A 16-year-old transgender girl spent 77 days alone in a Connecticut prison without ever being convicted of, or even charged with, a crime. Known publicly as "Jane Doe" because she is a minor, she sat alone in the York Correctional Institution, a high-security prison in Niantic, Connecticut, for two and a half months after a Bridgeport judge granted the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF) motion to transfer her to the prison. Over the course of the two and a half months that Jane sat in prison, those of us who knew and worked with Jane shared pieces of her life and story publicly at her request. Because Jane had learned at a young age not to trust DCF, she feared the version of her life that DCF would tell and wanted to share her own. Drawing guidance from her mentor, Janet Mock, who writes, "The most empowering thing I have done for myself has been telling and owning my story," Jane wanted to ensure that even though DCF had locked her away, they would not take away her story and her truth.
While DCF sought repeatedly to justify their actions, casting Jane as a monster and themselves as the victims of an impossible job, Jane's own words reminded us that she is human being, a teenager, who wants to find the support, safety and love that has eluded her for most of her life. From prison she wrote in an affidavit:
I wanted to be a little kid again in my mother's arms and all I wanted was someone to tell me they loved me, that everything would be alright, and that I will never have to live the way I was again. But that never happened and will not happen and I've become okay accepting that this is my life as a transgender 16 year old sex worker ... [who] will probably not make it to 25.
After being let down and left to die by so many charged with her care, it would be easy and understandable for Jane to give up on life and her dreams. But despite her resignation to the idea that perhaps she would not survive to her late 20s, Jane embodies resilience and exudes a compassion and vitality that make it impossible not to believe in her ability to survive anything and inspire anyone. I wrote here last month:
When I walked into the room to meet Jane, I expected the worst. I expected to see someone totally destroyed by what had happened to her, completely shut down from the repeated failures of the adults and systems in her life to give her the care she deserved. I imagined the shape I would be in if I had to navigate all that Jane has at the age of 16. But I walked into a room and there was Jane. With a smile and so much life; she wanted to engage. Her gratitude for the support was palpable and her ask of us was simple: tell people thank you and get me out of here.
Finally, after 77 days, Jane was moved from the York prison to a secure juvenile facility for girls in Middletown, Connecticut. This is progress and an important victory for Jane. Keeping Jane in prison was unthinkable, and we should celebrate along with her the victory of getting her out. But our commitment to Jane and her story cannot stop here. This is not a victory, full stop. The damage from locking a vulnerable and traumatized young person in solitary confinement for two and a half months cannot be undone. Meanwhile Jane remains in a locked facility in the custody of the agency that sent her to prison when she needed the support of a family. And when she does get out, she will still be part of a world that is not only inhospitable for transgender people of color but is set up so as to make it almost impossible for her to survive. In the same month that Jane was transferred from York, four transgender women of color (that we know of) were murdered in the United States.
If we don't continue to advocate for Jane and tell her story, DCF will have succeeded in allowing their egregious behavior in Jane's case to obscure the dangerously normalized reality of the everyday violence of the juvenile and criminal-injustice systems.
In her open letter to Jane, Janet Mock wrote:
You are not garbage. You cannot be discarded and disposed. You are life. Your existence gives me life. You are an unflickering fierce flame that reminds me every day that girls like you -- the ones who have unjustly been forced to jump insurmountable hurdles -- are the ones our leaders should be centering in our movements. You are worthy of all of our attention, care and resources.
We must heed Janet's beautiful reminder to Jane and to all of us. Too many young trans girls of color are forced to jump too many hurdles and by 16 can't imagine living past 25. And tragically, so many don't. Perhaps honoring Jane and her right to survival means turning away from aspirations of equality and toward demands for a more meaningful type of justice. Quite simply, premature death does not visit us equally in this country. The stories of Jane, CeCe, Islan, Zoraida, Yaz'min, Kandy, Tiffany, and far too many others are a devastating reminder of that fact.
After her transfer Jane wrote in a New York Times interview, "I would love to be a role model for young trans kids." The juvenile justice system "doesn't work," she reflected. Her vision for justice centers on mentorship and possibility instead of punishment.
I hope we can follow her lead.
Follow Chase Strangio on Twitter: www.twitter.com/chasestrangio