From the Multnomah Lawyer: A Dimmed Light

This year, the Multnomah Lawyer will feature several guest authors whose expertise about the legal system comes from their lived experiences. I hope these stories will provide a valuable perspective from people whose lives were, and continue to be, directly impacted by the systems in which we work.
-Sarah Radcliffe, MBA President

Edited by Alexa Weinstein

I am a transgender woman, a formerly incarcerated person, a person who spent almost seven years homeless on the streets of Portland, a person who was addicted to drugs, and a rape survivor. I attempted to take my own life, and I still struggle with suicidal ideation associated with gender dysphoria. My time in prison lasted from my entry into Coffee Creek Intake Center in August 2013 to my release from Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in November 2018. My journey has not been an easy one, and I am still healing. In this article, I describe the events in my early life that led to my involvement with the criminal justice system. In a future article, I hope to speak to you from these pages about my experiences with probation, parole, and rehabilitation prior to my years in prison.

I was what they call a “troubled youth.” As early as I can remember, I knew something was different about me. But I didn’t immediately know that I was different in a way the world could not yet accept. I was certain I was a girl. And I was just as certain that being a girl, incarcerated in a body that everyone associated with being a boy, was going to cause me great pain. Maybe it was my older brothers who first taught me to be scared of people. When I was Michale (pronounced like “Michael”), I was punched, threatened, and shot at. I experienced violence even before anyone else knew I was a girl. I sought help from the justice system, but my experiences taught me that the police only created more chaos, rather than creating safety or peace. And even when the police seemed to be helping, the courts became a barrier that stopped me from getting the protection I needed. In this context, I could not expose who I really was. I hid Michalle (pronounced like “Michelle”) to keep her, to keep me, safe.

In school, I didn’t do well after third grade, as it drew too much attention. Hiding from my father, my teachers, and the whole world was my full-time job. I never raised my hand or did too well on tests, and I didn’t try out for dance or gymnastics or debate; I simply didn’t want anyone to notice me. I hid in plain sight, attending Sunday school as a child and singing about this little light of mine. However, as I became a teenager, my little light was dimming. I dropped out of high school and enrolled in GED classes. At night, I was harming my own body in an expression of my gender dysphoria. Cigarettes led to harder drugs that could more effectively hurt or kill me. I was desperate to numb my feelings and to suppress my true identity. During this formative time, I was learning unhealthy and self-destructive ways to cope.

In the midst of this turmoil, my father was diagnosed with cancer. I was blindsided by his swift deterioration and sudden passing. After coming home when I was five years old, at the end of his own time in prison related to heroin addiction, my father had always showed me the love and kindness in his heart, despite the fact that he had no idea how to love or care for a child who clearly displayed non-traditional behavior for a boy or a son. I wonder if his death would actually have been easier on me had we not been close. But we were close, and I wish I hadn’t lost him so soon. He never had a chance to love me as I truly am, and for that, I still mourn. At the time, I was entirely unequipped to deal with his loss. Though others encouraged me to stop and grieve, I needed distraction and insisted on attending all of my GED classes.

My mother also lacked the tools to deal with her own grief over losing my father. She communicated to me that she didn’t want to be my mother anymore. I felt I had lost both of my parents, and other members of my family had recently passed away as well. At 16, I became homeless. At 17, I successfully completed my GED, but it did not rescue me from being a homeless teen or from facing the grief of losing a family, the pain of gender dysphoria, and the coping mechanisms of self-harm and drug use. I began to seriously question whether I could go on living.

My involvement with the criminal justice system officially began in January 2009, when I turned 18. By then, I’d been homeless for a little over two years. I was arrested on possession of a small amount of methamphetamine and provided with pre-trial release. From 2009 to 2013, I was incarcerated within various Oregon county jails roughly 25 times. My charges during this time included possession of a controlled substance, third-degree theft, criminal trespass, felon in possession of a weapon, and various probation violations. My sentences ranged from a few days in jail to 18 months of probation. I was also penalized with fines and fees, community service, and various stipulations including requirements to undergo treatment and orders to disclose certain aspects of my health care to members of the court. My follow-up article will focus on how the rules and regulations of parole, probation, and rehab both reflected the disorder and lack of safety in my childhood and directly conflicted with my medical and psychological needs during this period, ultimately leading me to prison. 

Today, I have learned to love myself, though I wish it hadn’t taken so much tragedy for me to learn this skill. I have regained my light, and I shine it back to help others. Free from both prison and drugs, I am studying to become a lawyer and advocating for the resources that trans prisoners need in order to defend their rights.

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