The purpose of earning a reputation in prison is for one reason—survival. However, the cost of survival may take extreme forms.
“When I first came to prison in the 80s, being a transgender meant being someone’s property. We would be used to carry weapons, for sex, to wash and clean dirty workout clothes, but, in that we were also well protected, and it gave you a sense of security,” says Jarvis “Lady J” Clark, who has been incarcerated 30 years, serving a 27-year-to-life sentence for first-degree murder.
“However, the protection we got was catch-22, because we had to belong to someone or a gang or be preyed upon.”
Clark, who goes by the name Lady J, says she has never been forced into a relationship.
“I always had a choice in choosing who was going to be my husband,” Lady J adds.
Transgender males prefer the pronoun “she,” and in their relationships in prison, they often are viewed as “wives” by their “husbands.”
Although “wives” are protected and serve a domestic role in relationships with their husbands, it is not without the danger of violence.
“Being a wife comes with the responsibility of fighting alongside your man. If he got into a riot, you go into that riot with him,” Lady J says.
Despite being in a relationship that provided protection, Lady J says that she has never relied upon that for security. Instead, she wanted to earn her own security based on her own reputation.
“I knew someday I was going to get old in here, so I set out to earn a reputation early on of not being a sissy or a victim. So I fought whenever someone tried to challenge me,” Lady J says.
Some of the challenges transgender people face challenges in prison include are: extortion for money, sex or physical abuse.
“While I was at Calipatria, a very muscular man ran into my cell and said ‘when these doors close, I’m gonna get me some.’ When he did, I ran to the back of my cell and got my razor and turned around and told him ‘if the door closed and you’re still here, I’m gonna cut you from elbow to asshole.’ He said I was tripping and got out of my cell.”
During her incarceration, Lady J has accumulated 22 disciplinary infractions: 10 for fights, three for riot participation.
“Lady J is a punk but not a punk,” says Nick Lopez, inmate at San Quentin, who has known her for more than 20 years.
“Punk” is a derogatory prison term used to describe homosexual prisoners or one who is easily bullied.
“I’ve known him since we were at Calipatria. He had more heart than some of the guys there. One time, I saw him kick off a riot. It was crazy,” Lopez adds.
In response, Lady J says, “The person who instigated the riot was getting beat up by the Mexicans. He started screaming out to me ‘mama prison, mama prison,’ while other Blacks were just standing there watching him getting beat up. Without a second thought I ran into the crowd and started swinging and punching, and the Blacks saw me and ran into the riot with me.
“They really had no choice, because what would they look like if a transgender was brave enough to run into a riot and they didn’t?”
In reflection on the cost she has paid to be respected, Lady J says, “My mother died while I was in prison. If I didn’t have the mind-set to gain a reputation, I’d probably be home by now.
“If I had to do it all over again, I would’ve put myself in protective custody.”
Upon entering CDCR, LGBTQ inmates are not automatically placed in protective custody.
The formerly reputation-oriented Lady J has transformed into a person who advocates for the LGBTQ community in San Quentin.
In 2015, Lady J co-founded a program called Acting with Compassion and Truth (ACT) in San Quentin to increase understanding and decrease violence toward LGBTQ inmates.
“Those who attend our classes are majority heterosexual men who want to better understand who we are, and some have family members that are gay.”
In 2018, Lady J became the first appointed LGBTQ inmate representative in CDCR.
“The administration had seen qualities in me and believed that I would be the best fit to be a voice for the LGBTQ community here,” Lady J says.
San Quentin is one of nine prisons in CDCR that is designated as a transgender hub.
“I’m a mentor to the LGBTQ and the protective custody community here in San Quentin,” Lady J says.
Lady J keeps an “open door policy” for those who frequent her cell who are not LGBTQ, but who are heterosexual men.
“Mama J has been a mentor to me,” says Jacob Gabel, 20, a heterosexual first-term offender. “When I got here, I didn’t know anybody, and she reached out to me and helped me.
“I’m not naïve of the perceptions of hanging out with Mama J and the transgender community here. I’m not embarrassed nor do I care what they think. I have a brother who is gay and some friends who are gay, and besides it’s the 21st century.
“Mama J and the transgenders here respect you for who you are. They don’t peer pressure you into conformity. You can be who you are. That’s why I feel more comfortable with Lady J than anyone else,” Gabel adds.
In response, Lady J says, “A lot of people respect me because I’m real with who I am. I never hid who I was. I have always been Lady J.”
Lady J’s story is not one that is typical for LGBTQs in prison, but one that does highlight the general practice of earning a reputation through violence despite gender identity differences.
Since the publication of this article, Jarvis Clark is no longer on SQ’s mainline