Thursday, December 8

How Cleveland Became an Epicenter of Anti-Trans Violence: Part IV, Mass Incarceration

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This is Part IV of a five-part Op-Ed series exploring the intersecting forces driving Cleveland’s worsening anti-trans violence epidemic. The author encourages readers interested in saving trans lives to read this series in its entirety and to share it out to their personal and professional networks. Part I: The Intro is located here, Part II: Hate Groups is here, and Part III: Exclusion, Inequality & Violence is here. Part IV of this series examines how Cleveland’s own criminal justice system, which ostensibly exists to protect trans Clevelanders, often inflicts deadly systemic violence against them, instead.

Anti-trans violence is worsening across the U.S., and trans Clevelanders are at the center of that dangerous storm. Long an epicenter of transphobic attacks, Northeast Ohio has one of the highest numbers of recorded trans murders in America. From 2019 to 2020 alone, anti-trans hate crimes in Cleveland exploded by a staggering 533 percent – more than 15 times faster than the U.S. average.

Throughout this series, I seek to explore why Cleveland is an anti-trans violence epicenter. In Part II of this series, I exposed the pernicious and expansive threat of anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups, lobbies, and lawmakers, along with the bigoted bills they collectively promote against queer people – particularly trans people – across the globe, the U.S., and (sadly) my home state of Ohio. As one of the few counties in the region to affirm nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people, Cuyahoga County is a destination for many trans and queer people seeking sanctuary and support.

As I dissected in Part III, however, Cleveland too often fails to provide true safety and opportunity for trans and gender nonconforming people due to the interwoven forces of cultural exclusion, discrimination, systemic inequality and injustice, and pervasive violence. These forces, both endemic and entrenched in Northeast Ohio, combine to create a perfect transphobic storm. Too often, trans Clevelanders – and especially Black transwomen – are forced to fend and survive on Cleveland’s streets, even as they are stalked and slain by transphobic predators.

Such predators – motivated by twisted beliefs and inhuman hatred – have inflicted not just deadly violence but even torture and mutilation against Cleveland’s trans community. Historically, we (whether as Clevelanders, Ohioans, or Americans broadly) have reflexively sought to stop such violence through beefed up police forces and aggressive arrests, along with swift and punitive incarcerations for those convicted of violent crime. These tactics are often justified in theory as making communities safer by identifying and isolating predators before they can harm others.

However, as we will explore in this section, aggressive law enforcement and incarceration often magnify the dangers for trans people, Clevelanders especially. Rather than protecting us, tactics like over policing and profiling often target trans people instead, particularly Black transwomen. Likewise, biases and bigotries embedded within Greater Cleveland’s criminal justice system often combine to create a cyclical and deadly trap of incarceration, homelessness, and rearrest for many trans Clevelanders. Such repeated incarcerations can become a death trap of cages and concrete for anyone struggling to survive in Greater Cleveland’s and Ohio’s jails and prisons. But the dangers of such dungeons to Northeast Ohio’s trans community are especially terrifying.

No One to Call

Almost half of trans people fear calling the police. Such unease often stems from previous traumatic encounters with law enforcement. Trans people who have had police contact report significant episodes of harassment and assault, both physical and sexual. This is especially true for Black trans people. Deadly police shootings of trans people are also common, such as in the cases of Black transwoman Kiwi Herring of St. Louis in 2019, white transwoman Jayne Thompson of Orchard Mesa, Colorado in May 2020, and Black transman Tony McDade of Tallahassee in that same month.

Loss of family support, social rejection, and economic discrimination often force trans and other queer people to rely on the underground economy as a mode of survival, including engaging in sex work, drug and contraband sales, and theft. In many cases, queer youth often flee their homes to escape abuse early in life, either ending up in foster care and/or homeless. Such circumstances regularly initiate early, and often lifelong, problematic relationships with law enforcement. For example, researchers estimate that a full 1-in-5 juvenile prisoners are LGBTQ+ people, four-fold more than youth in the general population. These disproportioned incarcerations ultimately stem from the heightened risk of arrest that trans and queer youth face. According to the same report, 1-in-6 trans people have been arrested at some point, including almost half of Black trans people.

Frequently, trans and queer youth will act out in response to bullying, anti-LGBTQ+ social programming, and the pressures of surviving in the closet. This is particularly true for trans and queer youth living in unstable household situations. Conversely, such high-risk behavior then often leads to arrest and incarceration.

This pattern is clearly visible in my own lived experiences. Throughout my adolescence, I suffered from persistent and debilitating anxiety, compulsion, and depression, induced through a homophobic and transphobic “education” of hate-filled teachers and hurtful peers who felt empowered to harass and harm me. Growing up closeted in the 80s and 90s, few if any resources existed that didn’t portray trans people as inherently deranged and dangerous. Broken and insane. Without any real-life trans role models and succumbing to self-hatred, I erased my own identity, often lacking a clear sense of self and purpose, save for a few fleeting moments.

This holding pattern persisted for several years. Upon reaching young adulthood, however, a period of intense stress and hardship in my family household caused my immature mind to melt down and temporarily drop out of high school. I just couldn’t do it anymore. Sadly, such experiences are far too common, with almost 1-in-6 trans students leaving K-12 or higher education due to harassment. Among trans and/or gender nonconforming K-12 students, more than 3-in-4 will suffer harassment, more than 1-in-3 physical assault, and almost 1-in-8 sexual violence.

These institutional injustices are only magnified when considering the often-intersecting oppressions suffered by LGBTQ+ people who are also of neurodivergent identity. Perhaps owing to a higher propensity in both communities to reject socially constructed gender norms, those who identify as LGBTQ+ are also less likely than our cis/straight neighbors to exhibit neurotypicality. And while I personally view both queer and neurodivergent identities as mutual sources of Pride and Power, I must also point out that neurodivergent trans and queer students and employees often suffer the double oppressions of classrooms and workspaces that unfairly favor not just heteronormativity and cis centrism but, also, the uniformity of our neurotypical classmates and colleagues.

Seeking sanctuary and validity with other troubled young people, I entered a two-year period of high-risk behavior, drug use, and dangerous decision-making. Restless and constantly searching, I drifted from place to place to get high, rarely caring or understanding how my actions harmed or imperiled others. Decades later, I can now look back and understand that I was working through yet-unrealized impulses toward suicidal ideation, which would manifest directly later in life. Unfortunately, I was just one of the 4 out of 5 trans people who seriously consider suicide during their lifetimes.

From ages 18 to 19, I was arrested several times in Greater Cleveland, including for serious crimes such as weapons possession and felonious assault. During one such arrest, which included confiscation of multiple weapons, drugs, and people in my car, I suffered sexual assault from a group of police officers. The attack was justified and proceduralized as a “strip search,” but two decades later I can look back on it and understand the assault for what it was, which cemented lifelong PTSD and a long-term pattern of anxiety, depression, substance dependency, and self-harm. Tragically, 15 percent of trans prisoners will be sexually assaulted while in prison or jail.

Throughout my 20s, 30s, and early 40s, I have interacted many times with conscientious and helpful police officers, many of whom I personally respect and care deeply for. While in the Army, I even served 10-months as an attaché to a military police unit while conducting anti-terrorism operations. And yet, despite these many positive relations over the decades, I am still afraid of the police.

Community Policing Problems in Cleveland 

Disproportionate arrests, incarcerations, and abuses of trans people, especially trans people of color, become especially problematic when overlayed with Cleveland’s many community policing challenges. Specifically, although a racially and culturally diverse city, Cleveland’s law enforcement has systemically and repeatedly struggled and failed in its interactions with marginalized populations, particularly within the Black community. These failures are especially salient given the racial component to anti-trans violence, which predominantly targets Black transwomen.

Greater Cleveland’s many community policing problems are well documented. In 2014, local police shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice while playing with a pellet gun. Tamir’s unjust slaying occurred in the wake of the 2012 massacre of unarmed Black Clevelanders Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams who died in a hail of 137 bullets unleashed after a vehicular chase involving 62 police cruisers and more than 100 officers. Although both police shootings resulted in investigations and reprimands, no officers involved faced criminal conviction.

In the summer of 2020, Cleveland was the center of an intense protest against police violence, following the back-to-back murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. Like many similar popular uprisings against anti-Black police violence that summer, Cleveland’s protest saw considerable violent conflict between police and protesters, coupled with significant property damage. As a Greater Clevelander who witnessed the turmoil, I detailed the events that unfolded before, during, and after the unrest, according to my best memory and judgment.

While most of the public’s anger that day focused on the Cleveland police force, the uprising’s roots also extended deep into pervasive and systemic racial injustice throughout life in Northeast Ohio, particularly concerning the local court system. In fact, injustice throughout Northeast Ohio’s judiciary infrastructure has been well documented and nationally broadcast via Season III of the Serial podcast, which focused on Greater Cleveland’s courts. Indeed, the images of Cleveland’s 2020 racial uprising centering most intensely around the Justice Center and Cuyahoga County Jail  both underscore and illustrate the many painful grievances and enduring tensions between such institutions and neighborhoods affected by over policing and prejudiced imprisoning.

The troubled relationships between Greater Cleveland’s police forces and Northeast Ohio’s Black and other marginalized communities are often magnified when transgender identify is also a factor. Part of these problems stems from lack of training and protocol. A study of the 25 largest police departments in the U.S. found widespread ambiguity and unpreparedness among law enforcement systems pertaining to interacting with trans people, coupled with a dearth of formal protections for trans officers and stakeholders, alike. Although Cleveland was not included in the study, its sister city Columbus (the state seat) scored among the lowest on the list across a broad array of categories evaluating trans-affirming police policy.

This national dearth of preparedness among America’s officers to successfully interact with trans people also sheds light on the abovementioned police killings of Kiwi Herring, Jayne Thompson, and Tony McDade. In all three cases, the trans victims were suffering from extreme emotional and/or psychological duress, most likely due to past transphobic harassments and/or attacks. And though the officers involved reported that deadly force was necessary after encountering the slain, their survivors and supporters argue otherwise, countering that de-escalation tactics could likely have successfully saved Kiwi’s, Jayne’s, and Tony’s lives. All three were subsequently deadnamed and misgendered in subsequent police statements and media reports.

Additionally, a patchwork of local, state, and federal laws actively direct law enforcement to disproportionately profile trans people. Owing to vast and interconnecting systems of social oppression, trans people frequently suffer from homelessness, which often forces them into sex work, substance dependency, and HIV infection. Harmful and archaic “morality laws” that criminalize sex workers, people (particularly Black people) suffering from substance dependency, and people living with HIV by design target trans and queer Clevelanders, often forcing them into a circular trap of homelessness and incarceration.

“A Death Trap”

On August 30, 2020, Lea Rayshon Daye died in the Cuyahoga County Jail. A Black transwoman, the 28-year-old Lea perished after 105 days of brutal incarceration in the Jail, including extended periods of hunger, tiny portions of food that tasted of chemicals, unsanitary conditions, over-crowding, pandemic-related hardships, and overt transphobic harassment from her judge.

The second Clevelander to die in the Jail in only two months, Lea’s death was part of a multi-year crisis in the facility that claimed numerous prisoners’ lives following a failed regionalization attempt by county leadership to absorb Cuyahoga’s municipal inmate populations for a price. The botched consolidation caused massive overcrowding and critical systemic failures in the Cuyahoga County Jail itself, resulting in chronic prisoner overdoses, suicides, protests, escapes, and horrific human rights violations, amid a series of corruptions, indictments, and resignations among Jail leadership and staff. Following an investigation of the Cuyahoga County Jail, the U.S. Marshals issued a damning report exposing the filthy jail as “one of the worst in the country.” Para-militarized and overwhelmed, the staff often relied on aggressive and forceful tactics and constitutional rights violations, along with chronic “red zoning” – lockdowns lasting 27 hours or longer.

Like too many transwomen, Lea died in an all-male facility, and the local media originally deadnamed and misgendered her when reporting her death. This misreporting resulted in part from the faulty and counterproductive protocol of the local medical examiner’s office to only record “sex, not gender. Sex is determined by anatomical inspection of the body and/or medical records. This is done for their statistical needs in tracking fatal diseases and injuries by sex.”  However, this protocol results in systemic under reporting of trans deaths, which are themselves a major public health crisis.

According to news reports, Lea had been arrested and jailed for allegedly throwing a brick at a man outside a homeless shelter where she was staying at the time, although details of the incident are not clear. While attending her funeral, I listened to Lea’s loved ones mourn her loss and celebrate her life, speaking tender words of sorrow for a woman they held dear. They also spoke about how she endured frequent bullying because of her identity, which led to her acting out and becoming entrapped in bad situations.

Hearing Lea’s story made me think of my own experiences, of all the ways our lives both mirrored and differed. At 19-years-old, I was also jailed in Cleveland on a felonious assault charge after getting in a fight with another young person, which left both of us with permanent injuries, him especially. The fight itself was mindless, fueled by peer pressures, pent-up traumas, and toxic social expectations. In a twisted way, I felt that I was doing the right thing by fighting back at behavior that I perceived as bullying.

Through youthful eyes, I looked at the jail’s tangled labyrinth of bars and concrete, filled with cages and cages of predominantly Black Clevelanders. The height of the War on Drugs, many of my fellow prisoners faced felony drug charges. This was the late 90s when the “superpredator” scare was in full effect, and felony convictions often carried mandatory minimum sentences of several years or even decades. Regarding my own felony charge, I faced a possible sentence of 7 to 13 years, which felt unbelievably heavy and horrifying. Sadly, I wasn’t even the youngest person there. Many of my fellow prisoners looked like little kids – children about to lose their youth. The facility seemed like a giant felon factory.

But I had certain advantages that many of my cellmates did not. Though far from wealthy (my family was working class), my parents and grandparents gathered enough money to post my bail and hire an effective attorney. Getting bailed out may have saved my life and certainly protected me from intense trauma. My cellmates who could not post bail (which was seemingly most of them) were likely forced to endure days, weeks, or even months of hunger, deprivation, filthy conditions, and pervasive violence while they awaited their trial dates.

Likewise, having effective legal counsel altered the entire course of my case. My attorney found several mitigating factors concerning my original charge (including that I was struck first in the encounter) that allowed him to get it reduced to a misdemeanor. In fact, courts systemically overcharge, which means that most criminal allegations can be reduced if the defendant has the financial resources to pay through the process.

Beyond economic class, I also benefited from other privileges and protective factors. As a white person, I feel that I likely benefitted from biased sentencing. My stomach dropped when the judge sentenced the man in front of me at court, a young Black father facing a drug possession conviction, to three years incarceration. Conversely, the same judge sentenced me (someone convicted of a violent offense) to only one year probation. Likewise, the fact that I was still in the closet certainly helped me. In fact, studies have shown that queer people receive systemically harsher sentences than straight people.

After being placed on probation, I returned to high school, graduated, and enlisted into the Army where I reinvented my life. I have not had any legal problems in 23 years, and I receive mental health support through the VA, which has helped me manage my PTSD and even overcome suicidal ideation, self-harm, and substance dependency. I have achieved great career success, am pursuing a doctorate, and have built a stable and loving family. Most days, I look out at my life and marvel.

Had the judge decided to incarcerate me, I don’t think any of it would have happened. LGBTQ+ people behind bars face innumerable and unspeakable traumas and injustices, including heightened risks of sexual violence and high rates of solitary confinement. Transwomen placed in all-male facilities, the norm in most prisons and jails, are at extreme peril, as is clear through the deaths of Penélope Díaz Ramírez of Puerto Rico, Layleen Polanco at Rikers, and Lea Rayshon Daye in Cleveland.

After Lea’s death, I participated in a press conference with a group of other nonprofit professionals and activists and demanded an investigation into her passing. Shortly after the press conference, Lea’s mother unearthed letters written by her daughter while in captivity, which described her suffering in heartbreaking details. Lea also wrote that conditions in the jail had worsened due to COVID-19-related pressures on the facility. During her captivity, the number of prisoners in the Jail bloated from 950 in March 2020 to 1,500 by end of summer that year.

In early 2021, a grand jury charged another inmate of several criminal offenses after he allegedly gave Lea a fatal dose of fentanyl. However, many questions remain unanswered, such as how the accused was able to gain access to a deadly and controlled substance while in a supposedly secure facility, the specific details of Lea’s alleged poisoning, and why jail staff did not check on Lea for roughly five hours, despite protocols mandating inmate checks every 15 minutes.

Throughout the crisis at the Cuyahoga County Jail, abolitionists such as myself have called for the closure of the facility. Others have argued in favor of reducing the Jail’s population via pre-trial release programs and other means. For instance, Cleveland Municipal Judge Michael Nelson has publicly stated that he will no longer send individuals arraigned of low-level offenses in his courtroom to the Jail to await trial, preferring to send them back to their homes where they can be more safely managed and monitored.

However, Cuyahoga County leadership is currently considering an expansion of mass incarceration in Northeast Ohio by potentially spending more than half a billion (with a “B”) dollars to build an even larger Jail. The anticipated project would most likely be financed through public debt, which may be paid back via a regressive sales tax that would disproportionately burden low-income Greater Clevelanders. Hence, Northeast Ohio’s poor would be expected to pay for their own cages. Advocates for the project argue that a new Jail would be more humane, with planners recently releasing digital renderings that (as a formerly incarcerated person myself) seem like a laughably utopian mashup between a community college commons, a scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and a Benthamite Panopticon.

All fantasies aside, jails and prisons are systemically and indelibly oppressive to the most marginalized. They are places where people are separated from their families and communities, removed from their livelihoods and neighborhoods, and deprived of basic rights and dignities. They are the sunken places. While estimates vary, the proposed facility would likely imprison roughly 1,900 Greater Clevelanders – 1,900 of our neighbors who may be starved, attacked, isolated, and poisoned, just like Lea was.

There must be a better way. In the concluding section of this series, we will explore what that better way may be. 🔥

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About Author

Eliana Turan is a trans Clevelander, writer, activist, scholar, and nonprofit professional who has studied and exposed violence in Northeast Ohio and beyond, along with helping survivors of such attacks. She has supported numerous LGBTQ+-serving organizations in various leadership roles, and she is a Ph.D. candidate from Walden University. She served in the U.S. Army from 2000 to 2006 and survived three deployments.

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  1. Pingback: The Bayard Rustin LGBTQ+ Center builds community, demands justice after Akron police kill Jayland Walker - The Buckeye Flame

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