Barred Subjects: Transgender Prisoners in Poland / Interviews with Anna Grodzka and Lalka Podobińska

[Interview translation provided by Dot Dobosz]

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex (LGBTQI) people are more likely to be criminalized, imprisoned and abused while in prison than cisgendered heterosexuals, according to research conducted in the United Kingdom, the United States and elsewhere. Data about LGBT prisoners in Poland is non-existent.  While limited information is available regarding transgender rights, and the experiences of transgender people in Poland, there is none on Polish transgender prisoners.

The US State Department’s Poland 2016 Human Rights Report notes that, “Persons who want to change their gender must sue their parents … [and] LGBTI individuals were two times more likely than the rest of society to be victims of crimes, and transgender persons were at the greatest risk with as many as half of transgender persons reporting they were victims of crime.” As transgender people are more likely to be victims of crime this may actually lead them into a cycle of criminality; I found this cycle to be the case in my interview with Anna Grodzka, Poland’s only transgender (former) Member of Parliament, and her friend, Lalka Podobińska, the founder of Poland’s only transgender advocacy group, “Trans-Fuzja”.


Despite lacking empirical data, the US State Department report highlights a hostile environment for LGBTQI people in Poland; therefore, inferences can be made from other data sets where ethnographic and sociological information is collected on the incarcerated and non-incarcerated transgender community.

In the “liberal” US state of California, my birthplace,

“Transgender populations fare far worse on standard demographic and health measures than their non-transgender counterparts in the U.S. population, the non-incarcerated California population, the U.S. prison population, and the California prison population. [This study reveals] that transgender inmates are marginalized in undocumented ways. At a time in which evidence based corrections is increasingly embraced by corrections officials in the U.S., this article provides the first systematic profile of transgender prisoners as a forgotten group of prisoner population.” (Where The Margins Meet: A Demographic Assessment of Transgender Prisoners in Men’s Prisons, 2009, University of Irvine)

Of course, transphobia in prisons is not isolated to places to where data is collected. In Poland the situation may be far worse, as there is no empirical data on this segment of the prison population, nor are there any legal protections in place for LGBTQI prisoners. The situation is unlikely to change considering the current anti-LGBT, far-right government.

During several in-depth interviews with Grodzka and Podobińska, I learnt of the abuses, discrimination and disdain suffered by incarcerated transgender people. Furthermore, criminalization of transgender people before they are incarcerated, for a variety of reasons, leads to anecdotally disproportionate higher rates of imprisonment for transgender Poles. Again no empirical data is available, another sign that transgender prisoners in Poland are perhaps more “forgotten” than their counterparts in the United States, United Kingdom or France (where data is extensively collected, see Didier Fassin’s Prison Worlds: An Ethnography of the Carceral Condition, 2017, in French and English).

Anna Grodzka (left) and Lalka Podobińska

Podobińska’s analysis is clear; “I believe that many transgender people are imprisoned because after years of abuse by their family members, their neighbors, etc. they lash out … the abuse they suffered isn’t taken seriously by the police, because they are transgender.” Eventually, according to Podobińska, who has worked with the Anna Grodzka and others in the transgender community for over a decade, “transgender people are then arrested for ‘attacking’ a family member, lashing out after years of abuse.” Other reasons lead to the criminalization of transgender people. “We worked with an individual, I cannot give you her name, who was arrested several times for stealing cosmetics, being poor and unable to access these feminine items from her family, she ended up in prison for petty theft.”

All of the accounts recounted in our discussion involved Male-to-Female transgender people, or transwomen, who are routinely placed in male-only facilities. Without the gender identity change on paperwork, an arduous and lengthy task (involving suing one’s parents), the Polish prison system uses the “legal gender” of an individual, even if that person is in transition. Tears coming to her eyes, Podobińska recounts how a young transwoman, who already had breast augmentation, was placed in a male-only prison. The guards would fondle her breasts, ask for sexual favors, and the prisoners treated her with contempt, sexual intrigue and abuse. Following several petitions by the prisoner herself and “Trans-Fuzja”, she was eventually moved to another prison, where Podobińska contacted the warden of the prison, who allowed her to train staff on transgender sensitivity and appropriate protocols. “This one case illustrates how difficult it is for transgender prisoners in Poland, they face sexual assault, even by the guards, they are not allowed cosmetics and they are placed in male-only facilities even if they are far into the process of transitioning.”

My own experiences in prison, after being wrongfully convicted in the United Kingdom, in a trial where the prosecution and the Judge repeatedly referred to my sexual orientation and Leftist politics in a conservative county outside London, demonstrate the ubiquity of problems faced by LGBTQI prisoners. While in prison, I faced sexual and physical assault. I was propositioned for sex on several occasions, and I heard guards routinely make homophobic comments. Spending 10-months in some of the most notorious UK prisons, HMP Bedford and HMP ISIS, I had to learn quickly to adapt, to go back into the closet. Fortunately, my education allowed me to obtain a job as the prison librarian, and later I lectured prisoners on social research and ethnography, in conjunction with a Goldsmiths University prison program. Deviating from the coursework, we discussed Marx, Hegel, Bakunin and what it means to live under the devastating effects of racism, sexism and poverty. I never mentioned homophobia. I knew, despite being protected by a large group of inmates after helping with administrative complaints and college course-work, that openly revealing my sexual orientation would be a step too far. Essentially, my sexuality was an open secret. I did confide with my fellow librarian, a brash yet tolerant English-Irish working-class straight man from a working-class district in northwest London.

Despite my difficulties, the UK has strict policies on the treatment of LGBTQI prisoners; after my sexual assault I was given a single-cell, which is a “luxury” in the overcrowded British prison-system. Podobińska concludes, “We have a long way to go, even getting information is difficult, we get letters, usually asking for things like cosmetics, etc. but these aren’t allowed. And the shelter for LGBTQI people has been closed because of funding reasons, so there is no place to help transgender ex-prisoners return to society, they are left on their own. The social services in Poland are terrible, and for an ex-prisoner and transgender person, it is even worse.” At this point in our conversation Anna Grodzka, listening attentively, suggests the need for an LGBTQI prison in Poland, where people can feel comfortable with their sexual orientation and gender identity. While there is a project like this in Los Angeles, California it only includes a short-term holding jail, not the actual prison where the sentenced go to. “I think we need this type of LGBTI prison to protect our community, and we need an LGBTQI center, not just for social gatherings but one that offers shelter, cultural events, social services, we need one right here in central Warsaw. The LGBTQI center in the center! It would be a target of the far-right but fences and security cameras would help, and of course so would Lalka [Podobińska], she’s protected me against neo-Nazis on several occasions, even after hip surgery she attacked a neo-fascist with her crutches!”

Policy discussions about the treatment of LBGTQI prisoners, let alone transgender prisoners, are non-existent under the current Polish government. As Didier Fassin writes in Prison Worlds, “The ‘conservative revolution’ (US and UK, 1990s), manifested itself with a particular intensity in the penal arena. The language of punishment became generalized in political discourse, and the recourse to imprisonment was established as the best response to crime.”

Considering that many of those criminalized under this “conservative revolution” it is important to note the increasingly punitive measures taken against those that use illegal substances. Podobińska thinks that transgender people are at extra risk, “Many transgender people use drugs, illegal drugs, to escape from the world of oppression around them, and then they are punished for trying to escape, they are punished for what is a non-violent crime. Some take to petty theft, I have helped a transwoman who was addicted and she would steal in order to pay for [drugs]. Firstly, it is hard to find a job in Poland as a transgender person, especially if you can’t ‘pass’ – or if people know you are trans – and this leads to a cycle of poverty, drug misuse and imprisonment.”

A similar ‘conservative revolution’ has overtaken Poland; drug laws have become increasingly punitive since the end of Communism. Ewelina Kuzmicz in Drug Policy in Poland – time for change, 2010, writes,

“The first Act on drug abuse prevention of 1985 did not provide for a penalty for possession of intoxicating substances. Rather, it penalised all the acts related to illegal traffic of such substances. In 1999, he penalty for possession of intoxicating substances was introduced, however, it did not apply to possession of small amounts of drugs solely for personal use. In other words, drug possession was recognized as a prohibited act, but no punishment was given for drug possession for own use.

In 2000, the drug law was amended and criminalization of drug possession, regardless of its amount and purpose was introduced

The principle of legalism was put in force, meaning that every person possessing even the smallest amounts of an illicit intoxicating or psychoactive substance was liable for prosecution.”

Despite the sombre tone of our discussion, I left our dinner meeting with a sense of sadness and hope. Lalka Podobińska is a fierce fighter for the rights of transgender people, and she is a cisgendered straight woman; “I have always been for the those at the bottom of society, I once decided to take to mountain climbing, but I decided to go for cave diving, I like to be ‘inside,’ underground, with the people overlooked because they are so low in society.” What Poland needs are more people like Anna Grodzka and Lalka Podobińska, and of course a new generation of activists ready to take up the fight. “The problem with many young Polish LGBTQI people is that they think the European Union will protect them, they are very apathetic; the situation is terrible, some of them even support right-wing policies on immigration, policing, etc. In fact, some of them don’t support the idea of having a PRIDE march. This must change. We need a social revolution in Poland.” Grodzka is working on that with her idea of a Fifth Polish Republic, enshrining a vast amount of economic and social protections into a new Constitution. Will it decriminalise drug use and reduce prison sentences for petty theft? “I cannot yet give you an answer on that, but I am positive on these issues,” Grodzka says, taking a drag off her e-cigarette. Poland is a conservative, Catholic nation and changing the law to protect LGBTQI people in general will be difficult; protecting LGBTQI prisoners may only happen on a case-by-case basis, those lucky enough to find an advocate on the outside.

There are no rainbows on the horizon.

. . .


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