Last January, a year before the completion of his prison sentence, Sunny moved into a transitional center outside Atlanta. On the condition of good behavior, he’d be able to work outside the prison for a year, saving up funds and getting acclimated to life after release. Sunny was excited for a new start. In particular, he looked forward to starting the hormone therapy that wasn’t available to him in prison. Instead, he quickly discovered that the institutional transphobia he’d dealt with while incarcerated wasn’t much easier to fight after he got out.
Transitional centers, more commonly known as halfway houses, are traditional stopping points for ex-prisoners looking to reintegrate into society. Whether they check in voluntarily or as a condition of their release, transitional centers can provide housing, rehabilitation, and guidance for people lacking support systems outside of prison.
However, many of these re-entry programs hew closely to societal norms, making it difficult for LGBTQ ex-prisoners to find the support they need. Some halfway houses for women place an outsize value on relationships with men, making the pursuit of a male romantic partner a life goal equivalent to earning a GED. Many houses outright reject queer and trans people hoping to enter their programs. And most lack the resources and cultural competency to help people address housing and employment discrimination, process trauma associated with homophobia or transphobia, or access appropriate medical care.
Sunny was hopeful for the new opportunities available to him at the transitional center. Once there, he started seeing a psychiatrist who prescribed him testosterone. But his excitement was cut short when the center’s staff refused to allow him to take his prescription on the premises.
Having spent a decade excluded from the outside world, Sunny had no idea where to turn to for help. He resorted to taking his T shots at work, but on one occasion, a co-worker reported him for having an unauthorized visitor (a friend had picked up Sunny’s prescription and helped him to administer the shot), and Sunny was sent back to prison.
Sunny felt targeted. “Good behavior” wasn’t tied to his actual actions; it simply meant having a gender identity that was legible within the systems he was living in. When he got out of prison a year later, he was determined to establish the kind of life where he’d be able to fend for himself.
Then, unexpectedly, Sunny received a Facebook friend request from Pinky Shear. Shear is the organizer behind Freedom Overground, an Atlanta-based grassroots organization that works with trans and gender-nonconforming people affected by incarceration. She told Sunny that she was available to help with any problems he might run into as he adjusted to life on the outside. Eventually, thanks to Shear’s referrals, Sunny resumed his testosterone therapy and has recently begun looking into top surgery.
Freedom Overground is one of a few grassroots support networks scattered throughout the country that serve trans and gender-nonconforming ex-prisoners working to rebuild their lives on the outside. These re-entry programs do not rely on punitive measures or control to get people “back on track.” Instead, they work with ex-prisoners to develop re-entry plans specific to their needs while providing unconditional access to medical providers, housing, employment opportunities, legal advice, and more.
Freedom Overground grew out of Shear’s advocacy for Ky Peterson, a black trans man who received a harsh sentence for killing his rapist in self-defense. Shear and Peterson first met while both serving sentences at Pulaski State Prison, a women’s facility in Georgia. There, officials ignored Peterson’s reports of harassment and requests for trans-specific health care. Shear, on the other hand, was the first person Peterson had ever met “who even knew the word trans.” The two quickly became close, and once Shear got out, she began sending Peterson information about his case while pressuring prison officials to improve his living conditions.