Fighting for Equity in Prisons

Dee Farmer

By Dee Farmer, MORCA-Georgetown Paralegal Program Graduate

In the unforgiving landscape of prison life, being transgender comes with its own relentless challenges. The pervasive discrimination and bias against LGBTQ+ people permeate every aspect of daily life, making it an uphill battle to access the resources and opportunities necessary for rehabilitation and reintegration into society. 

I’ve experienced firsthand the barriers and injustices that transgender individuals face behind bars — in classrooms, on work shifts, and in our own cells. I had plenty of people who refused to even sit next to me, let alone share just a few square feet of personal space.

When I enrolled in a college program, my classmates and even the faculty made me feel unwelcome. I withdrew after my first semester. Even though a work assignment is mandatory in prison, facility administration is often reluctant to go through the effort of finding a transgender person a suitable position and willing supervisor.

Those perpetuating anti-trans discrimination are rarely held accountable; instead, it is the transgender individuals who are labeled as difficult by prison administrators who then deny opportunities or access to programs that could benefit them and their families after release. Many transgender people, me included, found ourselves foregoing opportunities for personal and professional development altogether to avoid conflict and constant rejection.

In this context, I knew early on in my prison sentence that I would need to create my own path forward. I found it in the sanctuary of the law library.

As I spent countless hours in the library, other incarcerated people around me began to ask for my help with their legal issues. As I assisted more and more people and even helped some be released, I began to gain a sense of respect and recognition from my peers. I also began directing my legal skills and written complaints at the facility and the prison system itself. If the administration thought I was difficult before, they were unprepared for how much of a headache I became once I had the tools of the law in my hands.

But I did not stop after challenging my prison facility, I fought to make national change. I became the first transgender plaintiff to bring a case to the United States Supreme Court, all while I was incarcerated. 

I ended-up gaining some begrudging respect from corrections staff as they realized it was easier for them to not deny me more opportunities rather than deal with the paperwork I would create in protest or appeal.

Incarcerated people, whether transgender or not, shouldn’t need to become a “jailhouse lawyer” to finally be treated equitably. When transgender people have fair access to educational and vocational training and services before and after incarceration, our chances of securing employment and stable housing are so much stronger.

It also takes a strong support system, like the one I found in the MORCA-Georgetown Paralegal Program, which I graduated from in 2023. While I saw a lot of personal growth before I stepped foot in the Georgetown classroom, my success in the program was thanks in large part to the staff and my classmates. The program really let me see what is possible when a person driven to succeed has people encouraging them every step of the way.

One of my professors at Georgetown told me and my classmates that we were not ordinary but extraordinary. He admired that we left no stone unturned and never left anything on the table. I’ve maintained that ambition in my own life, and have tried to encourage others to live the same way, by talking about the importance of dedication in the lectures that I have given.

Georgetown taught me that with the right support system and determination, traditional barriers to success, such as incarceration, racism, and discrimination, can be overcome. I understand the value of a program that guides and supports incarcerated people. Because of my experience, I opened a transitional program that supports its participants’ reentry plans. I hope that through housing and supportive programming, other formerly incarcerated people, especially those that are transgender, can find their passion and a bright future for themselves and their families.

Dee Farmer is a recognized advocate in the prison reform community. She currently works as a consultant for several national non-profit organizations; and speaks and lectures at conferences and law schools. She is the founder and executive director of a nonprofit Fight4Justice. She is also a graduate of the MORCA-Georgetown Paralegal Program, and is a student at Colorado State University Global.

Paralegal Program