In February, The News & Observer published a story that sounded alarms within North Carolina progressive circles: “Transgender woman has asked to be moved from a men’s prison. So far, NC has said no.”
Kanautica Zayre-Brown, whom the N&O identified as “the state’s only post-operative transgender prisoner,” was incarcerated at Harnett Correctional Institution in Lillington, a men’s facility, though she was legally recognized as a woman.
This was, in a word, unconstitutional.
Zayre-Brown’s pleas to the Department of Public Safety for a transfer to a women’s facility had been denied. She faced daily threats of physical and sexual violence while living in an open-dormitory-style facility with men. And someone was trying to do something about it by taking her story to the press.
The article and a subsequent interview on WRAL shined a light on the circumstances that transgender women of color can face while incarcerated.
After they learned about Zayre-Brown, Durham-based organizer Tommi Hayes, along with a handful of other activists, formed the House of Kanautica, a virtual coalition committed to black queer and trans liberation. The group used social media to bring visibility to Zayre-Brown’s plight and generated public pressure by calling the Harnett County Sheriff’s Office, the Department of Public Safety, and the Department of Public Health. It also published Zayre-Brown’s prison address so that community members could write letters of support.
The House of Kanautica grew, eventually comprising activists and organizers of many different backgrounds and affiliations, with Zayre-Brown’s voice at the center of the conversation.
Zayre-Brown, who faces up to nine years in prison after being convicted of insurance fraud and obtaining property by false pretenses in 2017, also wrote letters and released statements through the House of Kanautica to raise awareness about her situation.
“Kanautica was lit. She was ready to work with and alongside and to trust this group of people who she didn’t know, but who were there to support her,” Hayes says. “And, of course, the organizing work couldn’t have been done without Kanautica. She’s been at the helm and at the front of this organizing. Whatever she has asked us to do, we have tried to do to the fullest and best of our abilities.”
Following public pressure, Harnett Correctional placed Zayre-Brown in solitary confinement—a move that exposed her to a host of other risks. Then the ACLU of North Carolina took on her case. In March, it sent a letter to the NCDPS asking that Zayre-Brown be moved to a women’s facility: “Every day, she is housed among men,” the ACLU wrote, “forced to shower in group showers for men, and subjected to the constant indignities and threats to her health and safety that come with being stripped of her core identity.”
According to the ACLU’s letter, in January, after a review of Zayre-Brown’s request for a transfer, an assistant warden at Harnett said that “she did not care what Zayre-Brown ‘was thinking in her head’ about what gender she wanted to be and that she will be treated just like everyone other ‘male’ housed at Harnett CI.”
Correctional officers refused to identify her as female and continued to call her by her birth name rather than her legal name, which had been changed, and a prison nurse denied her medical treatment, citing “religious beliefs,” the ACLU wrote.
Eventually, Zayre-Brown was transferred, albeit to a different men’s facility rather than a prison aligned with her gender identity. By this point, the coalition of groups working to help Zayre-Brown had ballooned. In June, Equality NC executive director Kendra R. Johnson mentioned her name at the first Pride reception ever hosted in the Governor’s Mansion. The Root published a story about the mistreatment of trans women in the criminal-justice system that centered on Zayre-Brown’s incarceration.
In August, the NCDPS buckled and moved Zayre-Brown to a women’s facility in Polkton, Anson Correctional Institution.
“I am just so happy and feel so much better,” she said in a statement released by the ACLU. “I don’t feel like I’m in a monstrous cage anymore. I feel safe.”
Zayre-Brown’s transfer is a testament to the power of organizing, Hayes says: “It’s not individual work; it can only be done collectively. And when we’re called to do it, like when we read a newspaper article about something, and we feel called to support it, we should do it.”
But the real legacy of Zayre-Brown’s journey lies in the larger truth it exposes: Systems of power ignore threats to black and brown trans folks and treat their experiences as invalid. In a world that often forgets that the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ community are still fighting for survival, well after the right to marriage was won, people like Zayre-Brown are an important reminder of who progressives still need to work to protect.
“I believe that when black transgender women are free—free, like when factual, material liberation as defined by them is reality—I think that that will be when every single one of us is truly free,” Hayes says. “And that’s why we should be invested in being a part of the community of people who love and support and understand and lift up Kanautica.”
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