The experience of transgender women in a Honduran prison
Ms Frauke Decoodt
Frauke has a past in anthropology, human rights and journalism. She holds a Master in Anthropology of Conflict, Violence and Reconciliation from Sussex University (UK). She went on to live and work in Honduras and Guatemala as a human rights worker with Peace Brigades International and as an independent journalist. Her print and photojournalism focus on how people confront violence. Please keep in mind that the text was written as a journalistic endeavour, not academic. Therefore, and for the fluidity of the text, sourcing is different.
On the pink corridor
Brithany and Nicolle have something in common. They are both transgender women living in Honduras.
Honduras is not a very safe place to be a trans person. The Honduran LGTBQI+ human rights organization Cattrachas calculated that between 2009 (when the military ousted president Manuel Zelaya in a coup d’état) and 2022 at least 427 members of the LGBTQI+ community have been assassinated, of which 131 were transgender people.
Brithany and Nicolle have something else in common. The women both spent time
in Tamara, an overcrowded prison near the capital of Tegucigalpa with about 7000 male inmates (in 2020, the time this article was written). These are their stories of how they negotiated their lives in prison and on the outside. The threat of violence never recedes.
Surviving the streets, ending up in prison
I first met Nicolle (due to safety reasons, not her real name) in 2018, not long after her release from prison, at the offices of Arcoiris, an organization defending LGBTQI+ rights in Honduras.
Today, she looks different, with her hair in braids, in high heels and makeup.
Her voice also sounds different, hoarse and whispering, because last November she was stabbed in the throat. Other trans women I met at Arcoiris have since been killed, like Bessy in July 2019. Some have fled, like Paola who escaped to Europe in January 2020 after an assassination attempt. They were killed or attacked because they were activists denouncing crimes against their community, often combined with the danger of engaging in sex work.
When I first met Nicolle, she swore she would never do sex work but now necessity has forced her into it. ‘I hate it!’ she exclaims. ‘Sometimes I earn close to nothing, but I need to pay rent and buy food.’ She made better money before going to prison, selling drugs for a street gang. Gangs often coerce trans women to work for them because many are sex workers who are strolling the streets anyway. After a gang threatened Nicolle, she conceded to selling drugs for them. Opposing the gangs in Honduras is not an option, it gets you killed. Nicolle soon got arrested for possession of marijuana. She was beaten while being driven around by the police for several hours and a day later sent to Tamara Penitentiary for three years. She was 24 years old.
Nicolle is not an exception. Many trans women in Honduras are forced into sex work and crime. Honduras is a conservative Christian country. According to the Pew Research Center, about 88% of Hondurans oppose equal marriage and 83% consider homosexuality a sin. Machismo - which considers men need to behave as aggressive, heterosexual, dominant men - is considered a virtue. This heteronormativity is one of the causes of the constant discrimination and violence the LGBTQI+ community faces. Many trans people cannot find ‘normal’ work and are rejected by their families. Crime and sex work become the only options left for a lot of trans women, with prison often the next step.
Nicolle sums up the reasons her fellow inmates were locked up. One was inside for begging, some for selling marijuana but most had to do with sex work. Sometimes clients don’t pay, or not enough, and the girls resort to stealing. Other clients or passers-by insult, attack and try to kill them. Several trans women are imprisoned for murder or attempted murder, because they acted out of fear or self-defence. Whatever the case, in court discrimination is rife, and the story of the male accusers almost always wins. ‘There are so many things in this trans life that started with transphobia and homophobia,’ Nicolle concludes.
But it is not every trans person’s story. Brithany has the support of a loving family and chose sex work voluntarily. ‘I tried it out of curiosity,’ she says. ‘I placed an announcement on the internet.’ While she didn’t do much sex work, the experience determined her life. ‘This curiosity is what got me locked up. My underage neighbour also did some sex work. She asked me if I could help her with placing an announcement. Ignorant of the consequences, I did, and got sentenced to 10 years.’
Five years later, Brithany is 28 and out on parole. She is required to return to prison at weekends. We meet at Arcoiris. She looks like the girl next door, dressed plainly with minimal makeup. She is convinced that she can get me inside the penitentiary to observe life on the LGBTQI+ corridor. The director has done her that favour before. Nicolle wants to come along to bring some basic necessities for the girls there. Both Brithany and Nicolle stress how much such visits from Arcoiris meant to them while they were inside. ‘It made us feel like somebody cared. It broke the monotony,’ Nicolle explains. Since her release from prison, Nicolle hoped to set up a support group to visit the girls inside, but due to a lack of permissions and funding, she has only managed to go four times.
A few days later we stand in front of the penitentiary gates with three garbage bags full of supplies: things like toothpaste, toilet paper, soap, condoms, beans and rice. Apart from basic and disgusting prison meals, ‘everything costs money inside and prisoners depend on what visitors bring them,’ says Nicolle. ‘Many trans women don’t have families that visit them so they are dependent on us to bring them stuff, or do underpaid sex work [inside prison] to make some money.’
Three years into her jail term Brithany also started doing some sex work to make ends meet. She proudly remembers that she was highly valued. Others, like Nicolle, chose a boyfriend to support them. He helped her set up a food stall. ‘But for many, a boyfriend’s support is not enough and they don’t necessarily keep you safer. My boyfriend was very jealous. Once, he nearly strangled me.’ Often sex inside prisons is also not very safe. ‘Several of us got HIV [in jail],’ says Nicolle. ‘But there are hardly ever any medicines available and you have to be really sick to be taken to the health service.’ Unsurprisingly, the health service doesn’t provide hormone treatments either. ‘Somebody inside sells it to us,’ Brithany clarifies.
Identity – erased and re-affirmed
It’s a lengthy wait at the entrance gates with our bin bags full of stuff. Prison guards and heavily armed military police look disdainfully at Brithany and Nicolle. Nobody gets in as the director is in a meeting, maybe about the following day’s declaration that will stop all visits due to Covid-19.
After two hours and an extended security check, we get in. Both Nicolle and Brithany remember being terrified when they first set foot inside Tamara penitentiary – Nicolle started her jail term in December 2014, seven months before Brithany. Strolled alongside the barracks and central courtyard they were taken to the LGBTQI+ corridor with both inmates and guards shouting abuse at them. The corridor is about 1.5 meters wide and 15 meters long, lined with small cells that sleep two in a bunk bed, something of a privilege in a prison accommodating around 7,000 inmates in a space intended for 1,700. When they arrived, the corridor looked charmless but during her time Brithany had the corridor painted pink, hung up a rainbow flag, and lobbied for a television. The other side of the aisle still doesn’t look very appealing, there is a big cage with mentally ill prisoners pacing around. The pink corridor is in a block called La Isla (The Island) with corridors for prisoners with mental and physical disabilities, for chronically sick inmates, and for ‘the gays’, a label to which all diversity in the LGBTQI+ corridor is reduced.
On the girls’ first day in La Isla their hair was cut off. For both a horrible memory. ‘This is our identity,’ Brithany says indignantly. ‘Its purpose was to tell us that they don’t consider us women.’ Other ways of erasing their identity included not being allowed to wear women’s clothes on visiting days and having to take showers alongside men. What pains the girls, even more, is that it’s prisoners who make these rules, that it was another trans woman who cut their hair. She was the LGTBQI+ corridor’s coordinator. ‘She enjoyed humiliating us,’ Nicolle remembers. ‘She once beat someone so badly, they moved her to a maximum security facility.’ Nicolle, and then Brithany, became the next coordinators.
Negotiating power inside the prison
Guards rarely venture inside Honduran prisons. Inside, the prisoners rule. In Honduras, this mostly means the gangs are in control. To avoid massacres, members of the notorious Calle 18 or MS13 (violent street gangs that dominate Honduran society) are separated into different prisons, each controlling their own sections. These gangs endorse the chosen coordinators of every aisle, block and building. This hierarchy of coordinators ensures the labyrinth of written and unwritten rules is respected. The power of the coordinators is indisputable. ‘They make sure there are no fights or riots,’ clarifies Brithany. These occur often. Last year alone , 55 inmates died during prison riots in Honduras according to Insight Crime. In May 2020, six women prisoners were brutally murdered. The LGBTQI+ inmates feel especially vulnerable. ‘During a riot anybody can come and kill you,’ Nicolle explains. ‘The top coordinator once told me that our heads would be the first to roll. Imagine the constant state of fear we feel, twenty of us against thousands of inmates.’ When Nicolle became coordinator, she told residents of her corridor to keep their heads down. ‘If one of us makes problems, all of us pay.’
This attitude explains why none of the women in the ‘pink aisle’ mention any complaints about prison life to me. It takes some time before we manage to sit down at the end of the corridor to chat. We sent some men away who were watching TV, but they remain close enough to eavesdrop. The inhabitants of the corridor talk in general about the lack of freedom, resources, and visits, and their hopes of not making the same mistakes again. They say nothing about the discrimination and violence they suffer. I’m reminded of Nicolle’s words: ‘In prison, no one talks freely.’ One message the girls often repeat stands out though: ‘We’re all prisoners here. If we respect, we get respect.’
That golden rule was also mentioned by the lead coordinator when he took me on a tour of the prison. ‘If they behave, we look after them, and we punish those that abuse them.’ Fear and the need to coexist in an overcrowded jail make inmates obey; bothering the LGBTQI+ prisoners would cause problems. To demonstrate they “look after them”, and to check up on me and exhibit their control, is probably why the lead coordinator and his following showed up almost as soon as we arrived in the pink corridor and handed out women’s clothes, followed by an awkward fashion show and photo shoot. The need to maintain this delicate coexistence also leaves trans women some room for negotiation. ‘As coordinator, I was able to get them to let us grow our hair, wear more feminine clothes and get hormone treatment,’ Nicolle proudly recalls. But like peace, rules are fragile inside. Problems arose after Brithany left. Two cis-male coordinators took charge of the pink corridor and they lost some of their corridor’s achieved benefits.
A State that fails to protect
It’s three in the afternoon, time to go. Soon the guards will lock the buildings. We still have two hours on buses, back to the streets of Tegucigalpa. ‘It’s crazy to say, but outside we often feel more vulnerable, there is more discrimination and violence against us,’ Nicolle asserts. ‘Even though in prison we’re at the mercy of the gangs, they also somehow support and protect us. It would be worse if state security forces controlled the prisons.’
Nicolle’s lack of confidence in the State to protect LGBTQI+ inmates is based on experience. Government often demonstrated it considers prisoners as criminals with no rights. Even outside the penitentiary the State fails to protect, and is often a perpetrator of discrimination and violence against the LGBTQI+ community. ‘Many of the attacks come from police or soldiers,’ Nicolle claims. Reporting abuses is considered useless and even dangerous in a country where around 95 per cent (in 2020) of the murders of the LGBTQI+ community are not investigated or punished. Cattrachas calculated that from 2009 until 2022 only 99 murders were prosecuted from a total number of 446. Only a few of them resulted in sentences.
That prisoners are considered criminals without rights also became apparent during the Covid-19 emergency. The main measure was to forbid visits. In a prison system where inmates depend on visits for their subsistence, this made survival even more precarious. ‘I am very worried about the girls inside,’ says Nicolle. ‘It’s impossible to know how they are.’
But she is also worried about herself. Like so many others she has been unable to go out to do her sex work since 16 March due to the Covid-19 curfew. One trans woman who tried to go out was killed. While Nicolle is struggling, Brithany, on the other hand, is relatively happy. She enjoys being with her family and making plans for the future. ‘I lost five years of my life [in prison]. I want to study, maybe set up a beauty salon.’ Both women, however, share one dream: setting up a support network for imprisoned trans persons. ‘I know what it feels like,’ says Brithany. ‘The need for love, family and resources. I will not let them down.’
*This is an extended and slightly updated article originally published in the September-October Issue 2020 of the New Internationalist, on how transgender women negotiate identity, resources and power inside a Honduran prison.
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