By Teresa García Castro

While Latin American countries face deteriorating conditions in prisons and the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on incarcerated people, one group in conditions of vulnerability continues to be rendered invisible: trans women deprived of liberty. Although countries have the responsibility to protect the physical and mental health and well-being of all people in their custody, in particular those who come from more vulnerable situations, the majority of governments in the region have not implemented specific measures to protect LGBTI+ people behind bars. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on trans women deprived of liberty has been disproportionate in comparison with other groups, particularly because of the diverse intersectionalities affecting their lives.

In light of this worrisome situation, civil society organizations led by and/or that work with trans people deprived of liberty have developed various initiatives to ensure the full exercise of this group’s dignity and protection of their human rights. In this context, these organizations convened a workshop entitled Trans Women Behind Bars: Strategies for Resistance in the Context of the COVID-19 Pandemic, with the aim of sharing experiences and resistance strategies, along with good practices and challenges that are being faced by civil society groups.

In addition, trans women fit the criteria established by the United Nations High Commissioner to be eligible for alternatives to incarceration in the context of COVID-19, since they are people who 1) face a greater health risk if they were to contract the disease; 2) experience inhuman and unsafe prison conditions and situations of violence; and 3) have been criminalized, resulting in their excessive incarceration. However, the measures announced by various countries in the region to reduce the number of people behind bars have not taken into account trans people’s specific needs.

During the workshop, trans women who have been in prison advocated for alternatives to incarceration and underscored the need to incorporate intersectional perspectives and a differentiated approach that would protect the rights of LGTBI+ people. These recommendations include:

  • Take immediate action to release trans women who have greater health risks and who find themselves in inhuman and unsafe prison conditions. Their release could be implemented via alternatives to incarceration, pardons, sentence reductions, or other means, in accordance with the legal and judicial system in a given country.
  • Ensure that LGTBI+ persons deprived of liberty have access to information on the COVID-19 situation.
  • Establish a Penitentiary Monitoring Program on COVID-19 with a gender and sexual diversity perspective in order to identify the differentiated effects on groups in situations of vulnerability.
  • Provide all of the inputs needed to prevent, control, and safeguard the health of LGTBI+ persons deprived of liberty in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Guarantee that trans women have adequate access to comprehensive health care and counseling suited to their needs and specificities, particularly in light of possible COVID-19 contagion. For women who opt for it, the continuity of hormone treatments and reassignment surgery should be ensured.
  • Promote constant awareness-raising and training on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression for prison workers, and other actors and officials in the judicial system. These trainings should be coordinated with specialized civil society organizations that have experience in these matters and should include the active participation of trans women.
  • Support reentry for trans women who leave prison by ensuring, at the very least, tests to detect COVID-19, proper medical services, a safe form of transportation home or to a halfway house, and the immediate provision of official identification documents.
  • Implement programs and partnerships between the state and civil society organizations—including the private sector when appropriate—to ensure access to work, personal development, health, housing, and education to people who have been deprived of liberty.
  • Promote the participation of trans women who have been deprived of liberty in spaces for planning and implementing public policies aimed specifically at promoting the human rights of the trans population.