Transforming Justice

Conference Report & Summary

In April 2006, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in New York City contacted LGBT, prisoner rights, and human rights activists and attorneys across the country to create a national conversation about transgender imprisonment issues. Over the next year and a half, a vibrant coalition of local and national organizations came together to plan Transforming Justice, the first-ever national gathering of LGBTIQQ former prisoners, activists, attorneys, and community members to develop national priorities towards ending the criminalization and imprisonment of transgender communities.

The planning process had two main components: the first was a Local Coordinating Committee led by formerly imprisoned transgender people along with allies and representatives from the TGI Justice Project, the Trans/Gender Variant in Prison Committee, Critical Resistance, Justice Now, Community United Against Violence (CUAV), and the Transgender Law Center. The second was a National Advisory Committee with representatives from the ACLU of Northern California, Human Rights Watch, Lambda Legal, National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP). Together, the two committees worked to collaboratively plan an event that could:

 

    • build a shared conversation and analysis among the LGBT, anti-prison, and prisoner rights movements about the root causes of imprisonment, poverty, and criminalization in transgender communities;
    • prioritize and build the leadership of transgender and gender non-conforming people most impacted by prisons, poverty, and policing; and
    • create space to share and develop strategies to end the cycles of imprisonment, criminalization, poverty in our communities.

In the year prior to the conference, we sent out targeted invitations to over 100 LGBT, anti-prison, and human rights organization throughout the U.S.; conducted bi-weekly and weekly outreach activities to local transgender communities; and gathered feedback and ideas from transgender people currently locked up in California through visits and letters. All of this led up to the weekend of October 13-14, 2007, when over 250 people gathered at the City College of San Francisco for two days of learning, connecting, and visioning.

The Big Weekend

Over 250 people from 14 states attended Transforming Justice, with over 100 participating for the entire event. Twenty scholarships to low-income former prisoners were distributed. Approximately 60% percent of the conference attendees were transgender and gender non-conforming people who had at some point in their lives been in prison, jail, or juvenile or immigration detention. Though the conference was free, simultaneous translation, childcare, and meals were provided. From the moment the conference began, we attempted to instill it with a sense of urgency and purpose. Participants were welcomed to City College with an inviting breakfast and an opportunity to learn about and send letters to a transgender person who is currently imprisoned. The program booklets contained personal testimonies from four transgender women who were currently imprisoned, and as attendees arrived, they were asked to write letters to imprisoned transgender and gender non-conforming people whose photographs adorned the meeting room.

After breakfast, conference organizers welcomed participants and set group agreements. The first day was dedicated to building a shared understanding of the cycles of imprisonment, poverty, and criminalization in our communities. In our first session, Miss Major, the staff organizer of the Trans/Gender Variant in Prison Committee, facilitated a panel of transgender people who had been imprisoned and wanted to talk about their experiences. So many people wanted to voice their anger and stress the urgency of Transforming Justice that the section ran long. People wanted, at last, to be heard. One formerly jailed transgender woman, an activist from California, broke down as she addressed the group, “I never thought I’d see something like [Transforming Justice] in my life.”

In the second session, Bran Fenner from FIERCE! (a New York City-based queer youth of color organization), Gael Guevara, and Gabriel Arkles (both from the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in New York) facilitated a workshop exploring the root causes behind the high rates of poverty, homelessness, and imprisonment in transgender communities. In the last session of the day, Jazzie Collins (from SOMCAN, a housing rights organization in San Francisco), Vanessa Huang (from Justice Now, a human rights/anti-prison organization in Oakland), and Nat Smith (from Critical Resistance, an anti-prison organization in Oakland) facilitated a workshop offering the term “prison industrial complex” to describe a system that benefits from incarcerating, policing, and disenfranchising poor people and people of color – as well as the political vision and strategy of “prison industrial complex abolition”.

Saturday night we had a fabulous party that included a DJ, baked goods, and a relaxing time to celebrate our hard work!

On Sunday, we went back to work: the second day of Transforming Justice was dedicated to envisioning together ways to stop the cycles of imprisonment and criminalization in transgender communities. In the morning we met in geographic regional working groups to discuss the unique challenges transgender people face in our home regions and brainstorm ways we can work together better to stop the criminalization of transgender people in our communities. In the afternoon, we met in issue area work groups—violence & safety; education & employment; housing & healthcare; immigration & detention; youth & juvenile justice; and prison conditions—to discuss our long-term vision for that area and concrete ideas to move towards that vision. For example, in the violence & safety group folks explored how to respond to violence in our communities without calling the cops or locking people up. In the prison conditions group, folks talked about the pressing need there is to dedicate more resources to supporting transgender people coming out of prison and jail so they don’t get trapped in the revolving door.

In the last part of the day, the facilitators led a session with the goal of building points of unity that participants could bring back to their organizations and communities for further discussion. The following are the five points of unity that we explored in this conversation:  

    • We recognize cycles of poverty, criminalization and imprisonment as urgent human rights issues for transgender and gender non-conforming people.
    • We agree to promote, centralize, and support the leadership of transgender and gender non-conforming people most impacted by prisons, policing, and poverty in this work.
    • We plan to organize to build on and expand a national movement to liberate our communities and specifically transgender and gender non-conforming people from poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, racism, ageism, transphobia, classism, sexism, ableism, immigration discrimination, violence and the brutality of the prison industrial complex.
    • We commit to ending the abuse and discrimination against transgender and gender non-conforming people in all aspects of society, with the long-term goal of ending the prison industrial complex.
    • We agree to continue discussing with each other what it means to work towards ending the prison industrial complex while addressing immediate human rights crises.

Conference attendees agreed to continue discussions in our home communities on these points of unity, particularly focusing on point #4 as an exciting and fertile place to begin building solutions to the prison-poverty crisis. Additionally, participants voted on concrete next steps to guide our work moving forward. All of the next steps include centralizing and building the leadership of transgender people most impacted by poverty, policing, and prisons, specifically people who have been imprisoned, arrested, or detained:

 

    • Develop a national platform on transgender immigrant rights issues & ask others to sign on to it;
    • Foster local conversations about responding to anti-LGBTQQ and interpersonal violence without relying on the prison industrial complex;
    • Create and strengthen local resources for transgender and gender non-conforming people coming out of prison and jail;
    • Create a national coalition that can support local transgender organizing to end the cycles of poverty, criminalization, and imprisonment.

Moving Forward

Transforming Justice was the first event of its kind—ever! We sought to create a national conversation about the root causes of imprisonment, criminalization, and poverty in transgender communities, and to launch a vibrant movement that could win real justice for our communities. And we are on our way! In the weeks since the conference and into the coming months, we will be compiling participant evaluations and notes from the event and re-connecting with attendees to build our new national coalition, and to make progress on the concrete action steps we identified at the conference. Continue to check our website (www.transformingjustice.org) for progress updates, resources, and ways to get involved.

If you couldn’t make it to the conference, you can still join us! We still want additional organizations and people to get involved as we move forward.