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The life of a woman trapped in an American men’s prison

We meet Carla, a trans inmate in Indiana, incarcerated for 20 years in a men’s prison after a string of non-violent robberies

At a federal correctional institution in Terre Haute, Indiana, an inmate registered as Carl Kieffer (Register Number: 15794-074) lives a bleak and lonely existence. As the only transgender woman in a prison filled with nearly 1,300 men, Carla, as she wants to be called, says that on a daily basis she is harassed, ridiculed, or otherwise “made to feel like I’m not even a human being or like I don't deserve to breathe air.”

“Sometimes it's not even the things they say, but in the way that they look at me,” says Carla. “They shake their heads in total disgust or look at me with such raw hatred in their eyes like my presence personally offends them. Honestly, I really don't belong here.”

Tall, with short reddish-blond hair, 52-year-old Carla suffers from gender dysphoria and is currently undergoing hormone therapy. Recently she’s been granted access to “gender-affirming” products (make-up, women’s underwear, hair-care products) that she proudly wears. Serving a 20-year-sentence for a series of non-violent bank robberies, we talked with Carla to discuss issues surrounding her transition, including her treatment inside, sex-reassignment, women’s cosmetics and what it’s like being stuck in a men’s prison, with absolutely no indication that she’ll ever be moved.

When were you first diagnosed with gender dysphoria?

Carla Kieffer: Around the age of nine my family took me to a psychologist for depression and because they knew I wasn't a “normal” boy. I was diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder (G.I.D). Over the years, G.I.D has become known as gender dysphoria. From the age of nine I went to school as a female and began cross-dressing. You can say that’s when I become “normal”.

As a federal inmate with gender dysphoria, explain the available treatments that you have in here. How have these treatments worked for you thus far.

Carla Kieffer: Prior to 2011, transgender people could only receive hormone therapy if the treatment was started prior to incarceration. But after 2011, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) implemented a policy that allows treatment for those of us diagnosed with gender dysphoria, but only if an evaluation determines that treatment would be conducive to our overall mental health. In my case, through the years I have taken hormone treatments both legally and illegally. I admitted this to many psychologists since I have been locked up, and it was determined that I needed hormone treatment.

“I got the runaround and was seen by many doctors and so-called mental health professionals who lied and tried to stop me. They even sent me to the wrong doctor hoping to discourage me” – Carla Kieffer

After you were approved, how long did it take for prison officials to begin administering treatment?

Carla Kieffer: It took about a year and a half. It was a long hard fight and I got the runaround and was seen by many doctors and so-called mental health professionals who lied and tried to stop me. They even sent me to the wrong doctor hoping to discourage me, like I would just give up, but eventually I prevailed. I just can’t stop being a woman – I was born this way. Oh, and I will be given hormone therapy for six and half months, they say. I’ve been on them for about that time as of right now.

What other types of treatment do you receive?

Carla Kieffer: Besides hormone therapy, I have been provided with women’s panties and bras and I routinely see a psychologist intern – not a doctor, an intern. They recently added “gender-affirming” products on the prison commissary, which allows me to purchase makeup and other necessary women’s products. The problem is I really don’t have the money to cover what I need, and I can’t have other inmates buy it for me – only those of us who are approved can buy female items off the commissary. And so far, I am the only person in this prison authorized to buy these items.

“They recognize that I am a woman but they don’t care if I have a five o'clock shadow or if I can grow hair like a wolf” – Carla Kieffer

What about sex-reassignment, hair removal, and breast augmentation? Are you being offered these procedures as well?

Carla Kieffer: As of right now, the answer is no. To the best of my knowledge, there are around 3,200 trans inmates incarcerated in America, and in June a federal judge in California ruled that transgender prisoners in the California state prison system, at least in one case, must have sex-reassignment surgery when deemed necessary. I think my idol Chelsea Manning is fighting for reassignment surgery as well. I do have small breasts but I definitely want implants and hair removal should be mandatory for any transgender woman who wants it.

I mean, think about it. They recognize that I am a woman but they don’t care if I have a five o'clock shadow or if I can grow hair like a wolf? They can’t just leave me looking like half of a woman on the outside once my hormone therapy is complete. That would be a cruel and unusual punishment. In due time, I will pursue an outside counsel to help me navigate the courts if they refuse to give these things to me.

You said you don’t belong here...

Carla Kieffer: Not here or any men’s prison. I am a woman – period! Therefore, I should be treated like any other woman and housed in a women’s prison where I am safe.

So you would say that you are unsafe in here?

Carla Kieffer: Let me respond to this by first saying that the current warden in this institution has been nothing but wonderful to me. He’s helped me with staff who have disrespected me as well as with inmates who have bothered me in many ways. So this has nothing to do with the warden here.

This prison is old and has a lot of generational staff who think like their fathers before them and that’s never a good thing for a transgender inmate living in 2016. To give you an idea of who what the majority of the staff are like, they all overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump and were very outspoken about it. Need I say more?

They are not progressive thinkers or accepting of people who don’t fit into society’s norms and I can tell they have a tremendous amount of hate for me, even though they don’t say it. And so do 95 per cent of the inmates in here. They won’t associate with me, they won’t be seen talking to me, they don’t want to live with me and like I said earlier, the hate and contempt for me is apparent in their eyes and every day someone calls me a nasty name. 

“In places like the showers or stairwells or even in my cell when no one is looking, they try to hit on me. They think just because I am a woman I’m a prostitute or that I am attracted to them just because they have a dick” – Carla Kieffer

But in blind spots, however, in places like the showers or stairwells or even in my cell when no one is looking, they try to hit on me. They think just because I am a woman I’m a prostitute or that I am attracted to them just because they have a dick. There are a lot of men in prison who are closet bisexuals but won’t openly admit it, but when no one is looking they come at me – and sometimes aggressively. Not a week passes when I am not propositioned or someone doesn't try to scare me into having sex with him. They quickly find out that I am not the right one and they do back off, although I have been in three fights since I've been in this time, and years ago I was gang-raped in state prison.

But getting back to your question, I believe no woman is safe in a men's prison no matter what body parts we were born with. At the very least, they should put all trans inmates in the same prison and never put us in a prison by ourselves, such as I am here. There have been three transgender women that I know of come through here, but they won’t let them out in general population because they fear for their safety. So here I am, alone.

We’re out of time, but is there anything else you’d like to say?

Carla Kieffer: Yes. I know a lot of people in prison and in society don’t believe gender dysphoria is real. You think we are all mental patients who can be cured through conversation, a pill, or religion? Well, you’re all wrong. Speaking for myself, this isn’t something I’ve become, it’s something I was born with – I’ve always seen the world through the eyes of a woman, I’ve just had male body parts in my way that tell me that I'm something otherwise. One day, science will find something in the brains of trans people that will prove that we are exactly who we know and feel we are on the inside, I am convinced of it.

If you want to write directly to Carla, you can go to bop.gov and find her correct address. She is imprisoned under the name Carl F. Kieffer Register Number: 15794-074, Located at: Terre Haute FCI Release Date: 03/19/2031. She would love to hear from you.