Trans people struggle to find housing after prison. This group is trying to help
This story is part of a series looking at transgender inmates in the U.S. and the challenges they face in confinement and upon release. The series focuses on topics such as being incarcerated in prisons that do not reflect one's gender identity, the medical hurdles faced behind bars and housing after being released. The series includes dozens of interviews with inmates, experts and public officials.
Biff Chaplow didn't set out to create what is now a lifeline for imprisoned and formerly incarcerated LGBTQ individuals in the Pacific Northwest.
Eleven years ago, Chaplow just wanted to respond to some letters that prisoners had written to the National LGBTQ Task Force.
The advocacy organization "would get letters from people that were in prison, but nobody would really answer them. There's no infrastructure on their end to process or answer those letters," Chaplow told NPR. "That's really how our effort started. As we said at the time, it doesn't seem right that we just ignore these letters."
Over time, Chaplow made it a regular effort to organize groups to send annual holiday cards to incarcerated individuals.
"The project just grew. As we heard from people and got to know them, we learned more and more about what their needs were," Chaplow said.
A group for the LGBTQ community, by the community
This card-writing program has evolved into Beyond These Walls, a nonprofit group that focuses on helping transgender and other LGBTQ people in prison and those who are newly released in the Pacific Northwest area.
The trans-led organization has expanded with an exclusively LGBTQ staff, many of whose members are formerly incarcerated individuals (though Chaplow is not), and a collection of volunteers who respond to letters from prisoners seeking a pen pal, legal aid or other resources. It also provides financial support and connects newly released people with housing options, which can be hard to find for people who are trans.
The organization says that many halfway houses and organizations that exist to help formerly incarcerated people are not geared toward supporting LGBTQ people.
"Housing is one of the biggest barriers we have to overcome. It's a basic need. Before a person can succeed, they have to survive. That requires housing, food, connection, community," said Hailey Ockinga, the executive director of Beyond These Walls. "The system currently is not set up to meet those needs for everyone. So that's where we come in. We try to fill that gap."
Newly out of prison, and the closet, and nowhere to go
Ockinga spent 12 years, 10 months and two weeks in a Washington state men's prison. During that time, she came out as trans and began transitioning.
"Once I came to start living my truth and really wanting to be a part of the community, I reached out to every organization that I could to just try to develop connections with the [LGBTQ] community. And Beyond These Walls was one of them," she said.
That connection eventually led her to volunteer and later work full time with the group once she was released.
Like many other trans individuals in prison, Ockinga had to fight to get access to women's clothing, hormone treatments and other gender-affirming care. She filed lawsuits and threatened legal action.
When her sentence was nearly complete, she needed to find a place in transitional housing in order to be released. But she repeatedly encountered problems when she told facilities that she is trans.
Ockinga found that faith-based houses were OK with her prison time and with her not being part of their faith, she recounted — but she did not find one willing to accept her due to her gender identity.
She recounted one rejection like this. "Once I disclosed to them that I was an open transgender woman presenting as my true self, the person said, 'No, we'll have nothing like that in this house' and hung up the phone," she said.
Now that she had gone through her transition, she said, there was no way that she was going back in the closet.
Around 2019, when she was set to be released, Beyond These Walls wasn't providing reentry support in Washington, Ockinga said. Her friends eventually helped her find a solution to her housing issue, and she was able to get back on her feet thanks to her support system, she said.
Housing still remains a problem for many people whom Beyond These Walls assists in Oregon and Washington, Ockinga said.
Housing providers approved by the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) have the sole authority to decide which people will stay in their housing, according to Tobby Hatley, a spokesman for the department.
"Transgender individuals releasing from prison can be difficult to place with DOC approved housing providers. Most DOC approved housing vendors operate their programs in single family homes, where two people occupy each bedroom," Hatley said in an email. "Based on this model, most housing providers limit a residence to a single gender. During their screening process, they may determine that the individual would not be a good fit for their house."
In Oregon, transitional housing is a county responsibility, said Amber Campbell, an Oregon Department of Corrections spokeswoman.
"Each county attempts to create or have available transitional housing for those who don't have a permanent or safe location to reside upon release. Counties utilize a variety of options including county operated housing, contracted housing like Oxford houses (addiction focused housing), motel contracts for short stays, and other private non-profit and for-profit agencies committed to housing this population. This may include, in some counties, faith based religious agencies," Campbell said in an email.
People released from Oregon DOC custody are required to complete parole or post-prison supervision in their county of residence. But depending on the county, this can leave some in areas with no LGBTQ-friendly resources, Ockinga said. This can mean trans inmates have no choice but to go back into the closet just so they can get out of prison.
The organization continues to grow
To address the lack of transitional housing, Beyond These Walls connects the people it helps with other groups, such as The Journey Project, that provide housing options.
Generally, when an inmate is set to be released from prison, their family and friends provide them with clothes to leave in, or the inmate takes clothes that are available from the facility, Ockinga said.
But those are not always options for trans inmates, so the organization has set up what it calls a care closet.
"The care closet is for those individuals who don't have family or friends who can provide these care packages. We provide for them so that when they walk out of the prison, they're not being forced to go back into a role that doesn't fit them and that they can walk out living their truth. We definitely feel that's the right foot forward for them," Ockinga said.
Some of Beyond These Walls' most important work remains assisting those still incarcerated.
Hayden Ford, a trans man who was incarcerated in Oregon, said the group was a huge benefit to him as he transitioned in prison.
He said there were no resources for LGBTQ individuals in prison. "They do not want to hear it, they do not want to see it and they don't want to help you," Ford said of his prison's perceived stance on anything trans or otherwise LGBTQ related. He said that this made him feel even more isolated and unseen.
He contacted Beyond These Walls and other groups that support LGBTQ inmates, such as Black & Pink, to get books and other resources.
Beyond These Walls sent donations of books and pamphlets. Then the donations started "pouring in from all over the place," thanks to the organization putting the word out, he said.
Ford was able to share the books with others in his prison and start a book club with fellow inmates.
That effort gave a lot of people simple resources — to fight back against prison policies or to read about the experiences of others in similar positions and feel less alone, he said.
Chaplow, who is now on the board of Beyond These Walls, said that even as the organization has grown and changed over the years, its fundamental principles remain the same.
"We made a commitment really early on that we would answer every letter that we ever got, even if the answer is no, even if the answer is, 'We can't help you' or whatever," said Chaplow. "So we've always tried to stick by that."
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.