,” said Brown, who worked with Levine on the fifth version of the WPATH Standards of Care, which were published in 1998, and who has testified on the opposite side as Levine in court. “He doesn’t put it that way, but that’s the only logical conclusion that can be reached based on what he testifies to.”

No Criteria To Make A Decision

In March 2018, Kim started a blog to document and seek support for her transition and prison conditions. “When I look at myself in the mirror,” she wrote in one of her first posts, “I like what I see overall.” 

It was a remarkable feeling for someone who had spent nearly 30 years living inside of a body that felt like a betrayal of her own identity. But even as she felt more at home in her body, she continued to feel deeply unsafe locked inside a men’s prison. “Long story short, I get hit on and propositioned for sex A LOT,” she wrote in her blog. Reporting the harassment, she wrote, “would, in all likelihood, get me killed.”

“I don’t want to be casually living in the level of danger that I currently do for the rest of my life,” she wrote. “I don’t want to feel the way I feel for the next however many years every day until I die, or, by way of some miracle, get clemency.” 

“When I look at myself in the mirror ... I like what I see overall.”— Amber Kim

Under PREA, Kim was required to have a housing review every six months, during which time her counselor would ask her things like whether she felt safe in her cell and when showering. Kim repeatedly reported that no, she did not feel safe. Men constantly leered at her in the shower and, for a period of time, she had a cellmate who refused to give her privacy when she changed her clothes or used the shared toilet in the cell. 

She reported her concerns, but said they were repeatedly ignored. 

The first time Kim asked her counselor about transferring to a women’s prison, she was laughed out of the office, she said. “It was like, no, that’s not going to happen. We don’t do that.” 

In February 2020, the state DOC released its first trans housing policy. It directed staff to respect preferred pronouns, diagnose and treat gender dysphoria, and take the individual’s “personal views” about their safety into account when making housing recommendations — which was already required under PREA. 

From the outset, DOC officials made clear that the policy was not meant to constitute a radical change. “While most transgender individuals are incarcerated according to gender assigned at birth, in rare cases, alternative housing should be a consideration,” three DOC assistant secretaries, wrote in an all-staff email previewing the policy. 

Kim kept requesting a transfer to a women’s prison. When the predictable rejections came back, they didn’t include a reason, which made it impossible for Kim to identify the specific problem she needed to overcome. Desperate for information, she filed a public records request for the documentation of one of her denials. It cost her 20 cents a page.

The paperwork she received revealed an astounding lack of process, and explicit transphobia from the people tasked with keeping her safe. DOC officials repeatedly misgendered and deadnamed Kim, and leaned on baseless suggestions that as a trans woman, she posed an inherent threat to cis women.

“We should be ensuring that everyone is safe,” one DOC staffer wrote. “That does not mean we ensure the safety of one while jeopardizing many.” 

“What if someone does get raped? What if someone does get pregnant?” the official continued, after referring to Kim as “currently biologically a man.” 

At the time of these comments, the prison classified her as a “potential victim” rather than assailant. Moreover, male staffers continue to work in Washington’s women’s prison, despite severalinstances of male guards sexually assaulting female prisoners.

One DOC staffer expressed support for Kim’s transfer, citing Kim’s risk of being assaulted in a men’s prison. “She should not be subjected to living under these conditions for the rest of her life, as it will likely increase the trauma she has already experienced, exacerbate/create additional mental health concerns, and make rehabilitation more difficult,” the staffer wrote.

The summary of prison officials’ recommendations included a surprisingly blunt assessment of the DOC’s haphazard housing review process: “The review team members are split on this recommendation because there is no criteria to base a decision.” Because Kim is serving a life without parole sentence, the summary noted, she would have more opportunities to request a transfer.

Asked about this process, Ericson, the DOC spokesperson, said that “each situation is considered on a case-by-case basis, with a focus on safety both for the individual and those who are housed at the facility.”

“The review team members are split on this recommendation because there is no criteria to base a decision.”— Washington Department of Corrections Facility Review Team

By that point, Kim was well-practiced in not expending emotional energy on transphobia from prison officials, she said. Instead, she focused on how to counter the narrative that she posed a threat to other incarcerated women. In her subsequent requests, she emphasized having no record of sexual misconduct, and spoke openly about how her previous infractions were usually the result of losing her temper over being mistreated in men’s prisons. 

In early February 2021, a guard approached Kim’s cell. “Pack your shit, you’re moving tomorrow,” he said. 

Kim panicked.

She had recently appealed the denial of her fourth request to move to the women’s prison, but hadn’t heard back. She worried that the corrections department had gotten sick of dealing with her and was sending her to a prison out of state — potentially to a place with even worse policies for trans prisoners. She tracked down her counselor and asked why she was moving and why a risk management team hadn’t convened to review the move. That evening, her counselor finally assured her that she wasn’t going out of state — she was moving to a women’s prison 90 minutes away.

“I was like, ‘Oh, OK. Objections withdrawn,’” Kim said. “Of course, they had to scare the shit out of me first.” 

‘One Of The Girls’

Kim’s first day in at the Washington Corrections Center for Women was similar to how she had spent many days in men’s prisons: locked in solitary confinement, this time as part of a mandatory intake quarantine. Alone in the cell with no distractions from her feelings, she began to cry. She mourned her friends at the men’s prison and wondered if she would find a community here. 

She studied the graffiti in her cell for hints about the women she’d soon meet. She was used to seeing gang references, profanity and allegations of snitching etched into the walls. Here, she found “Criminal Lives Matter,” “Black Lives Matter,” and dozens of tags along the lines of “A loves B” or “A and B forever.” 

“This, I think, is a good sign,” Kim wrote in her blog. “I believe I can find my way to something resembling happiness in a place where the thing which moves people to slowly and painstakingly chip through industrial strength prison paint is love.”

The first time she exited her cell to pick up her meal, a woman in a nearby cell called out: “Hey new girl! What’s your name and where you from?”

“Amber, and I came from Monroe,” Kim said.

“That’s the men’s prison,” the woman said, sounding confused. 

There was no point in lying. Kim’s deadname was still displayed on her ID and, like many in prison, her past was just a Google search away. 

“Yeah, I just did 14 years in a men’s prison. They finally transferred me here. I’m trans,” Kim explained.

The response was “wonderfully underwhelming,” Kim wrote. 

As she settled, she carefully studied the other women’s language, affect and communication style. People who shared a cell were not “cellies,” like in the men’s prison, but “roomies” or “bunkies.” Conversations featured a “dizzying number of subject changes and asides,” she wrote in her blog, noting that years of watching “Gilmore Girls” reruns had trained her to keep up. The women’s storytelling style tended to be less self-aggrandizing and more focused on their relationships with others, she noticed. The implicit threat of violence dissipated.

“While waiting in line for dinner,” Kim wrote in February 2021, “I realized I really am just one of the girls.” 

In the years since Kim’s arrest, there have been dramatic sentencing reforms for people who commit crimes before they are 18 years old. In 2010, the Supreme Court prohibited life without parole sentences for non-homicide offenses committed by people under the age of 18. Two years later, the court banned mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles — a decision that was later made retroactive. A majority of states, including Washington, have since banned even discretionary juvenile life without parole.

These decisions cited extensive neurological research showing that brain development continues into an individual’s mid-20s. Because of this, adolescents and young adults are more impulsive, susceptible to peer pressure and likely to seek short-term solutions without weighing long-term consequences. Moreover, kids and young adults often lack control over their environments, as was the case for Kim. Juvenile sentencing reform has made thousands of people eligible for resentencing, but each reform narrowly excluded Kim, who turned 18 just monthsbefore she committed her crime.

In March 2021, a few months after she arrived at WCCW, the Washington Supreme Court expanded the ban on mandatory life without parole sentences to people younger than 21. Kim contacted the public defender’s office in Spokane, which confirmed that the new ruling applied to Kim and assigned her a lawyer. For the first time since her conviction, Kim had reason to hope that she would not die in prison.

Convincing a judge that she should be given a reduced sentence required showing how the mitigating factors of her youth were not considered at trial — and demonstrating her growth in the years since. It was an emotionally draining process that involved psychiatric testing, and reliving painful memories of abuse and her crime. And the stakes couldn’t be higher. 

Kim was glad to at least be navigating the process from the women’s prison, where she felt safer than at any point in her incarceration, and had a supportive group of friends. With the exception of a few vocal critics, she found the women in her prison to be mostly accepting of — or at least unconcerned about — living with a trans woman.

‘Able To Just Do My Time’

In late February 2022, after more than a year in the women’s prison, Kim had a medical appointment outside of the prison, which meant undergoing a mandatory strip search, a process that incarcerated people have compared to state-sanctioned sexual assault. During the search, a guard asked Kim, who was still naked, about a bruise on her shoulder. Kim’s immediate impulse was to reject any conversation about her body. She was examined by a nurse, and asked if anyone had physically or sexually abused her. Kim said no, and that she was just clumsy and bruised easily. She didn’t give much thought to the incident.

About a week later, Kim yelled and slammed the door to her cell while arguing with her friend. In written statements, both Kim and her friend (who declined to participate in this story and is not being named to protect her privacy) said they resolved the disagreement and remained friends afterwards. But soon after, Kim was sent to a different pod, a move that isolated her from her community and cost her her job in the kitchen. 

Kim didn’t know it at the time, but another prisoner had claimed that Kim was forcing her friend into a sexual relationship. Prison officials used that allegation, as well as Kim’s bruise, as the basis to launch a PREA investigation into Kim. Documents obtained by HuffPost show that what may have started as reasonable due diligencespiraled into what appeared to be a concerted effort by prison leadership to find Kim guilty of wrongdoing. 

PREA investigations end in one of three ways. “Substantiated” means investigators believe the allegation occurred. “Unfounded” means they believe the allegation did not occur. “Unsubstantiated” means they do not believe there is enough evidence to make a determination.

Initially, prison officials issued a “substantiated” finding against Kim, determining she had committed sexual assault. Prison officials claimed there was a “preponderance” of evidence in support of the third-party allegations against Kim. But the prison’s own records suggest otherwise. The accuser’s claims were not corroborated by any witnesses or video surveillance. The alleged victim told prison officials multiple times that she had never been abused by Kim. This prison’s own investigator concluded that the “issue stems from [the accuser] not like transgender individuals.”  

Once prison officials declared Kim’s guilt, Waxwing filed an expedited request for records related to the investigation. He was stunned by the lack of evidence and the level to which the WCCW superintendent, Charlotte Headley, had personally involved herself in the investigation. It appeared to him that Headley pushed the investigation forward even after the evidence pointed to the allegations being false. 

DOC, which said it could not comment on PREA investigations, declined to make Headley available to comment on her handling of the case. 

Waxwing contacted the prison and the state attorney general’s office, citing “serious concerns” about the handling of the PREA investigation. Days later, prison officials quietly reversed their PREA finding from “substantiated” to “unfounded.” Kim was cleared of wrongdoing. 

Had the initial finding stuck, Kim’s chances of resentencing likely would have evaporated, and she could have faced additional criminal charges. It was a jarring reminder to Kim of the precarity of her sense of safety and hope, even in the women’s prison. “I’m no longer worried about someone randomly swinging at me,” Kim said, “but now I have to always worry about some random person picking up the phone and spewing lies, and suddenly my whole world’s turned upside down.” 

After nearly four years, the structured negotiations between DRW and Washington’s corrections department concluded in October. For years, the Department of Corrections “violated the constitutional rights of incarcerated people with disabilities who are transgender,” DRW attorneys alleged in a complaint filed simultaneously with a settlement agreement. “DOC denied these individuals essential gender-affirming medical and mental health care and means of expressing their gender,” the complaint continued. 

Under the settlement agreement, DOC’s gender-affirming health care policies will mirror the services and medical necessity guidelines of the state’s Medicaid program. The state also agreed to pay DRW $1.5 million for fees and costs related to the negotiations, as well as $300,000 annually to monitor compliance. It was a pivotal policy change and a victory for the incarcerated trans people who have pushed for years for access to the same health care standards as everyone else.

Kim is scheduled to be resentenced early next year. A women’s prison is still a prison, and she’s terrified of the prospect of spending the rest of her life behind bars. But if she has to be incarcerated, she feels immeasurably safer living openly as a woman in a women’s prison. 

“I’m able to just do my time. In the past, when I went into these trans housing reviews, I had a whole list of problems,” Kim said. “For the last few, I’ve gone in, sat down, and said, ‘I have no issues — can I leave now?’”