Advocacy Group “Black and Pink” Conducts Groundbreaking Survey of LGBTQ Prisoners

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Jason Lydon of Black and Pink doesn’t believe in “opening a pink door” into the problem of  mass incarceration; he would prefer to hurl a “rainbow grappling hook” over the walls and get everyone out. Black and Pink’s new groundbreaking report may just snag your interest.   

Black and Pink, an organization “outraged by the specific violence of the prison industrial complex against LGBTQ people,” released the results of their survey about the experiences of LGBTQ prisoners this week. The detailed report, Coming Out of Concrete Closets, scrutinizes the cavalier attitudes towards incarcerated LGBTQ people. In particular, the survey highlights two overarching problems encountered by LGBT prisoners. First, transgender women, are forced into housing with men and are often subjected to harassment, violence, and/or sexual assault. Second, LGBTQ prisoners overall are overwhelmingly targeted for psychological, sexual, and physical violence. Here are some of the more egregious findings:

One of the more disturbing findings is the rate at which LGBTQ prisoners are placed in solitary confinement. Taken together the roughly 1,200 respondents spent a combined total of 5,110 years in solitary confinement. Half of all respondents spent two years or longer in solitary. An overwhelming amount of prisoners, roughly 40% of respondents, volunteered for solitary confinement for reasons as varied as “the men was making me sell my body and it was the only safe place for me, the prison system won’t help…so I ran to solitary to be safe,” “I was raped BADLY and cuz Trans, scared of being hurt cuz of how feminine I am and I was 18 years old. So scared” or because they were sexually assaulted by a staff member.  Imagine being forced to choose between  either solitary confinement or rape because the environment is unsafe and no advocates speak up.. In addition to the volunteered solitary assignment, almost half of respondents were placed in solitary against their will for their own protection. More likely, it was because LGBTQ individuals threaten the entire social order in the incarcerated community. A system is clearly broken when it rewards the perpetrators and punishes the victim. Even people within the confines of the criminal legal system deserve protections.

Protections are severely lacking as evidenced by the claims of sexual violence. One surveyed respondent remarked that, “every prisoner experiences unwanted touching or sexual assault by prison staff whether they want to admit it or not,” and that “there’s virtually nothing I can do to prevent it from happening.” 37% of respondents noted unwanted touching and 12% recalled at least one incident of sexual assault/rape by a staff member. It is not only prison staff that LGBTQ individuals fear, but also fellow prisoners. Just over 30% of survey respondents said they had been sexually assaulted by another prisoner. 76% of those respondents believe they were placed in a situation with a higher-risk of sexual violence. Sometimes sexual assault occurs by another prisoner and prison staff. One incarcerated individual mentioned being “raped by another prisoner, and placed on self‐harm observation status because I was feeling suicidal. The guard assigned to observe me entered my cell after turning the security camera off and coerced me to perform oral sex on him. He promised to protect me, and gave me food and tobacco products.”  However, there are little protections afforded because of the pervasive rape culture. As another inmate responded, “an inmate raped me and when I reported the rape, I was ignored by CO saying “Faggots can’t get raped.”  However,  LGBTQ people can and do get raped and this subtle victim shaming is only part of the problem.

Shaming is evident in other ways. For example, almost a fifth of HIV+ prisoners in the survey were placed into solitary due to their status. As one prisoner observed, “people treat me like I’m radioactive, both staff and inmates, I have been begging since being diagnosed for mental health care ie counseling and HIV case mang. but have yet to receive any!” Another respondent noted that, “Correction Officers will more than often be very disrespectful and yell “Hey Mary, one of your HIV patients are here.” or “Hey Bob, Dead Man walkin.”” The HIV+ stigma prevalent in prison is a reflection of the outside world’s  perceptions and is one of many issues in dire need of reform.

While this report is a great first look into one the problem of mass incarceration a caveat is in order as the survey was completed by incarcerated LGBT prisoners who receive Black and Pink’s newsletter. Additionally, only about 2% of the survey respondents were housed in local jails. As such, the survey population may not be representative of all LGBT peoples behind bars. Even so, it provides a glimpse into what is happening inside America’s prison system, and, in particular, the experiences of a historically marginalized group.

As a society, we often ignore reform as prison is for punishment. We forget about people ensnared in the prison industrial complex or are downright terrified to explore what makes us uncomfortable. This study strides past that fear to hear about life on the inside for LGBTQ prisoners. Jason Lydon began this survey hoping to lift up the voices of LGBTQ people in prisons, learn their stories and hold them in his heart, and be able to share those stories with other people. It is time we start listening. The stories are unfolding, but we need continue figuring out how to weave them together. As Jason puts it, mass incarceration happens at the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality. Focusing on any of these marginalized groups benefits everyone.

“We don’t need to build a pretty gay prison, we need to crumble the walls down.”

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