Mar 28, 2016

LGBT People Face Discrimination, Violence In Justice System

By Steve Williams

A new report serves to add to growing evidence that the criminal justice system is still biased against LGBT people and that this bias is subjecting LGBTs to increased levels of discrimination, as well as physical and, in some cases, sexual violence as a result.

The report was released earlier this month by the LGBT advocacy and prison abolitionist organization Black & Pink. In 2014, the organization conducted the largest prisoner survey to date that specifically targets LGBTQ people. The survey sought to investigate exactly what life is like for LGBTQ people going through the courts and into the prison system. It asked them a variety of questions regarding how they have been treated, what access to prison facilities they are given and whether they feel supported by the prison system in ways comparable to their peers. As a result, 1,118 prisoners in state and federal prisons sent responses to the survey. That data has now been processed into this latest report.

The report finds that around 65 percent of respondents actually identified as LGBT prior to being incarcerated, but around 70 percent of that group felt emotional distress about feeling forced to hide their sexuality while going through the legal system. That went up to 78 percent for transgender, nonbinary or Two-Spirit people.

Distressingly, of the proportion of inmates identifying as transgender, nonbinary or Two-Spirit, 31 percent said that they had been denied a GID or Gender Dysphoria diagnosis while in prison, which is often the difference between being allowed access to gender affirming treatments or not. Around 23 percent of those identifying as transgender, nonbinary or Two-Spirit were taking hormones in prison, while a massive 44 percent said they had been denied access to hormones when they made a request. In addition, only 21 percent of respondents said they were allowed access to underwear and cosmetics that match their gender. This means prisoners are effectively being denied the right to live gender-affirmed while in prison.

Digging deeper into the figures, over 50 percent of trans and non-binary gender people said they felt that they had been discriminated against by their defense attorneys. The report doesn’t allow for much nuance on that, but anecdotal evidence suggests that could mean attorneys refusing to give the same help to trans and gender fluid people, or asking them to hide their identity.

Among gay men whose gender presentation matches gender expectations, 39 percent said they felt discriminated against, and that figure rose to 41 percent for bi and queer identifying people. When you add in race to almost any of these statistics the overlap of anti-LGBT bias and racial bias seems to increase the chances of discrimination, with over 40 percent of respondents who identified as Black, Latino or Hispanic or fell into other non-white categories reported feeling as though they were discriminated against.

In terms of how they were treated once they were in prison, around 70 percent in the study reported being verbally harassed by staff due to their LGBT identity. The rate of physical assaults was far lower, however. Those that were reported were often sexual in nature, involving patdowns or inappropriate touching of a prisoner’s genitals.

For more common in terms of physical assault was guards failing to protect LGBT prisoners from other prisoners, with around 76 percent saying they felt they had been left vulnerable by prison staff.

As an adjunct to that, 85 percent of LGBTQ respondents in the survey reported being put in solitary confinement. People of color were heavily overrepresented in that figure, with more than 50 percent of respondents who were put in solitary being non-white, and many of them going into solitary against their will. In addition, 87 percent of those put in solitary reported having been diagnosed with a mental health problem. The report revealed that a sizable proportion of those put in solitary confinement, which was said to last more than two years in some cases, were told it was for the prisoner’s own good and that this was to protect them from other inmates.

Probably as a result of this isolation, the respondents reported feeling that they had been denied many of the opportunities that were afforded to heterosexual prisoners.

What Can We Do About This?

The report calls for a number of reforms. One reform that is desperately needed is the end to so-called “stop and frisk” laws that have been shown to disproportionately target racial and sexual minorities, as well as taking affirmative steps to end racial bias throughout the system. The report also wants us to reconsider how we approach policing the sex trade given that many LGBTQ prisoners have engaged in sex work prior to incarceration. It demands an improvement in mental health and addiction treatment services to ensure that people who need help get it without incarceration.

In addition, the report highlights the need for better training on LGBTQ issues for attorneys as well as judges. An end to solitary confinement is also a necessity. The findings suggest more training for prison staff and that a variety of LGBTQ-affirming books and materials be made available to LGBTQ prisoners.  The report also urge the creation of clear policies that allow trans prisoners access to gender affirmation health care, as per their constitutional rights. –Care2

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