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We Must Not Forget Jane Doe's Humanity

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Last Friday, I traveled to Niantic, Connecticut to visit with Jane Doe, a transgender 16-year-old being held at the high security York Correctional Facility for adult women. Jane has been sitting alone at York for 51 days. She arrived on the evening of April 8, when a Superior Court Judge in Bridgeport, Connecticut granted a motion to transfer Jane from the custody of the Department of Children and Families (DCF) into the custody of the adult prison system without any criminal charges. For over seven weeks Jane has been alone. She has no peer interaction. No meaningful education. No therapeutic support to meet her needs after a decade of traumas. Imagine what life would be like for you if every person entrusted with your care hurt you. Imagine that for 10 years you endured physical and sexual violence a26nd shaming for living as the person that you are. Then imagine at the end of the 10 years, after surviving it all, you were thrown into a prison cell because you didn't behave. That is what happened to Jane and what I was imagining when I went to York to visit her.

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.

There has been extensive media coverage of Jane's case and a team of incredible advocates working on her behalf. From CNN to the New York Times to the New Haven Register we have heard from and about Jane.

After 31 days in solitary confinement at York, Jane wrote to Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy pleading for help: "I have been sitting in this prison for a month now and there is no plan to get me out. I am suffering in here. I'm having trouble sleeping and I'm not eating much. I cry in bed every night. I can't be myself in this place. I feel forgotten and thrown away." Janet Mock, Laverne Cox and Piper Kerman have all joined the calls demanding Jane's release and making sure that she is not thrown away and forgotten.

Meanwhile, others have tried to justify the actions of DCF and its Commissioner, Joette Katz, by casting Jane as a violent monster who left the agency with no choice but to send her to prison. In an op-ed titled "Teen's Violent History Left State No Option," Katz explains that while she has "compassion and concern for this youth," it was her responsibility to "protect the other girls as well as the female staff members who care for them." "Her behavior grew too dangerous" to keep her, Katz laments. But we should be cautious about claims of dangerousness made by powerful people justifying their actions. As one advocate explains:

"Although Katz regards Jane as exceptionally dangerous, queer and trans women of color have all too often been painted as uniquely violent, even where violence has been directed against them (as it very often is). Just ask CeCe McDonald, a trans woman who was imprisoned for almost two years after defending herself from a racist and transphobic attack, or Jewelyes Gutierrez, who faced criminal charges after defending herself against repeated attacks by fellow students."

Jane herself will tell you that when scared, she instinctively responds in self-defense and that she has spent her life fighting to survive. But if you had endured what Jane had, wouldn't you? And if you, like me, are white and wealthy, isn't it very likely that you would not be perceived as the most violent person DCF had ever seen?

In our quest for the "facts" about what has happened in the past, one centrally important fact is that Jane is a human being. She is a 16-year-old girl who looks up to Janet Mock, who imagines going to prom, and who wants to be loved. Those facts matter a lot. In my favorite speech delivered by historian Vijay Prashad at an event on mass incarceration held at the Riverside Church in Harlem, Prashad closed with this call to the audience: "We live in freedom by necessity. We must reshape our world. We must love one another, or die." By attempting to take away the humanity of another person and cast them instead as a monster, we endeavor to justify horrible societal abuses. We truly must love one another.

As we continue to stand with Jane and demand justice, I hope that the late Dr. Maya Angelou's words can remind us of the importance of love for rebuilding the traumas wrought by society: "The love of the family, the love of the person can heal. It heals the scars left by a larger society. A massive, powerful society." I urge you to keep fighting for Jane.

Correction: An earlier version of this blog stated that Jane Doe is 26. She is 16. This has been corrected.