Amber Kim laughed weakly when a nurse at Monroe Correctional Complex asked if she wanted an nutritional shake.

“I’m like, y’all know I’m on a hunger strike,” she said. “Why are you offering Ensure?”

More than two weeks ago, the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) forcibly removed Kim from the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW) in Gig Harbor, where she’d lived for three-and-a-half years, and placed her in Monroe, a men’s prison. 

According to the DOC, it’s the first and only time Washington has ever removed an incarcerated trans person from gender-affirming housing. Monday is the 17th day of Kim’s hunger strike, and she said she won’t eat until she’s returned.

For more than a week after her transfer, which she resisted, the DOC kept Kim in “administrative segregation,” or solitary confinement before moving her to the Inpatient Unit (IPU) on July 3.

In a phone interview from the IPU, Kim said doctors and nurses were monitoring her and had given her rehydration salts. The hunger pangs were miserable, she added, and she joked that just talking on the phone felt like doing jumping jacks. 

She worried aloud about what will happen if she’s forced to stay at the men’s facility and what precedent her removal from gender-affirming housing could mean for other trans people in the system

“This move isn’t about just me. … Being able to take a trans woman out of the woman’s prison for a single infraction where no one is harmed or victimized? That is a horrible precedent to set,” she said. 

Unprecedented, and Potentially Inappropriate

Kim’s transfer came shortly after the DOC found her guilty of her first infraction at the WCCW. The agency said a corrections officer in the medium-security unit discovered Kim and her roommate having sex in their shared cell. The department considers sex a “504 infraction,” prohibiting it along with other acts of intimacy, such as hugging, kissing, and holding hands. 

But sex is also a reality in prison. During the three-and-a-half years Kim lived at WCCW, the DOC recorded 33 504 infractions. However, the state did not transfer any of those women who broke the rules, including Kim’s roommate. 

“I want to be treated the same as every other woman. They would not send another woman out of that facility … that is not a level of troublemaking that warrants this response,” she said. 

In a statement, DOC Spokesperson Chris Wright told The Stranger that officials do not make housing decisions lightly. 

“The goal with housing decisions is to ensure the safety of all incarcerated individuals and to provide the best possible support during incarceration to ensure successful reentry into the community for those returning,” Wright said. 

DOC policy allows officials to remove inmates from gender-affirming housing for documented, “objective” security concerns, but department policy also requires officials to consider the person’s personal safety in line with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA.

A.D. Lewis, an attorney who represents trans clients in California prisons and jails for the Prison Law Office’s Trans Beyond Bars project, and who previously worked with incarcerated transgender people in Washington, called the DOC’s decision inappropriate. 

“What we’re saying is when cis women or non-trans women engage in this behavior, that’s not a safety or security concern. But when trans people do the exact same thing–consensual behavior, a rule violation–that gets them placed in this realm of something that was a huge safety or security concern,” he said.

He continued: “I think it’s really important for us to question what really is ‘gender affirming’ about these types of policies, when the state can at any time decide that they’re going to move you back and treat you differently because of your gender.”

Digging into Different Treatment

The DOC adopted its first trans housing policy in 2020, and only 11 of the 250 trans people incarcerated in Washington have been moved to gender-affirming housing. DOC spokesperson Wright said the majority have not opted-in for reasons of safety or a desire to remain within their community, but he added that not everyone interested in gender-affirming housing will be placed there.

“Each situation is considered on a case-by-case basis, with a focus on safety both for the individual and those who are housed at the facility,” he wrote.

The DOC declined to answer specific questions about Kim’s transfer and the events that led to it, citing an October settlement with Disability Rights Washington that protects the confidentiality of transgender people incarcerated in Washington. To access that information, Kim would need to sign a Release of Information to The Stranger

While Kim was unable to sign a Release of Information before the publication of this story, she previously signed over confidentiality to a HuffPost reporter who had chronicled her 15-year fight for a name change, gender-affirming care, and eventual transfer to WCCW. The HuffPost reporter provided those emails with DOC to The Stranger.

In emails with the HuffPost, Wright said Kim admitted multiple times to consensual sexual contact. He later clarified that he shouldn’t have used the word “consensual” because “technically” there was no such thing in prison.

At first, Kim had no reason to believe the DOC would treat her and her roommate differently. After the corrections officers pulled them from their cell, Kim said the DOC placed them both in restrictive housing and later found them guilty of the 504 infraction at a disciplinary hearing. The DOC then placed them both in closed custody, which entails additional supervision and limits the amount of time they can spend outside of their cells. 

In March, someone at the DOC leaked the disciplinary report about the alleged sexual encounter to the far-right publication the National Review. That month, the outlet published a sensational article that played on far-right tropes about transgender women identifying their way into women’s spaces in order to sexually exploit them, while deadnaming and misgendering Kim.

The DOC considers the gender identities of inmates confidential medical information. In an email to HuffPost, the agency expressed concern about the leak and said it had assigned an investigator to determine how the privacy violation occurred. The DOC told the Post the investigation was ongoing.

Kim said her punishment diverged from her roommate's shortly after the publication of the National Review article. While she remained in restricted custody, officials returned her roommate to a lower level of security, she said. While still in closed custody, a DOC counselor told Kim they were recommending her transfer to another facility. 

The Transfer 

On the afternoon of Friday, June 21, correctional officers told Kim they were taking her to the hole, or the Intensive Management Unit at WCCW, Kim said. In response, she grabbed her address book, glasses, and shoes. She said correctional officers put her in handcuffs and escorted her to the IMU. Once there, they stripped her and dressed her in an orange jumpsuit, which was weird, she said. Normally, guards would just put her in a cell. Even weirder, in this instance the guards locked her in waist restraints. 

She said she demanded to see paperwork, but the corrections officers told her not to worry about paperwork. She said the officers then walked her to the intake hallway, but she refused to walk through the door.  After a short back and forth, Kim said a sargeant ordered two correctional officers to slam her to the ground. She said they hogtied her and placed her in the back of an SUV for the two-hour car ride to Monroe. She said she arrived exhausted and unable to stand. 

The Department of Corrections told The Stranger that the agency follows a set of policies to ensure the safe transfer of incarcerated people from one prison to another, even when, “as in the case of Kim, they attempt to assault staff.” Kim said she did not assault anyone, and only refused to move.

“We do use wrist, waist, or leg restraints during transports,” DOC spokesperson Wright said in an email. “When a person is combative, additional restraints are placed on the individual to increase safety. However, DOC does not allow incarcerated individuals to be hogtied.”

Wright said the DOC had paperwork for the transfer, but The Stranger would have to file a public disclosure request for it. 

“It’s a Disgrace” 

Since her transfer, activists with Black and Pink SeaTac and @support4amberkim on Instagram have organized telephone campaigns to inundate DOC Health Services Deputy Director Ronna Cole and Secretary Cheryl Strange with calls about Kim.

Hailey Ockinga, executive director of nonprofit Beyond These Walls and a formerly incarcerated transgender woman who advocates for queer people incarcerated in Washington State, called what happened to Kim “horrific” and discriminatory. She and other advocates have said that Secretary Strange, the first openly queer leader of the agency, should know better than to put a transgender woman in a men’s prison where she feels unsafe. 

“[Strange] is an open member of our community who was lifted up and celebrated and is now allowing this to happen? It’s a disgrace. It’s disgraceful for her,” Ockinga said. 

In an email to the HuffPost, DOC spokesperson Tobby Hatley said Kim will have the same access to gender-affirming property, treatment, and other programming opportunities at Monroe, and that she has been housed safely in other DOC facilities. 

Kim does not tell the same story. She said living as a trans woman inside a men’s prison was unsafe, and it involved a balancing act of dangerous male egos. 

In men’s facilities, Kim said men targeted her for random acts of violence and said they wanted to “make a woman out of her.” The same men who called her a “fag” in the chow hall would later quietly proposition her out in the yard, and then yell more if she refused. This harassment grew when she changed her name and took hormones. When she would find a boyfriend, half backed off. If she didn’t find someone she liked, she said she has made the trade of sex for safety.

If the DOC’s decision to transfer Kim stands, there’s no way out. She is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole for the murder of her parents in 2006. She said she believes that if she ends her hunger strike, she could find herself back in survival mode.

“It's not any one man, right?” she said. “Any one person. It’s the overwhelming majority of all of them.”