Fan Li (2nd from left) with members of the PLAP summer team

By Fan Li, Student Attorney

At the end of the Spring Semester, just before the exam period, Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project (PLAP) intern Tori Porell and I were contacted by PLAPpers Jeanne Segil and Avery Halfon about a transgender prisoner who was facing a “tool to escape” charge. The client was intelligent, soft-spoken, and had quite a sense of humor. She was placed in the Special Management Unit after a Correctional Officer found several contraband items in her cell. The officer charged her with a Category 2-1 (possession of items likely to be used in an escape), among several other offenses.

As the client explained, the contraband items were either related to her female gender presentation or were items that she had retrained for many years through multiple prison transfers. A guilty finding on the Category 2-1 charge would cause her to be transferred to a maximum security facility, where little accommodation is available for transgender prisoners and her safety would be at immense risk. Avery filed a discovery request immediately, along with a motion to dismiss the heaviest charges.

A series of delays, however, pushed the hearing date into the summer, when neither Avery nor Jeanne would be in Boston. So they passed their notes to me, and Tori and I visited our client in early June. A week later, we represented her at the disciplinary hearing. We provided details about the client’s limited mobility and explained each item in evidence. Then, the Hearing Officer kindly dismissed all but the lightest charges.

Our client has called twice since then and thanked each one of us. But, as often is the case, even our sigh of relief contained a lament. Despite the recent advances the Prisoners’ Legal Services has made in transgender prisoners’ rights, any officer who wishes to charge a transgender prisoner with a Category 2-1 offense can easily find the opportunity to do so. The Code of Massachusetts Regulations leaves much ambiguity regarding this charge, and the punishment too frequently reaches beyond what justice warrants.

Note: A version of this post originally appeared in the PLAP newsletter.