A closet within a closet
A transgender prisoner, raped, self-mutilated and disregarded, fights her way out of dual captivity – on her own terms
Unique Taylor doesn’t officially exist.
That’s because the 37-year-old, convicted for a drug-manufacturing conspiracy, is trapped, quite literally, in two of the most extreme ways possible. Taylor lives in solitary confinement at ADX, the federal supermax in Florence, Colorado, known as the tightest security prison on the planet. And she’s a transgender woman — stuck within the body of a man and unable to transition out of the sex she was assigned at birth but, she says, isn’t and never has been her own.
Chronicling Taylor’s eleven-year odyssey through the federal Bureau of Prisons is, on many levels, a journalistic “Where’s Waldo.”
Her name doesn’t come up in the federal inmate locator. Instead, prisoner #05628-017 is listed as “Richard McBee, 37, white, male” — the name she was given at birth as, but not, she makes starkly clear, the person she ever felt she is. A face-to-face interview with Taylor is impossible because of ADX’s unparalleled no-visitation policy for journalists. And phone calls between ADX prisoners and reporters are strictly forbidden.
That leaves the written word – a lengthy narrative that Taylor hand-wrote on 89 pages of three-hole loose leaf and tied together with pink string. The account is a chronicle of being taunted, humiliated, tricked, raped, tortured, self-mutilated, medically and legally disregarded and pin-balled between six different all-male U.S. penitentiaries as a transgender woman whose identity – right down to the pronouns — the BOP systematically ignores.
Taylor’s story is dark and raw. Pretty much as dark and raw as you get. The 10th-grade dropout who earned her GED in prison can write like nobody’s business, often with humor, eloquence and striking detail and self-awareness. But – as would be expected from someone with her long history of trauma who has been living in an 8-by-12-foot concrete box with virtually no meaningful human contact – her narrative has gaps to be filled, facts and nuances to be explained and details to be edited so her whole story, not just the indelibly horrific parts of it, comes through.
It’s tricky writing about someone I’m not allowed to meet. A written narrative and conversations with her lawyers and transgender advocates and legal experts isn’t the way I’d prefer to report about Taylor. I’d like to see her. Hear her. Ask her questions. Yet, even without those options, there’s an urgency to telling her story now that BOP officials are deciding where to send her in the coming months when she’ll walk free to become the woman she achingly has wanted to be – the core, she says, of who she is.
“I lay myself bare in the following pages with great trepidation,” she writes. “But absent the truth, you’ll know only Hollywood’s version of a transgender federal inmate’s predicament. Here’s to change….”
‘Just Confusing The Hell Out Of Me’
First, some caveats.
I’m calling Unique Taylor by the name she calls herself – not her legal name. And I’m referring to her as “she” rather than “he,” the pronoun used, much to her annoyance, by a prison system that willfully has ignored her identity and well being.
Taylor’s starts her narrative in 2005 when, after seven years in a Tennessee prison, she was federally sentenced to 151 months for attempting to manufacture meth.
Still, things were tough for her long before entering the federal prison system.
Taylor was born in January 1977 to a mother who badly “wanted a girl, not a boy, even though I was a girl,” she writes. If she had been designated female at birth, she would have been named Devona. Instead, her mother “let my so-called father label me a junior.”
The words “so-called” seem warranted given Richard Devon McBee, Sr.’s track record as a parent. He was locked up when his baby was a few months old. And, like his kid, he also is now in federal prison – FCI Williamsburg in South Carolina. Taylor writes that she first met her dad at age 21 in the recreation yard of a Tennessee prison where both happened to be serving time.
“He walked up and handed me his identification card, told me he was my father. I was confused but I tried to give him a chance.”
Senior and Junior McBee were transferred to a prison in Only, Tennessee, and assigned to share a cell. As Taylor tells it, her father began complimenting her femininity and came on to her.
She said no. And she repeated herself, with emphasis. Then, she writes, she told him “he’d lost his mind.”
“…He snatched me up and started choking me, lifting me off my feet by my throat against a dingy yellow concrete wall. He was also spewing at me that I was just like my mother,” she writes. “The next day when he went to recreation I moved out of his room and was in the Hole (protective custody). That’s the last time I ever spoke to my father – my so-called father.”
Because of that incident – which Taylor calls the single most degrading in her immeasurably long series of sexual degradations — she has chosen to disown her father’s name. Taylor is her mother’s maiden name, the side of her family she always felt she fit in. She doesn’t write why she chose to call herself Unique. It’s one of the many questions I’d ask, if I could.
It’s not until page 32 that Taylor writes about the early blurs in her gender. She remembers, at four years old, being at a restaurant where the waitresses gushed about her beauty, assuming she was a little girl. Her mother just smiled, not correcting them. She fostered her child’s femininity by, among other things, letting “his” hair grow long down to “his” mid-back.
“Every night she would comb it for a long time. I used to love her doing that, feeling the bristles of her hairbrush massage my scalp and my hair being so straight it appeared to have been ironed,” Taylor remembers. “Her hair was down to the floor like Rapunzel and I used to dream of my hair being that long.”
Taylor’s mom had painted the baby’s room pink before giving birth, and didn’t change the color when she had a boy. She remarried when Taylor was five. The stepfather made Taylor cut her hair and mask her feminine mannerisms, and, she writes, forced “me to do boy activities, just confusing the hell out of me.”
Even more confusing to those around her is that Taylor is attracted to women, not men. In addition to being transgender, she is a lesbian, making her identity even more distinct and difficult for people to understand and accept. If tolerance of gays, lesbians and transgender people is low in the general public, it’s far lower in prisons. Taylor’s attraction to women is a fact she says the BOP has used to deny her transgender identity and, until recently, refuse giving her hormone therapy. It’s a precedent the agency diligently tried not to set.
Taylor spent much of her childhood and early adulthood straddling a line, straining to be male on the outside and mask the female she says “God meant me to be.” It was a matter of survival in a small town in Tennessee, a state not known for its acceptance for gay men and lesbians, let alone folks who don’t conform to their birth-assigned gender. And it became even more imperative when Taylor was sent to a youth detention center as a teen.
Her probation officer would send his young male clients up in stunt planes, rolling and diving to scare them and hone their grit. Those plane rides led to Taylor’s dread of flying. The fear remains engrained in her. So much so that on each of the 14 planes that transferred her from one BOP prison to another throughout the country, Taylor suffered from debilitating anxiety over the fear of plunging to her death.
As eager as she is to walk out into the free world, the thought of being put on another BOP plane back to Tennessee after her release fills her with horror.
As It Turns Out, Orange Isn’t Really The New Black
Taylor’s introduction starts with a riff about “Orange is the New Black,” Netflix’s comedy-drama about life in a federal women’s prison. One of its characters, played by transgender actress Laverne Cox is, like the actress herself, transgender.
Taylor envies the fictional Sophia Burset, and not just for her natural beauty and access to make-up, hair products and girly companionship. She envies the fundamental conditions of the character’s confinement – a male-to-female transgender inmate placed in a prison for women, not men.
In real life, transgender prisoners generally are housed according to their birth-assigned sex, regardless of how long they’ve known themselves to be or how long they’ve lived as the other gender. That puts male-to-female transgender women at high risk of sexual violence. The numbers stack up. According to data compiled by the Task Force and National Center for Trans Equality, nearly one in six transgender Americans — and nearly half of all black transgender people — have been to prison. A Bureau of Justice survey estimates that about 200,000 prisoners are sexually abused each year. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender prisoners are especially vulnerable, according to the Bureau, which reports that LGBT prisoners are ten times more likely to be abused by other prisoners than straight prisoners. Survivors of sexual violence are often tagged as fair game for further abuse by other inmates or prison staff – assaulted on average three to five times a year.
Having already served seven years on a state conviction, Taylor knew to act as masculine as possible when entering the federal prison system.
She tried to walk without sashaying. She tried not to sway her hips or use her arms in the graceful way that comes naturally. “I even grew facial hair and body hair for the first time in my life. It was disgusting really – what I had to become to survive.”
Privately, Taylor took t-shirts and stitched them into panties that made her feel more like a woman.
Publicly, she writes, “Each day I had to fight my mannerisms and the inflection of my voice, as I’m used to trying to talk with a higher pitch to sound more womanly.”
Her efforts didn’t work.
Within days of her arrival at her first federal prison, USP Coleman in Florida, everyone knew that she was a “punk” – a prison term used interchangeably to degrade inmates perceived as gay or transgender. Some called her a “female impersonator.” Her cellmate, a man named “Trouble” who was a member of the “Dirty White Boys” gang, sexually assaulted her within the first week. Other inmates would unzip their pants and shake themselves at her. Some masturbated while looking at her until she’d block her cell window so they couldn’t see in. She was kicked, spit on and threatened by fellow prisoners, and belittled and humiliated by corrections officers who either wouldn’t go anywhere near her or stood too close.
That’s how it would go in the next prison she was transferred to. And the one after that. And so on.
In 2007, during her long string of prison rotations, the BOP moved Taylor to USP Florence in Colorado, adjacent to the higher security, all-solitary-confinement ADX supermax where she’s now held. She remembers the terror of the flight, but also the beauty of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains outside the airplane window. Yet, once inside USP Florence – and inside each of the other five prisons she has been transferred to (some more than once) – geography had no meaning.
“I now call this Planet BOP because everywhere I’ve been is the same ‘nowhere.’ Like ‘nowhere’ is a haunted place, and I live there. No matter what state, what high-security prison, it’s comprised of the same hate-filled violent inmates and incompetent and corrupt staff.”
Officials at ADX, BOP and the U.S. Department of Justice – which runs the prison and agency — wouldn’t respond to The Independent’s inquiries about their treatment of Taylor.
“The Bureau of Prisons is responsible for handling her grievances. There’s a protocol regarding what needs to be done when they make a diagnosis of gender identity disorder. This is a Bureau of Prisons matter,” said Jeff Dorschner, spokesman for Colorado’s U.S. Attorney’s office.
“We won’t be addressing the allegations made by the inmate or providing comment for this story,” added BOP spokesman Chris Burke.
Taylor lost the will to act like a man (not that her efforts were particularly effective). So she took a new tact at USP Florence: she told officers from the start that she’s transgender and vulnerable to assaults. Aryan gang members who see white “punks” as mutants in their supreme race especially targeted her. She demanded to be placed in protective custody, also known as “the Hole” — a highly restricted, isolated unit without access to many privileges afforded to prisoners in general population. It was a trade-off she figured was her only way to survive.
Prison brass balked, saying she didn’t qualify for the Hole.
“They were indignant in telling me that I couldn’t be a transsexual because I didn’t have female breasts or a vagina, never mind my effeminacy and unusually feminine physique (for a male). I tried to explain the differences between sex and gender and they told me I was lying. I eventually just told them to think of me as gay. Doesn’t matter. In my mind and heart I am a girl and I’m not under any circumstance walking out of there (into the general prison population). They threatened to give me an incident report and punish me if I didn’t go out. I told them I didn’t care. This went on and on ad nauseam. They were telling me I just had to stop ‘acting like a girl’.”
Taylor ultimately talked her way into protective custody, where she woke the first morning in her orange jumpsuit “depressed thinking of doing my next eight years that way, in the Hole, not being able to go outside.”
“But I had to. I couldn’t take being a fake person any longer even if it meant suffering,” she writes.
Life at USP Florence was tolerable until she was written up too many times for complaining that she wasn’t getting the psychological help she needed. As officials at prison after prison saw it, her cries for help meant trouble.
Taylor’s long string of transfers to federal penitentiaries in Florida, Louisiana, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Arizona and Colorado is a blur. Each rape blurs into and intensifies the next. Trauma after trauma after trauma.
Taylor describes a telltale noise that alerts her to the violence that’s so pervasive in federal prisons.
“It’s a mixture of pounding shoes on concrete, bodies colliding and shuffling, and a deafening silence of voices that occurs suddenly,” she writes. “To this day, that noise immobilizes me and I have a panic attack, my heart rate maxing out, pounding in my ears.”
Violence against Taylor came mainly in the form of sex assaults and rapes. Continuous attacks. Over and over again.
One cellmate, after she rejected his overtures, “hit me – repeatedly – until I was balled up in the floor, bloody and bawling,” she writes.
“I begged him to stop, and he kicked me a few times in the side of my stomach sending piercing pangs of pain to couple with those in my face.”
“He pulled my face back up and said I’d either please him when he wanted or die. I knew he had so much time to serve that he’d be 70 or so by the time he got out and wasn’t in very good health, so he might really kill me. Guys who have nothing to lose, I’ve learned, were more apt to murder in here. He also told me that from that point forward I was his ‘bitch’ and had better learn to obey him.”
The narrative continues, chronicling in painstaking detail some of the many rapes Taylor has endured behind BOP’s bars.
“The concrete floor was cold on my bare and bloody skin and the chilly air from the air-vent was freezing. I was feeling the cool air especially on all the places I was bloody…,” she writes. “There was nowhere for me to go, no one to help. I was so scared I finally just laid down on my stomach on my bed and told him to hurry up and get it over with.”
Taylor was 137 pounds and couldn’t put up a fight. As she tells it, her cries for help typically went ignored by officers who disdained her as much as the prisoners.
So she made a deal with that cellmate. She’d “please” him once a week if he would be gentle with her.
“I still question and cry when thinking of how I handled that situation,” she writes.
Fast-forward to USP Hazleton in West Virginia, where a white prisoner who said he couldn’t be seen living with a “punk” immediately kicked her out of a cell. She spread word that she needed a cellmate. An inmate wrote her a note saying he was transgender, too.
“I felt comfortable enough to ask the lieutenant to please move me in the cell with her. He said okay but looked at me real weird.
“When I got in there I figured out why. I’d been tricked… It was this humongous black guy named ‘Shanks’ from Virginia. He was also the leader of the Black Mafia Family, I found out later.”
“Shanks,” she writes, got his name for the prison knives he used to stab people. He was at least twice Taylor’s size, with a life sentence and nothing to lose. He called her “Snowbunny,” and asked to massage her, which she declined.
“He said, ‘Snowbunny, my girls never disobey me. If you do it again they’ll find you dead in the shower’,” she writes. “He said I didn’t have a choice, that he was God. My God. ‘God of the Queens.’ That’s what he said I was, a queen. I could tell by the intoxicated look in his eye I was not going to fare well.”
Shanks did things to Taylor that needn’t be detailed here. He had power in the prison, an inside line with the officers who wouldn’t protect her from his prolonged sexual torture.
“I couldn’t even find the desire to live through it. I just gave up.”
A Diagnosis (For What It Was Worth) And A Place Of Her Own
In 2010, housed at USP Tucson, Taylor met other transgender prisoners who told her about gender identity disorder – a condition then recognized by the medical establishment as a strong and persistent discomfort with one’s assigned sex at birth accompanied by distress. They spelled out a long, bureaucratic process by which she would need to be diagnosed and then hope that the BOP would give her counseling and hormone therapy as treatment.
In the meantime, the assaults on Taylor and the violence around her led her to multiple failed suicide attempts. Desperate, she focused on conjuring up a way out of the never-ending cycle of transfers to inevitable new horrors awaiting her elsewhere. She deliberately got caught with a metal weapon. It was, she writes, her ticket to a 96 square-foot cell all to herself at ADX, which houses the supposed “worst of the worst,” including 9-11 conspirators, “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, and many of the country’s most notorious terrorists.
Taylor describes her bus ride through Oklahoma City while being transferred to the supermax.
“It was dark out and OKC was so beautiful to me. It was a flickering Martian city that night. I could’ve been on Mars for all my sensory deprived mind could discern. I looked at some of the streets and imagined what it was like to just drive around, drive home. Then I started thinking about my home and realized I didn’t have one, (and) that I hadn’t been home since I was 16.
“But sometimes home isn’t really home, you know?”
One of ADX’s former wardens proudly described the supermax as “a clean version of hell.” What that means is 23 hours a day isolated in a cell the size of a large SUV, with an optional single hour, also alone, in an exercise cage. Depending on their unit or disciplinary status, some prisoners aren’t allowed TV, radio, visits or phone calls with family. Some spend years without sunlight or fresh air. Some never lay eyes on each other, although they can hear their neighbors’ screams and moans and the insistent, tortuous banging of their heads against their unit walls.
The prison is the subject of a class action lawsuit alleging the BOP has failed to treat inmates who either arrived mentally ill or were made sick by solitary confinement’s extreme sensory deprivation, marinating in their loneliness.
For Taylor, who has been housed at ADX since April 2013, the upside of isolation is the protection from being raped. Prisoners don’t mock her for sashaying because they can’t see her pacing her tiny cell — eight feet one way, eight feet the other — for hours on end. They don’t comment on the colored pencil she uses as eyeliner. And nobody sees the portraits she draws of what she envisions herself looking like once she is given the opportunity to transition to the woman she is.
The downside of solitary confinement is that, without social contact, her identity has at times become fogged. We — humans — are social animals. We make sense of ourselves largely through interacting with each other. Joan Martel, a legal sociologist who has studied solitary confinement, described the loss of identity that comes with extreme isolation. “To be, one has to be somewhere,” she writes. Without social interaction, prisoners lose their understanding of themselves.
For someone grappling with her gender identity, isolation presents another layer of challenges. Having spent years inside a closet within a closet, Taylor has had no one to acknowledge her as female. So she has passed much of her time on “Planet BOP” looking at herself in the mirror, “obsessing over my body, my voice, my body hair, my face – flipping out.” In her solitude came self-loathing and a growing compulsion to crawl out of her own skin.
“Each time I use the bathroom I have to use a penis that I know doesn’t belong to me . . . . Each time my body hair starts growing I die inside and am dead until they give me the crappy razor they pass out three times a week, and I can shave my body, and face, sometimes scarring myself because the razor is so dull, the body-hair itches and reminds me that I’m supposed to be a male (not a female) according to…society, and my own family,” she writes.
“Each time I speak I don’t sound like me. I sound like the person I am ‘supposed’ to be. I try to talk more like a woman but it’s very hard and is harder because I don’t want to ‘act’ like a woman. I don’t want to have to act. I just want to be. To be myself. To be a woman. To be free from everything that prevents this from happening, including my own body sometimes.
“(Does this make sense?).”
Taylor was formally diagnosed in March 2014 with gender identity disorder. Prison medical staff handed her literature about the diagnosis from 1998 — two versions behind the current medical standards. Approaches have changed radically in the 16 years since. For one thing, gender nonconformity is no longer considered pathological. And the emphasis on care has shifted to what medical professionals have to do rather than transgender people having to prove their needs to medical professionals, as Taylor had been trying for so many years.
“The fact that Unique received medical information from 1998 is tragically unsurprising,” said Chase Strangio, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s national LGBT Project. “The Bureau of Prisons is generally about two decades behind medicine and science in the administration of health care, and particularly when it comes to the health care needs of transgender prisoners.”
However outdated the BOP’s information, Taylor was content finally to have some form of recognition of her gender identity so that she could ask for hormone therapy. It would be a long shot because, as she understood it, the system deemed it to be an “elective” treatment. She told herself to be patient.
But time passed with no further action by the prison system, and depression set in again. So did thoughts of castration to stop the flow of testosterone through her body.
Taylor sought the help of lawyers and advocacy groups. She filed administrative grievances with the BOP, and she wrote letters to Attorney General Eric Holder and BOP Director Charles Samuels – neither of whom responded. She complained about a lack of psychological care and the mixed messages about whether she’d be given hormone therapy. She became incensed that the BOP was violating recent court orders requiring it to provide treatment plans to promote the physical and mental stability of prisoners diagnosed with gender identity disorder. The rulings have held that denying hormone therapy to a prisoner diagnosed with gender identity disorder shows a “deliberate indifference” to serious medical needs in violation of the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
In 2009, Vanessa Adams, a transgender prisoner in the custody of BOP, sued the agency for failing to treat her gender identity disorder. The case settled and BOP adopted a new policy in 2011 that permits individuals with gender identity disorder — what is now called gender dysphoria — to be diagnosed for the first time and treated during their incarceration.
Despite the favorable policy change, experts say care in BOP and state prisons is still woefully inadequate.
“Like Unique, there are countless other prisoners held in solitary confinement across the country, filing grievances that are being ignored, waiting to see doctors that never come, and questioning whether they can survive their dual captivity,” said the ACLU’s Strangio.
The more Taylor cried out and the more grievances she wrote, the more she became convinced ADX’s medical staff was ignoring her.
“It’s like running a marathon and the finish line keeps disappearing when you near it,” she writes.
Taylor was put on suicide watch as her urges for castration grew. She told the corrections officers, the nurses, the therapist, the assistant warden and the warden that she was going to hurt herself. For the most part, she writes, they ignored her.
In June, she used her long fingernails to slice her scrotum.
According to Taylor, a medical assistant didn’t arrive until 45 minutes after the incident. He said he wouldn’t touch that part of her body and instructed her to clean the wounds herself with medical supplies passed to her through a crack in a dirty door. A physician’s assistant, she writes, “finally told me I needed to ‘find God,’ and eventually left.”
There was no medical examination. Instead, the BOP filed a disciplinary charge against Taylor for engaging in self-mutilation. If she had been convicted, which was likely, she could have lost privileges and set back her release date. But lawyers since have intervened to advocate on her behalf, and the BOP has dropped the charge.
In July, still without a treatment plan for her gender identity disorder diagnosis – as required by policy – Taylor was told by her ADX psychologist that she wouldn’t be getting psychotherapy unless she focused on correcting “thinking errors.”
Apparently, it was her erroneous thinking – not the BOP’s refusal to heed her cries for help – that led her to try to cut off her scrotum with her sharp nails.
Dreaming Of The Day
Taylor is scheduled to be finally released in July, but to a federal halfway house several months before that. She could be let out in a month or two. Her lawyers are advocating against efforts by the BOP to release her back to Tennessee, where her mother can offer some financial help but not much else. Sometimes, as Taylor wrote, “home isn’t really home.”
She wants to stay in Colorado where she knows there are supportive communities and also where, she feels, there’s generally greater tolerance and acceptance.
In the last few weeks, after Taylor’s legal team pressed the BOP for medical treatment, the prison system put her on hormone therapy. It was administered by one of the system’s regional doctors, not an endocrinologist or other clinician trained in the delicate practice of identifying and prescribing the proper hormones and counseling her on what to expect. Three days on pills and transdermal patches triggered panic attacks and a disturbing increase in her heart rate. Taylor ended the treatment in what felt like a matter of survival. She’s devastated about this initial failure of the treatment she has been waiting for her entire life.
By the end of Taylor’s lengthy narrative, anxiety trumps self-reflection. The prospect of freedom comes with a certain trepidation after having spent 17 of her 37 years behind bars, including the last 19 months in extreme isolation. And the notion of living openly as a woman – walking, talking and looking however she likes – can be mind-bending after having spent her life trapped in a body she has been desperate to transform.
Still, Taylor’s transformation is already well under way. She has taken paralegal training and should be certified before her release. She has her mind set on finding a job in law office that represents prisoners.
“Planet BOP has perturbed me to the point of awakening a tiger within me, and I am determined to fight it from a platform where I have a better chance of victory,” she writes from ADX. “It is within this prison cell, where I spend 24 hours a day for protection, that I have discovered my voice and calling.”
Taylor knows it won’t be easy. None of it, including hormone therapy, which she’s intent on pursuing with proper medical supervision.
But instead of obsessing over the obstacles of the free world, she chooses to think about being able to take bubble baths each night and walks each morning — not in back and forth circles, but in a straight line, unimpeded. ”I’ve been daydreaming about sitting in front of my vanity in the mornings, getting ready for work, perhaps listening to Britney or Rihanna, just like la-de-da in my lovely, estrogenized body.”
“Somehow, some way, I am about to walk out of here and off planet BOP for good — the proud transgender woman I am,” she writes. “I get goose bumps thinking of such happiness.”
Read more of Susan Greene’s reporting on ADX here at “The Gray Box:: An investigative look at solitary confinement.”
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