There are close to 5,000 transgender individuals living in prisons throughout the United States, according to data from 45 states and Washington, D.C. And, many transgender women aren’t housed based on their identity.
Monae Alvarado, a young transgender woman was sentenced to three years for burglary in a Pennsylvania prison. Monae’s transition occurred years before her prison term. Despite the 2012 Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA Standards)—which directs agencies to pay particular attention to protecting LGBTQ people and people who do not fit gender stereotypes—Monae wasn’t given the choice to go to a women’s prison facility until 2015.
The PREA Standards are legally binding on federal prisons, and state prison systems can face penalties on their federal funding or lose accreditation if they are found not to be in compliance. Federal law now requires state prisons to evaluate on a case-by-case basis whether to house transgender prisoners with men or women.
Eventually, when she was asked if she wanted to go to the women’s prison, she declined because she didn’t want to leave her new love. Enter Adriel Alvarado, who was serving a six year sentence for gun possession and gang activity. Together for over five years and married for three years, the couple report their share of struggles due to their relationship.
Adriel spoke candidly when I connected with him and his wife in Brooklyn, NY. He discloses almost immediately that he is a former gang member. A high ranking gang member that simply lived by protocol no matter what he felt. That was until he met Monae. They met in the laundry room. He was there for “new browns,” the term used for a fresh uniform. He was taken aback by seeing a woman in prison, among the men. His notice of her led to several inquiries about this “beautiful woman.” The next time he saw her they locked eyes and are now Mr. and Mrs. Alvarado. This love story is not however without terror and trauma.
Adriel and Monae both report various fights and harassment from both prisoners and officers. Adriel reports that he was jumped and stabbed several times by members of his gang. He describes them, as simply not understanding “his choice” in who he loved.
Monae talks of the harassment and threats she received. One specific instant is when Adriel’s gang threatened to cut her face and have her transferred. Adriel made a deal with officers in order to prevent Monae from getting transferred.
While the couple has endured an exuberant amount of traumatic experiences individually and collectively it didn’t stop them from dreaming together. They both recounted the numerous trips to the ‘hole’ where they shouted from their tiny cells what life would be like for them outside of prison.
Monae was released in 2017 and Adriel in 2020. He says coming out during the pandemic was scary but easy to adapt because the world no longer moved as fast as it did when he went to prison. The couple are both working full-time and planning for what’s next in their lives: being content Creators for YouTube and sharing their story with the rest of the world.
When asked what as a cis-gender man has this relationship taught him, he smiles and says, “Monae has taught me, love truly has no boundaries.”