TG/TS Documentary: Cruel and Unusual: Transgendered in Prison

The challenges faced by transgendered inmates in American prisons is the subject of this revealing and poignant documentary from filmmakers Janet Baus, Dan Hunt, and Reid Williams. Five male-to-female transgendered women convicted of various crimes talk about the reasons they were arrested, and what they experienced while incarcerated in men’s prisons, as well as their decisions to embrace gender modification. The back stories vary, of course—one persuasively argues that she was forced into participating in a robbery against her will, another turned to theft after being refused jobs on oil rigs (where she’d previously worked)—but all testify about the appalling treatment they received behind bars, commonly facing both physical and sexual abuse in the general population, or terrible isolation if placed in solitary confinement. In addition, the refusal by prison authorities to continue hormone treatments led to serious medical consequences (two of the women resorted to self-mutilation in protest). Even after being released, their difficulties continue—one particularly touching episode follows a woman named Anna as she tries to survive on the outside, thwarted by the courts, which refuse to allow her contact with the son she’d raised for years. A multiple-award winner, Cruel & Unusual is an important film that raises serious issues at a time of increasing visibility for transgendered individuals. DVD extras include extended scenes and the option to view sequences by topic. Recommended. Aud: C, P. (F. Swietek)

Cruel and Unusual is an in depth look at the plight of transgender women in men’s prisons. The film skillfully weaves moving interviews with transgender inmates and former inmates with important medical and legal information about male to female transgenderism. The women are articulate and their testimonies, as presented here, make a powerful statement about the conflation of gender variance and criminality in the eyes of the law. This film would make an invaluable teaching tool in courses on women, class and race; gender identity; social justice and incarceration.”

Judith Halberstam, author of Female Masculinity and In A Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives

“Through textured, in-depth stories of five incarcerated transwomen, CRUEL AND UNUSUAL vividly illustrates the ways that gender deviance is punished inside and outside the prison system. CRUEL AND UNUSUAL goes beyond biographical portraits to raise urgent issues about violence, vulnerability, and medical neglect in America’s jails and prisons. Without glossing what are clearly hardscrabble lives, this unsentimental film shows how transsexuals face severely limited options for legally earning a livelihood. CRUEL AND UNUSUAL offers a vital resource for those learning about gender diversity while also introducing new voices to conversations about incarceration in America.”

Ara Wilson, Director, Program in the Sexuality Studies Duke University

“You can’t look at this documentary and not be moved to tears or anger over such ignorance and bigotry.”

Blade GLBT Newsmagazine

CRUEL AND UNUSUAL is a remarkable and essential work. At a time when torture has haltingly become part of the national conversation, and when all Americans need to be thinking seriously about the violence in our systems of punishment and detention, Cruel and Unusual draws emotionally devastating attention to victims of violence who are persecuted for their stubborn visibility within the penal system – but remain invisible to an indifferent world outside. From Human Rights Watch’s perspective, I can affirm that everyone needs to hear and see this film’s crucial, disturbing, and enthralling story.”


“This searing documentary of how correctional institutions treat transgender prisoners is as necessary as it is shocking. It’s necessary because transgender people are three times more likely than non trans folk to spend time behind bars. As one former inmate says, “I couldn’t get a job with the name Linda, I wasn’t welcome in the homeless shelters … what else could I do but steal?” The indignities outside pale compared to life on the inside, where a prisoner’s gender identity is simply not recognized, and a trans woman with male genitalia is housed with the male population. Not only are these women easy targets for violence and sexual predation, their unique medical needs go unmet. Some of the women profiled recall the frustration of putting off hormone therapy for years while serving their sentences. Others, already taking hormones, were not allowed to continue their treatment in jail and had to suffer the pains of cold turkey withdrawal. Few encounter sympathy from prison staff — one woman recalls a prison doctor’s smirking prediction that she would end up a suicide — and the best safety from bullying that most prisons can offer is to move trans inmates to solitary confinement, where they can spend months or years with almost no human contact. It’s a grim picture that adds up to cruel and unusual punishment, which is supposedly prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. The documentary’s subjects share their heartbreaking stories with dignity, candor and even hope.”

Brian Jewell, BAY WINDOWS

“Cruel and Unusual doesn’t just transport the viewer within prison walls, but more importantly, into the hearts and minds of an acutely marginalized and misunderstood community. These women are not criminals in the way the public understands them to be. They are strong, honest, multidimensional individuals with dignity, inner-strength and determination,”

Kate Black, Program Officer, THE SOROS FOUNDATION

Available on DVD:

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