In My Own Words: Donisha McShan
By Donisha McShan
I am a transgender woman. I first realized that I felt more like a girl than a boy when I was four years old, but it wasn’t until 1999 that I started hormone therapy. For the past fifteen years, I have lived openly in the world as a woman.
In August of 2010, I was sentenced to two years in federal prison. I began three years of supervised release in April of 2012, but was sent back because I tested positive for drug use. That was a real wake up call for me, and I started attending Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings. With hard work and prayer, I have been drug free since April 15, 2013.
In October 2013, I was paroled to The H Group, a halfway house in Marion, Illinois, to complete my sentence and begin a drug rehabilitation program. At the halfway house, I was able to enroll in college, and attend counseling and substance abuse treatment. I was excited about the opportunity to focus on my rehabilitation and to set myself up to succeed once I was released. I was sorry about the actions that had landed me in jail and truly believed that I was capable of more, but the way I was treated at The H Group made it nearly impossible for me to think about the future.
Almost as soon as I started living at The H Group, I was told by the staff members that I was a man, which is not true, and that if I didn’t stop acting like a woman, I would be sent back to jail. The staff members addressed me with male pronouns and titles, I was forced to sleep in a room with four men, even though I didn’t feel safe, and the staff at The H Group periodically raided my belongings and confiscated anything they viewed as remotely feminine. They took my makeup, clothing, pedicure kit, magazines, and curlers. They even took my pink shower cap. I tried to “take the high road,” “turn the other cheek,” and “let go and let God,” but I was hurt and I knew this treatment was wrong. Instead of focusing on improving myself to build a new life, I was just focused on surviving each day.
Being the first transgender resident at this facility, I realized that I had the opportunity and responsibility to speak out, not only to protect myself, but to make sure that other transgender individuals aren’t discriminated in the same way. After some investigation, I reached out to Lambda Legal, a national LGBT advocacy group. They agreed to advocate for me, but I had to do my part.
On April 21, I filed a formal grievance with The H Group about the way I was being treated. I wasn’t convinced that the grievance would cause The H Group to change, but I had learned that if I didn’t exhaust The H Group’s internal grievance procedure, I could be barred from filing a lawsuit in federal court. There was a tight deadline to file a grievance, but I was able to file the grievance within twenty days of the last raid of my room. In the grievance, I demanded four things: 1) that my personal possessions be returned; 2) that I be allowed to live and present as the woman I am; 3) that staff address and refer to me with feminine pronouns and titles; and 4) that I be removed from the male dormitory. On May 1, Lambda Legal sent a demand letter to the CEO of The H Group with copies forwarded to my probation officer, my U.S. Senator, the regional director of the Bureau of Prisons, and the U.S. Attorney General.
On May 5, I was summoned by the facility director. She extended a formal apology on behalf of the facility. She informed me that all of my personal belongings would be returned, staff would refer to me using appropriate pronouns and treat me with respect, I would start eating meals with the other female residents, and I would be reassigned to a single room. Talk about a grand slam!
I felt proud and grateful. I felt that I had spoken up not only for myself but for transgender women everywhere. When The H Group was refusing to respect me, I felt as though they were forcing me to take a step backward. After my personal items were returned and The H Group staff started treating me as a woman, I found for the first time that I was able to concentrate on the real reason I was at The H Group – treating my substance abuse and preparing myself for my release.
I have since found a job and nice apartment in the area. I have a growing support network in the community, and I love the progress that I’m making with my therapist. I feel like my trust in God allowed me to trust the process and myself.
I hope that my story can help to further transgender rights in correctional institutions. What happened to me should never happen to anyone just because of who they are. I’m thankful I stood up for myself and thankful that Lambda Legal was able to help me.