Washington Moves Trans Woman Back To Men’s Prison In Unprecedented Act

<span class="copyright">Hokyoung Kim for HuffPost</span>
Hokyoung Kim for HuffPost

Washington state’s prison officials forcibly removed a transgender woman from the women’s prison where she had lived for three and a half years and transferred her to a men’s facility last week, marking the first time the agency has removed a transgender person from gender-affirming housing. 

Last Friday afternoon, Amber Kim was removed from her cell at the Washington Corrections Center for Women and placed in waist restraints. When her requests to see paperwork authorizing the transfer and to speak to her lawyer were denied, she refused to continue walking, Kim told HuffPost.

Guards slammed her to the ground, she said, tied her ankles and wrists together and threw her in the back of an SUV, and drove her to Monroe Correctional Complex, a men’s prison about 70 miles away. There, she was placed in solitary confinement as punishment for “refusing transfer,” she said.

Kim has been on a hunger strike since last Friday, she said, demanding to be transferred back to WCCW, the women’s prison. 

Speaking from solitary confinement in the men’s prison earlier this week, Kim expressed fear and desperation. “I’m just scared it’s gonna get a lot worse before it gets better.”

Kim was previously the subject of a HuffPost story about her 15-year fight for gender-affirming health care and housing in prison, an environment in which the state exercises near-total control over the people in its custody. The story documented Kim’s struggle to access a legal name change, hormone therapy — and finally, a housing placement among other women. After multiple denials, some of which relied on transphobic rationale, Washington’s Department of Corrections finally allowed Kim to move to a women’s prison in 2021. 

Last October, the DOC reached a settlement with the nonprofit organization Disability Rights Washington that dramatically improved the prison system’s trans health care policies. DOC Secretary Cheryl Strange hailed the “landmark agreement” as “another step in the right direction” toward improving gender-affirming care in the state’s prisons. 

After years of fighting for basic rights, Kim felt she could just do her time. But that feeling of relief was short-lived. 

In March, the National Review published an inflammatory story about a leaked disciplinary report describing Kim having sex with another woman. The story, which deadnamed and misgendered Kim, included no allegations of assault or non-consensual activity, but suggested that transgender women are “male inmates who identified as women” to sexually exploit incarcerated women. 

DOC policy regards incarcerated individuals’ gender identity as confidential information. After the National Review story was published, DOC media relations manager Tobby Hatley told HuffPost in an email that the agency was “concerned that someone disclosed private medical information” about Kim and that the leak was under investigation.

When HuffPost asked for an update on the status of the investigation 10 weeks later, Hatley said on June 4 it would “be finalized this week.” The following Monday, Hatley said the investigation “is ongoing” and that “there is no specific time for the investigation to conclude.” Asked what had changed since he said the investigation was nearly complete, Hatley said he did not know.

The act of “engaging in a sex act with another person(s)” is a violation of DOC rules. Kim’s initial punishment for the so-called “504 infraction” was being moved to a different, more restrictive unit in the women’s prison, which she expected would be temporary. Earlier this month, she received shocking news. Her counselor told her that prison officials had recommended she be moved out of the women’s prison. When she asked for the reason for the recommendation, she could not get an answer. But she strongly suspected it was related to the 504 infraction. 

“Cis women get caught having sex all the time and nothing happens. Maybe they get moved to a different cell or pod,” Kim told HuffPost after she learned about the transfer recommendation. “I just want to be treated the same as every other woman here,” she said, noting her previously clean disciplinary record during her three and a half years in the women’s prison. 

A week after the transfer, Kim has yet to receive an explanation for it. DOC policy allows individuals to be removed from gender-affirming housing if there are “documented, objective safety and security concerns.” But it also states that transgender individuals’ “own views about personal safety will be considered” when making housing recommendations, a requirement echoed in federal law

When I first asked the DOC why Kim was recommended for transfer, officials declined to say, citing confidentiality restrictions. After Kim signed authorizations for DOC to provide me with information, DOC communications director Chris Wright wrote that the “housing review was initiated because of Kim’s most recent sexual contact with another incarcerated individual.” 

“Both individuals were infracted and Kim admitted multiple times to the consensual sexual contact. DOC policy does not permit any sex, even if consensual, in prison,” Wright wrote.

In a follow-up email, Wright said he should not have used the word “consensual,” “since there technically is no such thing.” 

The other woman involved in the incident, whom HuffPost is declining to name to protect her privacy, did not respond to a request for comment. 

Despite DOC’s rules against physical intimacy, consensual sex in prison is “absolutely commonplace,” said Starr Lake, who was incarcerated at WCCW for more than 20 years and briefly overlapped with Kim. 

“Life doesn’t stop because people are in prison,” Lake said. People facing long prison sentences “really do their best to live their life as normally as they can within the confines of the institution they’re in — and so that means having relationships, making connections and behaving as any healthy adult would.”  

When Lake first got to prison, the DOC used to allow brief hugs, but eventually banned that, too. “They were like, ‘No hugging. No touching.’ I can’t imagine who I would be today if I spent 24 years in prison and never had a hug. I can’t imagine.” 

Much of the intimacy in prison goes undetected by prison staff, but there have been 33 so-called “504 infractions” at WCCW since January 2021, around the time Kim arrived. “This is the only one that resulted in a transfer to another facility,” Wright told HuffPost in an email. 

“We can plainly see that while DOC is actively parading around its progressive stance towards trans people, what we can see in practice is that it’s extremely tenuous,” said A.D. Lewis, an attorney who used to work with trans people incarcerated in Washington state and now runs the Prison Law Office’s Trans Beyond Bars project. “And that if a trans person allegedly breaks a prison rule, they will be treated differently and punished more harshly than non-trans people.”

Amber Kim spent three and a half years at Washington Corrections Center for Women before she was forcibly transferred to a men's prison.
Amber Kim spent three and a half years at Washington Corrections Center for Women before she was forcibly transferred to a men's prison. courtesy of friend of Amber Kim

Trans people face disproportionate rates of incarceration, and once locked up, they are disproportionately likely to be the victims of violence. Many prisons, which tend to be located in rural areas, attract conservative staffers with transphobic views. Each state and the federal government treat trans prisoners differently, but most places house people in prisons that match the sex they were assigned at birth.

When Kim first got to prison in 2008, she was placed in a maximum security men’s facility where she did not feel safe coming out as trans. “I was scared all the time that if somebody figured out I was trans, I’d be done for,” she previously told HuffPost. She privately disclosed she was trans to prison staff in 2013, hoping it would lead to gender-affirming health care and housing. But for years, her requests were repeatedly denied.

The denials didn’t come with an explanation. Eventually, Kim filed a public records request, paying 20 cents per page for documentation of the denial of one of her requests to move to the women’s prison. The paperwork revealed that prison officials deadnamed and misgendered her and leaned on baseless assertions that as a trans woman, she posed an inherent threat to cis women — even though the prison’s own classification system labeled her as a “potential victim” rather than assailant. 

In 2020, the DOC released its first trans housing policy, and the following year, it allowed Kim to move to WCCW. Of the approximately 250 openly trans men and women in DOC prisons, 11 are currently in gender-affirming housing, Wright said. Although most transgender people in DOC custody are not in gender-congruent housing, the state has never previously removed a trans person from such a setting. 

DOC’s “own policies have come to recognize that trans people exist in prisons and have faced significant danger — and their own decision to transfer Amber to a women’s prison [in 2021] indicates their recognition that she is, in fact, a trans woman who faces danger in men’s prisons,” said Dean Spade, a professor at Seattle University School of Law. “So their current position to transfer her to a men’s prison is out of line with their own policy requirements and the most basic requirements they are under to prevent grievous harm to her.”

“Nothing changed about who she is,” Spade said. 

Kim has been in the Intensive Management Unit, or solitary confinement, since she arrived at the men’s prison last Friday. It took a day and a half for prison staff to provide her with gender-appropriate undergarments, and two days until she had phone access. She has spent the past week locked in her cell nearly 24 hours a day. On some days, she has been allowed out briefly to use the phone or go outside. She is allowed to shower three times a week.

Wright said Kim was placed in segregation after she “refused to follow the lawful direction of staff and attempted to assault them.” Kim says that although she did refuse transfer, she was not violent. In response to a request for the video footage of the transfer, Wright directed HuffPost to file a formal public records request.

While at WCCW, Kim made friends, finally got clothes that fit, and recently completed a one-year computer programming degree. She is a few credits away from completing her associate’s degree, with high honors.

On Monday, Lisa Kanamu, who has been incarcerated at WCCW for 18 years, showed up for her weekly peer support meeting with Kim. When Kim wasn’t there, Kanamu learned what had happened from other prisoners who had witnessed the transfer. She was devastated. 

“I love Amber dearly,” Kanamu said, describing her as smart, “dry funny,” and exceedingly generous, volunteering her time to help others learn math. It felt like only a matter of time until Kim referred to her as “Mom,” Kanamu said. 

“That’s how we are here though. Because we are not with our families. We’re with each other. We celebrate our wins together, our triumphs, we mourn our losses together. Birthdays, holidays, we do it all together. So we become a familial unit. And Amber was quickly growing into my family unit,” Kanamu said. 

“She didn’t deserve this.”