Protecting the LGBT Incarcerated

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With jails and prisons federally mandated to curb sexual assaults against homosexual and transgender inmates, a handful of correctional facilities have emerged at the forefront of innovative practices designed to protect what is one of the most vulnerable groups behind bars.

The National Institute of Corrections (NIC), citing studies that show lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inmates are 13 to 20 times more likely to be raped than incarcerated heterosexuals, plans to spotlight those practices Nov. 7 in a nationwide broadcast that corrections officials can view live. The public eventually can access the broadcast on the institute’s website.

One of the institutions leading those efforts is the Denver Sheriff Department, whose director, Gary Wilson, began raising the issue when he took the job two years ago, around the time federal officials began seeking public comment on what then were proposed safeguards for gay and transgender inmates.

“We wanted a policy that [would] ensure that transgender people who came into our custody were treated fairly with the equal amount of [protections] as other inmates,” said Capt. Paul Oliva, who began developing the program in February 2011 with the help of experts and advocates from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities and civil rights lawyers.

Oliva told The Crime Report that the agency’s overhaul of its handling of LGBT detainees represented the first time the department has consulted on such an intensive and on-going basis with any community groups.

Lengthy Process

“We knew this was going to be a lengthy [process],” said Oliva, who will be featured in the November 7 broadcast by the NIC, which oversees the federal Bureau of Prisons training and education services.

Among other results, the process has put an end to what historically had been a 23-hour lock-up of transgender inmates that was intended for their safety—but which costs more than housing them by other means.

Under the facility’s new guidelines, inmates also are provided a voluntary form on which they can state their gender identity. Detainees can choose whether they want to be strip-searched by a male or female officer. And in-service training is offered to uniformed and other correctional staff on understanding the difference between being, say, transsexual versus gender variant (displaying characteristics not usually associated with one’s physiology), and on the most suitable, specific modes of communication with LGBT inmates.

The guidelines also establish a Transgender Review Board comprised of jail and non-jail professionals who, on a case-by-case basis, will decide how and where such inmates should be safely housed and receive any medical treatment required. The board will oversee educational, job placement and religious programs as well.

EDITORS NOTE: For more details of the Denver program, please click HERE

“We built this from the ground up,” Oliva said.

The programs in Denver and other jurisdictions, including Santa Clara, CA, and Washington, DC, have been identified as models for law enforcement agencies around the country that must comply with mandates added in May 2012 to the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act. Corrections agencies that fail to comply with the new rules face a 5 percent loss in federal funds, and have up to three years to draft their respective policies and programs.

The federal rules themselves allow a range of acceptable responses, ranging from setting a zero-tolerance for sexual abuse to requiring correctional systems to create and disseminate an anti-rape policy and craft a program based on federal guidelines.

Juvenile and disabled inmates are also covered under the May 2012 provisions, which are partly addressed in the institute’s “Managing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex Inmates: Is Your Jail Ready?” report.

“It’s all very nuanced,” Lorie Brisbin, an NIC program specialist, told The Crime Report.

“The problem we run into with some staff is that [non-homosexuality] may be contrary to their religious beliefs, contrary to the way they were raised. [But] staff needs to understand that they have a constitutional duty to protect all the offenders they come into contact with.”

Brisbin noted that the lack of exposure to LGBT issues has kept some correctional employees “under-informed and afraid.”

Dealing With Staff

Advocates for LGBT and transgender prisoners add, however, that corrections staff have sometimes been part of the problem. Ex-offender Michael Booth, a member of Los Angeles-based Just Detention International‘s Survivors Counsel, said guards at Donavan Correctional Facility in San Diego in 2009 locked him in a cell with a prisoner who repeatedly raped him after he complained to officers that he was being harassed by that prisoner.

“The way the cops looked at it, it was just another fag being a bitch,” said Booth, 43, who spent 10 years in prison on manslaughter and grand theft convictions, and now works as a home health aide for the elderly.

“So their punishment for me was to throw me in that cell. This was four days of being attacked, tortured, not some five minute thing …Psychologically, to survive that, you pray. You hope you live. You close your eyes and pray that it stops.”

While noting that most corrections officers are law-abiding, Brisbin, of the corrections institute, said transforming correctional culture requires time for workers to connect the new rules to sound correctional practice.

The November 7 broadcast, “Their Safety, Your Responsibility,” is designed to encourage immediate follow-up engagement by the facilities that tune in.

“It’s intended to start the dialogue,” Brisbin said.

“We made it clear that the training was designed to be a safe place where there was no right or wrong answer,” Oliva said of the Denver Sheriff Department’s effort.

Its staff included instruction and testimony from physicians, psychiatrists, LGBT people and others. The experience and advice of former LGBT inmates themselves also was essential, he said.

Brain Trust

San Francisco Department of Public Health commissioner Cecelia Chung, an HIV-infected transgender woman and member of Just Detention’s board of directors, is part of what’s become the federal government’s brain trust on intake and incarceration of LGBT inmates.

In 2005, Chung, now 48, testified before a U.S. Justice Department panel about being sexually assaulted in San Francisco County Jail in the mid-1990s. Homeless at the time, the former Transgender Law Center executive director said she’d been detained in what was a random police sweep of homeless people.

“I’d never been in jail before. I’d never been arrested prior to that experience,” Chung told The Crime Report. “At that point, I had already undergone hormone replacement therapy. My full presentation was female but I still had male genitalia.”

She was placed into a segment of the jail reserved for gay men and, she said, coerced into having sex with one who refused to accept her ‘no’ for an answer.

“Most transgender women are undergoing hormone replacement therapy,” added social worker Linda McFarland, Just Detention’s deputy executive director. “They already have a more female presentation when they are being placed in male facilities. It increases the likelihood that they’ll be sexually violated.”

McFarland continued: “How do you handle that? What plans are made around housing a person safely? Do you put a young offender who has just turned 18 in a cell with someone who is sex offender of young boys?

“Are you putting non-violent offenders in cells or dorms with violent offenders? How are you figuring who safely lives with whom?

“A lot of this really is just common sense. You assess someone and plan for ways to keep them safe. Screening for vulnerability is also a really big part of this. You don’t want to assume: Not every gay man is in danger or needs protective housing.”

Using Language

Another important part of the cultural shift, McFarland said, is the use of language. How do you forbid usage of words like “fag,” including by prison guards who have been found guilty—and sometimes gone unpunished—for raping transgender and other inmates?

“Changing the way people talk and the way they behave at work does take time,” McFarland said. “The message of these new regulations is that there must be a professional standard, regardless of what someone thinks of it. That obviously has to come from leadership.”

Added corrections specialist Brisbin: “We have some fabulously devoted people who really care about the work they do. They need the information, they need the skills. Once they have those in their hands, many times they will make really good decision.

Katti Gray

Katti Gray

“When we don’t provide the tools, you leave things up to chance.”

Freelance journalist Katti Gray covers health, criminal justice, higher education and other topics for a range of national and regional magazines, newspapers and online news sites. She is a contributing editor of The Crime Report, and welcomes comments from readers.

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