In June 2011, a black, 23-year-old transgender woman named Chrishaun “CeCe” McDonald fatally stabbed a man whom she maintains was committing a racist and transphobic attack against McDonald and her friends, claiming she acted in self-defense. The following year, McDonald accepted a plea deal of 41 months for second-degree manslaughter. Despite identifying as a woman, she was held in two Minnesota men’s prisons, where she would serve a total of five months of her sentence in solitary confinement, where it was determined she’d be safer as a trans woman. The circumstances of her imprisonment sparked an international campaign demanding her release.
It’s a story that largely mirrors that of Orange Is the New Black’s Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), who spends most of season four in solitary confinement after being the victim of a hate crime. Last year, Cox executive produced Free CeCe!, a documentary about McDonald’s case and treatment in prison. Now free, McDonald spoke to Vulture about life in solitary confinement as a transgender woman and whether OITNB does it justice. This is what she experienced, in her own words.
I decided to take a plea deal, and I was automatically sent to solitary confinement. That happened before I even took a prison sentence. They claimed it was “for my own protection” and that they wanted to be sure I was safe, when in reality, solitary confinement only fucks with your mind. It’s scientifically proven that people who go into solitary confinement usually don’t come out the same. It traumatizes you in ways that you sometimes can’t come back from. I’m evidence that it messes with you psychologically, and even physically. But there wasn’t a way I could fight it. It’s me against a system that’s been in place for 500 years. I also didn’t have a choice in being sent to a men’s prison, but it wouldn’t have mattered even if I was sent to a women’s prison. Being around more women wouldn’t have stopped me from dealing with the other intersections of oppression like sexism, hypersexualization of my body, racism, or violence.
I spent about two months in jail in solitary confinement, and then another three months in prison in solitary confinement, though not consecutively. You’re in your room for 23 hours of the day — you only get one hour out — so you have to think about how you wanna ration that hour. Sometimes I had to choose between talking on the phone to my family or taking a shower. It made my time in prison even more frustrating. It was just [pauses] really, really hard for me. They keep this constant light on you so you can’t really sleep well, so I could never get proper sleep. And it was really starting to weigh down on me mentally. There wasn’t any concept of time, either. In jail, if you don’t have a clock, you really don’t know because there aren’t any windows.
The way the media tries to capture the experience of being in solitary confinement still can’t amount to actually being in there. Sometimes watching Orange Is the New Black is too traumatizing for me. I try to watch out of support for Laverne, but there’s a lot I can’t handle. From the talks that we’ve had about the prison-industrial complex, Laverne knows my struggle. And the best way she can share that is through Orange Is the New Black, but it’s still just an imaginative, hypothetical idea of what can happen in prison.
For so many people who go into solitary confinement, the pressure’s so much that they commit suicide or self-harm. That’s the reality. How can you be in a prison in prison? You’re being further oppressed by a system that’s already oppressing you. A lot of people are put into solitary confinement for suicide watch. They’re stripped of their clothes, their bedding — so these people literally have to sleep naked in a room on a concrete slab and be okay with that. People expect them to get better or be less suicidal, but that’s not the case. It makes people more suicidal and self-damaging because they’re put into spaces where they’re not even trying to be treated. They’re being further criminalized.
When I was there a lot of my “privileges” were taken away. I wasn’t stripped of my clothes because I wasn’t on suicide watch, but it was still hard to maintain sanity. My lawyer would come to visit me, but I wasn’t allowed to talk anyone connected to the case, so that cut out a lot of people I could call. I had some people visit me so I could have more time outside the room, but it still doesn’t take away from the fact that once those people leave, you’re back in a room alone. It’s even more depressing.
What Sophia does in solitary is very common in the prison system. They’re tactics to get at least out of your cell, because they’ll have to remove you to clean up the water from your clogged toilet. But the ways you’re removed are very harmful and dangerous. Media will glamorize it, but in a lot of cases when people who do attempt what Sophia does, they’ll send SWAT teams into their room to remove them. It’s usually violent and aggressive behavior toward the person in solitary. Sometimes it creates consequences for everyone that’s in solitary. I remember I wasn’t able to come out of my room at all because somebody else flooded their room or did self-damage. You have some people who are strong-willed because they’re given a set time of how long they’ll be in solitary confinement, so they know when they’re gonna get out. But if you don’t, you can understandably crack under pressure. I never knew when I was getting out of there.
If I didn’t have people on the outside fighting for me, I absolutely would’ve spent my entire sentence in solitary. I had lots of talks with people within the prison system, and it changed the way they thought about it. They knew it wasn’t a good condition for me to be in. It was inhumane.
When I was released from solitary in jail, they put me in this mental unit that had less people. That was fine because I got to interact with other people and was able to use the phone more often and watch TV. It was okay — for being in jail. I was no longer mentally incapacitated to the point where I couldn’t think or concentrate, or always feeling depressed. I dealt with a lot of depression and anxiety, but I didn’t have have to deal with it constantly because I finally had people to talk to.
Getting out of solitary in prison, though, was way different. I was in a unit that had a lot of people, and I didn’t know how to handle that. The fear set in that this was actually happening, but I coped. I had to realize that I was going to be in there for 18 months. So I kept focused and had visits with people about how to construct my time while in there. That’s when I started to do the blog for the Free CeCe page. Over time, it got better once I started to come to terms with a lot of things. Still, it was the prison system, where everything is controlled and that was the real struggle: the stripping of my freedom. I wanted to be myself without constantly being micromanaged.
I’m dealing with a lot of PTSD now, so I talk to my doctor and my therapist a lot about it. They keep watch over me. But overall, I’m doing a lot better. I get to talk about these experiences and hope that people hear them and want to make a change. I’m very positive about a prison-free future, and the prison-industrial and prison-abolition work that me and others are doing is just amazing. I’m just hoping that people will think about how damaging these systems are to both the people within them and outside of them.