About the project

The idea for this project emerged during a magazine writing class over a year ago. While writing an enterprise story about prisoners in Massachusetts, I stumbled across one name: Michelle Kosilek. A transgender woman incarcerated for murder, she had been a vocal self-advocate, suing the Massachusetts Department of Correction for access to medical treatment and other gender-affirming items. I reached out to her by mail, using the national VINELink database to find out what prison she was housed in. After learning about her struggles, I was interested to see whether hers was a shared experience.

The most difficult part of this undertaking was finding inmates. To locate a prisoner, one needs a full name or an offender identification number. For obvious reasons, there is no registry of transgender inmates. This meant I had to rely on word-of-mouth and building a network of sources to identify prisoners I could write to. Kosilek was crucial to this initial effort, as she reached out to other incarcerated transgender women on her end and put me in touch with them. I was unable to speak to any transgender men due to their smaller population within the DOC. Slowly, I began building relationships with the inmates I was exchanging letters with.

I learned about their daily lives and the problems they encounter being transgender in an environment that discourages difference. They told me about some of their most traumatic life experiences and the inner gender identity battles they confronted. I wanted people to not only be able to read about these inmates, but also read their words as they wrote them. This is why I have provided several of their letters for others to read.

I also explored some of the controversy surrounding medical care for transgender inmates and the debate on what is considered medically necessary. I collected opinions from medical professionals, politicians and victims’ families. Prison inmates are always a difficult community to cover, as their plight, which is often ignored, must be balanced with the fact that they are paying for the crimes they have committed.

I would like to thank Professor Carlene Hempel for her keen editing eye and constant support, graduate student Yan Wu for her lightning-fast web development skills, and Instructor Aleszu Bajak for his assistance. In May 2018, this project received Northeastern University's College of Arts, Media and Design Undergraduate Award for Outstanding Scholarly and Creative Achievement.