Transgender prison activist uses experience to push for change

By Puja Patel
BU News Service

Angelina Resto made history last year as the first transgender woman to be transferred from a men’s to women’s prison in the state. The Massachusetts woman has since been released and spends her time advocating for LGBTQ prisoners’ rights. 

Resto said such efforts are important because she lived the worst of what can happen to a trans prisoner when she was housed in the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk, a men’s prison. She was ridiculed and sexually harassed daily.

“The staff should be protecting the inmates but I felt unsafe constantly,” Resto said. “I’m sure other people like me that are in prison are feeling unsafe right now.”

Resto is speaking out in hopes of bringing changes. Inmate advocacy groups are pushing for new state legislation to better understand and protect gay and transgender inmates. Last month, the nonprofit Fenway Institute released a report that showed gay and trans prisoners experience disproportionately higher rates of sexual abuse compared to cisgender inmates in U.S. prisons and suggested ways to fix the situation.

“It’s critical for correctional institutions to adopt policies and practices that increase the safety of individuals in their care, especially those most vulnerable to sexual victimization while imprisoned,” said Sean Cahill, director of Health Policy Research at The Fenway Institute and a co-author of the report.

The state Department of Correction claims they have been taking steps to improve conditions for gay and trans inmates, though none were specifically laid out.

“The DOC is proud of the progress we have made internally and with outside stakeholders to implement modern, effective policies that support the safe confinement of LGBTI inmates in our custody.”

But prison advocates said there is much more to do. Resto talked in November at the State House about her experience when the report was released. She said her story shows why more needs to be done.

Convicted of a nonviolent drug offense in 2016, Resto was placed in Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk, a men’s prison, facing up to four years. The 55-year-old had been living as a woman for over 40 years.

“I had long, curly hair like Shirley Temple as a child. People would mistake me for a girl and my mom would correct them and say I’m a boy,” Resto said. “That’s when I knew I was not a boy.”

Resto said she was sexually harassed by inmates in the showers. She claims inmates followed her to the showers; she said she was always being watched because of her female body. 

“Every time I went to shower, the guys kept harassing me,” Resto said. “They would make comments on what they wanted to do to me sexually.”

The DOC said all staff with inmate contact are required to train yearly on the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a federal law intended to prevent sexual assault of inmates. 

Resto reached out to Prisoner Legal Services, a Boston-based organization that provides legal aid to prisoners feeling unsafe or unlawfully treated. With their help, Resto filed a lawsuit in 2017 asking to be transferred under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Resto was diagnosed with gender dysphoria, the state of distress associated with conflicting biological sex and gender identity. 

Her lawyers argued that she needed to live with her female gender identity to avoid debilitating psychological distress.

The department filed a motion to dismiss Resto’s case, claiming Resto’s disability is excluded from the Americans with Disabilities Act. The judge denied this motion to dismiss. 

“She wasn’t serving a very long sentence. She could have decided to just lay low and not bring more attention to herself,” said Elizabeth Matos, the executive director of Prisoner Legal Services and one of Resto’s lawyers. “But she really wanted to help create change for others like her.” 

Since Resto’s transfer, there has been one other case of a trans woman being transferred from a men’s prison to a women’s in Massachusetts. 

The Criminal Justice Reform Act of 2018 amended state laws regarding prisoner gender identity. Effective Dec. 31, 2018, a trans prisoner can be placed in the housing that complies with their gender identity if they prefer, regardless of whether they’ve been diagnosed with gender dysphoria or not. 

The Criminal Justice Reform Act also formed a special commission to study the health and safety of LGBT prisoners. The commission investigates the correctional system and recommends ways to make improvements. 

Michael Cox, the only formerly incarcerated member of the commission, said he experienced similar harassment from staff and inmates as Resto. At the North Central Correctional Institution in Gardner, Cox said he was placed in solitary confinement for hugging a fellow inmate. He believes this was a targeted and discriminatory punishment.

“The other person was openly gay and I was openly gay, so it quickly became clear what was really going on here,” Cox said. 

The DOC has a policy that an inmate’s gender identity or sexual orientation shall not be grounds for placement in solitary confinement. The department said all allegations of officer misconduct are “thoroughly investigated.”

Cox said the correctional officer who made the order was known to target gay and trans inmates.

The trans women at Gardner made makeshift makeup out of colored pencils and altered their clothes, according to Cox.

“They used the limited resources they had to try to feminize and express themselves,” Cox said. “But this subjected them to more targeting and ridicule by the staff.”

Resto said she was harassed more by the staff than the inmates. Correctional officers consistently used he/his pronouns when addressing her. 

“When I would try to stand up for myself and tell them I am a woman, not a Mr., they would say ‘Well, you’re in a men’s prison so you are a man,’” Resto said.

Now, under the Criminal Justice Reform Act, staff legally must address a prisoner in a manner complicit with their gender identity. 

“My lawyers saw right away what I was going through,” Resto said. “Every time they would visit, I would cry.”

Matos witnessed her emotions during these visits. 

“Experiencing that discrimination on a consistent basis just really affected her spirit,” Matos said. “It was eye-opening to see the contrast of how she felt at Norfolk compared to Framingham.”

Resto was transferred to Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Framingham, a women’s prison, in September 2018 and was released in April 2019. She now travels giving speeches and presentations about her experience in prison. 

Resto said she still experienced some ridicule from the staff for being trans while in the women’s prison. She claims there was one correctional officer that always told her she did not belong there. 

“But it was nothing compared to what I was going through at the men’s prison,” Resto said. “The day I transferred was one of the happiest of my life.”

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