It's not often that one finds Harvey Fierstein writing in The Opinion Pages of the New York Times. But he did so a couple of days ago, What is this child doing in prison? questions the sanity of placing a 16-year old child in solitary confinement at the York Institution for Women in Niantic, CT.
As Fierstein asks, "What was her crime?"
That she has survived.
With her father incarcerated and her mother addicted to heroin, crack cocaine and alcohol, the girl — who is referred to simply as Jane Doe, to protect her identity as a minor — had been passed among family members since she was 5 years old. They repeatedly raped, tortured and even prostituted her.
Plucked from that environment by the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, she was placed in a foster care facility, where she was raped by a another resident and forced to provide sex for a staff member. When she fought against such treatment, she was punished. Caught being forced to blow a staff's member, she was transferred to a residential facility in another state (Massachusetts), where she was again assaulted by a worker.
Eventually the state of Connecticut had enough (!) and placed her in a mental ward cell...presumably for her own protection. There she was isolated for 23 hours a day. Joette Katz of the DCF said it was
the only acceptable option to ensure the safety of the other youths for whom I am responsible.Jane Doe can admittedly be violent.
She has fought with other children and with staff members wherever she’s been placed. But given her history, how could she survive by being anything but violent? Where, in her entire life, would this child have ever learned anything except to fight back? And how is placing her in an adult prison — where aggression, savagery and intimidation are the everyday tools needed to survive — going to help her heal?Adults felt it necessary to beat that devil out of her. Other adults felt it was their right to use her as a sex toy.
It’s not enough to recount the torment she has endured. If we want to stop the cycle of brutality, we have to ask why the heavens rained down on this child. I believe it is because Jane is transgender.
Jane was born a boy. She began exhibiting feminine characteristics from age 5, and by the time she was 9 she knew that she was, in fact, a girl. Born into a society where blending gender lines was unacceptable, where God and preachers condemn, Jane didn’t have a chance.
And yet, against all odds and reason, she has not destroyed herself. And her strength has brought her allies; protesters have marched in the state capital, Hartford, demanding her release. Gov. Dannel Malloy agreed, and at his urging she was moved on Tuesday to a cottage on the prison grounds. This is not a solution. Yes, it is better than a cell, but she is still just as isolated, and still being held against her will in a prison. And she is not receiving what she really needs — demands, in fact — and that is treatment. “I need to deal with the trauma I’ve experienced,” she wrote in an affidavit. “This prison cannot do that for me.”Ms. Katz says there is nowhere else to place her. That ignores the families that have offered to take her in...including a transgender couple. People want to help begin the healing.
Of all the crimes that have been committed against Jane, the worst may be that of omission: our failure to nurture, protect and teach our children, and to treasure them as unique individuals. The crime is ours. The punishment is theirs to bear.