Content Warning: This story includes references to sexual assault, abuse, transphobia and homophobia.
Ashlee Inscoe faces a daily barrage of harassment, abuse and assault.
“I am referred to as a man, a he, a faggot and a queer,” Inscoe said.
But the threat is greater than hateful words. Her life could be in danger. Inscoe is an intersex, trans woman living in a North Carolina men’s prison, where she and people advocating on her behalf see her safety as increasingly concerning.
Inscoe has been incarcerated at the Avery-Mitchell Correctional Institution in Spruce Pine, North Carolina, for the past three years. For two of those years, Inscoe has asked prison officials to transfer her to a women’s prison and for access to a necessary surgical procedure as she battles reproductive health complications.
The state has denied Inscoe’s requests. The North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NCDPS) says the agency is providing Inscoe with constitutionally adequate care. John Bull, a spokesman with the state prisons department, told Reckon he could not comment on individual cases.
In response to correspondence from Inscoe’s advocates, Jodi Harrison, an attorney for the state prison system, wrote that the agency is “confident the decisions that these committees have made with regard to this offender have been thoughtful, deliberative, and fully in line with NCDPS policies.”
Inscoe’s case is not unique. Last year, an NBC report found that the vast majority of incarcerated trans people in America are housed in facilities based on the sex they were assigned at birth. LGBTQ+ rights advocates say a federal law called the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was passed by Congress to protect incarcerated people from sexual abuse and assault. This law also requires prisons to house trans and intersex identified people where they are safest.
Inscoe believes North Carolina violated the law by assigning her to a prison-based solely on her assigned sex at birth rather than looking at her individual circumstances, which the law requires.
Inscoe, who spoke to Reckon from prison, says: “I was born with a uterus. I’m a woman, and it is absolutely horrible being stuck in a dorm with 34 men and in a prison with 850 of them.”
‘Bad things happened’
When Inscoe was born in Harmony, North Carolina, the hospital listed her gender as male on the birth certificate. Her family raised her as a boy until they noticed she wasn’t developing as they expected. Further testing revealed that Inscoe is intersex, a person born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit binary definitions of female or male.
“Growing up, I did a lot of boy things and I always felt miserable inside. I felt like another part of me was being kept a secret and that a girl couldn’t be who she wanted to be without being punished,” Inscoe told Reckon.
When she started her menstrual cycle, her doctors and family decided to stop it by giving Inscoe a hysterectomy. Throughout the rest of her life, people questioned her identity; she was bullied and sexually assaulted.
“Being intersex in the 1980s and ’90s in North Carolina was horrible. If you talked about it, bad things happened,” Inscoe recalls.
She found it hard to be herself in rural, southern North Carolina, so Inscoe sought a community where she would feel accepted and moved to California. Although she found an LGBTQ+ community there, she continued to be sexually assault.
While incarcerated at a men’s prison in California, Inscoe was ambushed, brutally beaten and sexually assaulted by several prisoners. After one attack, she tested positive for HIV. The incident prompted the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to move Inscoe to a women’s prison.
“I think about it all the time,” Inscoe said of the attacks she endured in prison. “Like, sometimes, I can’t get it out of my head, especially when it’s a lot of noise and commotion going on here [in the prison] or if I get out in the hallway and there’s a lot of people who are rushing out and starting to push up against me or grabbing me.”
The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 2015 that 35% of transgender people who had been incarcerated reported being sexually assaulted by staff or other incarcerated people.
Despite California placing Inscoe in a women’s facility, North Carolina officials have housed her with men while she serves a sentence of 13 years and 10 months.
To be free…
Legal and gender justice advocacy groups TGI Justice Project, interACT and Emancipate NC are working to have Inscoe transferred as soon as possible to protect her safety.
In late September, Inscoe’s attorneys filed on her behalf a writ of mandamus—a court order warning North Carolina’s Commissioner of Prisons that they’re breaking the law and asking them to transfer Inscoe to a women’s facility.
“A lot of people in prison administration, including medical professionals, have a political orientation that is hostile to trans people and does not respect their existence or the validity of their experiences,” said Elizabeth Simpson, associate director of Emancipate N.C., one of the groups representing Inscoe.
Inscoe’s attorneys argue that North Carolina is in violation of PREA, the federal rape-elimination law, as well as the Eighth Amendment. Simpson outlines several concerns for Inscoe’s safety, including the fact that Inscoe is forced to sleep in a room with 33 men and isn’t allowed to do so with her pants on.
Simpson also notes that Inscoe constantly experiences verbal and physical harassment and has reported that “men grab my breast[s] and buttocks almost every day” and that she is incarcerated with men convicted of sexual assault. Inscoe says, “I always hope that one doesn’t decide to rape me again.”
However, Inscoe has provided the prison with documentation showing that she is biologically female.
Last year the Transgender Accommodations Request Committee, a group of experts responsible for determining accommodations for transgender people in prison, approved Inscoe to be seen by an endocrinologist. Her lawyers documented that two doctors confirmed Inscoe is intersex and has a XX karyotype. Both doctors recommended that she be transferred to an all-women’s correctional facility. They also found that Inscoe has undeveloped reproductive tissue that needs to be removed with surgery. If not removed, it could be fatal to her health.
The Facility Transgender Accommodations Request Committee denied her request for surgery and relocation to a women’s facility.
In the meantime, the writ mandamus is under review as Inscoe awaits a decision that could largely impact her life and health.
“It is my hope that the struggle and constant battle I’m facing will not only result in my transfer to a women’s prison,” Inscoe said in her letter to the group of advocates, “but also help other trans and intersex women who are in prison in North Carolina to be housed where they not only feel safe from physical and sexual violence, but to be free of the systemic hatred, homophobia/transphobia, and binary mentality that plagues prisons.”