Where Justice Ends


Reviewed by: Jane Fae

Where Justice Ends
"This puts the lie absolutely to anyone claiming that being trans is the easy way out."

Let's start with a basic health warning. Or trigger warning. Hell! Just any sort of warning.

If you are a trans person do not watch documentary Where Justice Ends alone, unprepared, without tissues, without time to chill and cool down after.

Because this cool, detached look at how the US prison system treats trans people – but above all, trans women – is, from start to finish, a horror story. No more, no less.

It starts with key statistics: 6% of the US population is in prison, 16% of the trans population. So trans people are more criminally inclined? Unlikely. Rather, as more than one interviewee makes clear, starting with the arrest process, trans people are singled out. Either blamed for their own misfortune, as in the case of CeCe McDonald, who was found guilty of manslaughter in 2012 after fighting back against a racist, transphobic attacker. CeCe is one of the many trans women speaking on camera for this film. Or seen as deserving of punishment. As another puts it, “Even if you didn't do something you are weird enough to deserve to be punished.”

And “The moment police knew I was trans they no longer saw me as a woman but as a freak.”

Police aberration? No way. Once in the system, indignity is piled upon indignity. A transitioned trans woman was told to “stand with the men” and take off her clothes.

Scarcely surprising that according to this film, in 2017, some 40% of transgender inmates were assaulted –and this is treated with indifference by state after state. Worse, the threat of assault is used, in many instances, to keep trans women in line, as well as provide tidbits for the rest of the prisoners. Because placing trans women in women's prisons is in most cases beyond anyone's wildest dreams.

Comply – the subtle message – or we will put you in a cell with a sex offender, and we all know how that will end. While 'good' prisoners may be 'rewarded' by being given a trans woman to 'play with'. Prisons regularly ignore best practice guidance, withholding essential medication, especially hormones, from trans folk, or subjecting them to cruel and unusual treatment. And when it looks as though a court challenge to their behaviour may succeed, the prisoner in question suddenly finds themselves paroled early so that their legal challenge will lapse.

And release to what? As one former prisoner, jailed first for petty offences relating to basic survival, observes: “I want to be well again, but it feels like I am being set up for failure. I have been paroled back to the same town [where I was arrested], subject to strict curfew. No-one is going to hire me.”

That is probably a lot of spoilers. But in this case, I do not believe that is an issue. The documentary is what it is. A little old-fashioned, as most of the time on screen is taken up with single point of view talking head: either a trans person, or a trans ally – usually a lawyer or politician.

In between there are a series of chilling, mostly black-and-white prison images. It could be criticised for being lopsided, in that there is no counter view given: no-one asking awkward questions. This is, as some critics will undoubtedly be quick to point out, tantamount to 'propaganda'. Or, since the trans point of view is so rarely given or allowed to stand without some non-trans expert popping up to explain why the trans person is wrong, mistaken, misguided, perhaps it is necessary balance.

There is little here that will come as any surprise to a trans audience: though the sheer horror of the US system may leave critics of the comparatively minor failings of the UK system reeling. For it is clear that whatever the intent, for trans women in the US, prison is a uniquely horrific and traumatising experience. That focus – on the US – may make this less relevant to a UK or non-US audience. Still, it is worth watching for a glimpse of how the transphobes and bigots would treat trans folk elsewhere given half a chance.

I also suspect that the broad outlines of what is set out here will be already well-known to all but the most privileged of US trans folks. (Memo to production company: I trust you will be sending a complimentary copy to Caitlin Jenner!).

In the end this is, for trans people, a confirmatory exercise – and a film you may not want or need to see, ever. Not unless you want to get very angry indeed. On the other hand, this is a film worth showing to allies and to sceptics. Because this puts the lie absolutely to anyone claiming that being trans is the easy way out.

So all creds to director George Zuber for producing a hard-hitting, educational, traditional insight style documentary.

Reviewed on: 28 Apr 2019
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A documentary looking at conditions within the US prison system and the injustices that befall transgender people encountering the law.

Director: Edward Norris

Year: 2018

Runtime: 51 minutes

Country: US


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