Kanautica Zayre-Brown and the Cold, Routine Cruelty of How the Criminal Justice System Treats Trans Women

Image for article titled Kanautica Zayre-Brown and the Cold, Routine Cruelty of How the Criminal Justice System Treats Trans Women
Screenshot: ABC 11 News

Kanautica Zayre-Brown is a woman. Kanautica Zayre-Brown was convicted of a crime. Kanautica Zayre-Brown ought to be in a women’s prison. But since 2017, she has served the beginning of a 9-year, 11-month sentence in Harnett Correctional, a men’s prison in Lillington, N.C., despite her repeated pleas to be transferred.


The state has yet to move her because Kanautica Zayre-Brown is trans.

The Raleigh News and Observer describes Zayre-Brown as a “habitual felon.” At 37, she’s now serving time for insurance fraud and “obtaining property by false pretenses,” writes the paper. She’s also believed to be the state’s only post-operative trans inmate, having undergone her final procedure before she went to prison.

Every day, she suffers routine humiliation and harassment: she sleeps in a bunk in a dorm for 38 men, the News and Observer reports, and showers and changes clothes in full view of the male inmates. The state of North Carolina insists on referring to her by her birth name (her “dead name”) despite the fact she legally changed it and continues to misidentify her as male.

Even the legal protections the state passed in 2018 for trans prisoners have not been extended to Zayre-Brown, who tells the paper that she’s regularly given men’s underwear, despite her repeated request for women’s underwear, hygiene and shoes.

From the News and Observer:

If Zayre-Brown is receiving men’s undergarments, that would appear to violate North Carolina’s transgender policy, adopted in 2018. It allows transgender inmates to request behavior health or medical services if their gender identity causes dysphoria, or distress. It permits them to receive hormone therapy if it was prescribed before prison time, gender-appropriate undergarments and housing “to enhance staff supervision.”


“Anything the policy allows me to have, they don’t do it,” Zayre-Brown said.

After spending more than a year in the men’s prison, Zayre-Brown says she hasn’t been assaulted—though she experiences daily harassment by other male inmates. Still, she lives in constant fear that one day the harassment will escalate. And those fears are not unfounded: Last year in Illinois, Strawberry Hampton, a trans inmate, sued the state Department of Corrections to be transferred to a women’s prison after being harassed and sexually assaulted by fellow inmates and corrections officers at several men’s facilities. According to a 2015 survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality, 30 percent of trans inmates report physical or sexual assaults at the hands of inmates or staff while in prison, jail, or juvenile detention.


N.C. Department of Public Safety spokesman Jerry Higgins told the News and Observer the case is under review, but wouldn’t elaborate further on Zayre-Brown’s claims.

Prison is the punishment—at least, it’s supposed to be. But targeted, intentional humiliation on the basis of Zayre-Brown’s gender identity—and the real harm the state is inflicting on her—is the sort of routine, systemic cruelty that continues to afflict LGBTQ inmates without much notice or attention from the outside world. Undergirding that neglect, it seems, is the assumption that bad things ought to happen to bad people. Or, at the very least, it’s not remarkable if they do.


And this neglect persists despite all we know about our criminal justice system—the way its maws swallow up entire families and communities, the way America’s most marginalized people are always the first to get consumed. The first to be ignored and forgotten, even as laws are passed, ostensibly, to protect them.

Kanautica Zayre-Brown knows she must serve her time. That was part of the process. Refusing Zayre-Brown her dignity and her humanity isn’t.


As she told the News and Observer on Tuesday during a visitation: “I understand I’m in prison. I just want fairness.”



This sounds terrifying. She’s had her final surgery, which is what they likely would’ve used as a reason if she hadn’t. Aside from creating severe depression, panic attacks and a constant fear of harm, are they actively trying to get her killed?/kill her?