The Ordeal of Gay and Transgender Prisoners

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Photo by Eric Lin via Flickr

One day last year, when I was enrolled in a vocational program at Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Washington State, a classmate of mine disappeared.

The reason behind his vanishing act was strange and, to me, seemed to be nothing more than prisoner rumor-mongering.

Here’s the story. While working in the kitchen he went outside to dump the trash and then proceeded to climb the security fence that separated the kitchen area from the facility’s industrial complex.

He wasn’t trying to escape—he could only have gone from one part of the compound to another. Instead, it appeared to be an attempt at suicide-by-correctional officer.

Or a loss of sanity.

The rumors of his fence-climbing turned out to be true. When he was released from disciplinary segregation three weeks later, he was allowed to go back to school and he ended up seated next to me in the classroom. I couldn’t help but ask what led him to pull a stunt like that.

Voice tinged with sadness, my classmate quietly revealed to me that he was a “she”—that is, transgender. She had felt alone and depressed, and had long been struggling with her sexual identity.

That was the last thing I expected to hear that morning. But once I heard this, I realized that I understood just where she was coming from—at least with respect to feeling alone and depressed.

I have long known how cruel life can be for gay, bisexual and transgender prisoners.

It can be a miserable existence.

Over the 25 years that I have been confined, the treatment they often receive is among the foul things I have had to turn a blind eye to—and it haunts me.

Most prisons are “an all-male world shaped by deprivation” and it can be especially loathsome for a prisoner who is a “gal-boy,” according to prison author Wilbert Rideau. He recounts how such inmates of Louisiana’s Angola prison were often forced to serve as sexual outlets and “sold, traded, used as collateral, gambled off, or given away” by their “owners.”

Victor Hassine, an inmate in Pennsylvania’s Graterford Correctional Institution, recounts in his book, “Life Without Parole: Living in Prison Today,” incidents when (presumably homosexual) staff members in Graterford isolated, overpowered and raped openly gay prisoners; and in other instances, denied “entitlements, such as positive parole reports, until victims agree to have sex.”

Such is life for many gay and gender-nonconforming prisoners in America. It is a portrait of a world of depression.

From an evolutionary standpoint this is understandable.

In his book, “Origin of the Species,” Charles Darwin explains how depression “is well adapted to make a creature guard itself against any great or sudden evil.”

When depression is experienced by prisoners who are already at risk because of their sexual identity, life can be worse than it otherwise would be in a correctional facility. That’s because the behavior of depressed people can produce negative reactions from those around them and lead to rejection, according to research published by J. Strack and J.C. Coyne in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Other researchers have demonstrated that once feelings of rejection become the norm, those who are depressed will begin associating with people who reinforce their poor self-image.

These are the last people a “gal-boy” should be associating with if prison safety and security is taken seriously.

Maybe this factored into why Stafford Creek began implementing policies and practices embracing gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex prisoners.

It began last November when an LGBTI Support Group was formed with the blessing of the Associate Superintendent, Jeneva Cotton.

According to the original flyer, the purpose of the group was to foster “a supportive and educational environment” and “provide a safe platform for open dialogue about topics such as Gender Identity, Stigmas, Spirituality, Resources, Self-Acceptance [and] Incarceration.”

This group is now dubbed the “Community,” and one of the ground rules is to “Have Each Other’s Back.”

In the nine months since the Community began to meet regularly there have been noticeable changes throughout the facility.

LGBTI prisoners have been seen to wear pants so tight that—were any other prisoner wearing them—they would be rushed to the clothing room to receive pants that are looser fitting.

The appearance of some prisoners has been altered dramatically by the plucking of eyebrows and application of homemade rouge on cheeks.

Sports bras have been issued and some at times are obviously stuffed with…something.

And correctional officers can be made to perform “modified” pat searches if a prisoner proclaims her gender non-conformity.

Make no mistake about it: This is a social experiment under the auspices of Stafford Creek Superintendent Margaret Gilbert.

While many believe these changes are predicated on the whim of highly-placed sympathizers within the state Department of Corrections (DOC), they’re actually rooted in pre-existing policies and legislative decrees.

One of the purposes of punishment in the State of Washington is to “offer the offender an opportunity to improve himself or herself.” The Legislature has also mandated that the correctional system should treat all prisoners “fairly and equitably.”

Over the years, such dictates have led to accommodations being made for prisoners besides those who are marginalized due to their sexual identity.

For instance, there was a time when African-American hair products were not sold within the DOC system, but the Black Prisoners’ Caucus successfully advocated for Afrocentric conditioners and hair grease.

Non-Christian faiths are given the freedom to practice their religions even when correctional officials have reason to believe the “religion” is simply a front for a security threat group

Muslim prisoners can even be seen every Friday at Stafford Creek wearing religious garb to their prayer service.

Ironically, many of the very prisoners who have the freedom to express their minority cultures and non-conventional religious ideologies are staunchly opposed to LGBTI prisoners having a Community with the stated vision of creating “A Positive, Pro-Social Environment that Nurtures Acceptance, Individuality & Equality.”

Grumbling aside, I seriously doubt that Associate Superintendent Cotton and other administrators at Stafford Creek are simply hell bent on enforcing political correctness. There is actually an argument to be made that such policies and practices further the goal of rehabilitation.

It all comes down to programming.

According to researchers Keith O’Brian and Sarah Lawrence of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, job training, vocation educational programs, and work release “produce modest but statistically significant reductions in recidivism.”

Yet as Michael Lovaglia notes in his book, “Knowing People: The Personal Use of Social Psychology, “Depression creates profound problems in the social functioning of those who suffer from it, more so than any other psychiatric disorders.”

My fence-climbing, transgender classmate’s experience demonstrates quite clearly how prisoners’ desire to take advantage of program opportunities can be inhibited when they feel alone, isolated, and are struggling with their sexual identity in a hyper-masculine subculture that views them contemptuously.

Without such programming (or the ability to do so effectively), there will not be “statistically significant reductions in recidivism” for prisoners who are marginalized due to their sexual identities.

The DOC in Washington State also has an avowed commitment “to non-discrimination in offender programming” and seeks to “prevent discrimination from occurring by identifying practices and procedures that could have the effect of discrimination and take steps to eliminate the potential for discrimination.”

So, for those who believe that allowing stuffed sports bras, plucked eye brows, and tight slacks is going too far simply to make some “weirdos” feel adjusted enough to program effectively—you should know that the DOC is directed to “positively impact offenders” and the Legislature believes “[a]ll citizens, the public and inmates alike, have a personal [ ] obligation in the corrections system.”

In light of all this, my suggestion to the dissenters inside prison is this: Bite your tongue and consider your acquiescence a fulfillment of your personal obligation to the correctional system.

If you feel differently, go ahead and say or do the wrong thing and I promise that you will feel the full wrath of bureaucracy.

Or maybe not.

Jeremiah Bourgeois

Soon there will be a new regime at Stafford Creek when Margaret Gilbert retires on September 15.

In Gilbert’s farewell message she wrote, “Every time you make a decision to do the right thing you’re creating a future. Every time you make a bad decision it affects someone else.”

Only time will tell what the future will bring for LGBTI prisoners at Stafford Creek.

Jeremiah Bourgeois is a regular contributor to TCR, and an inmate in Washington State, where he is currently serving 25 years to life for a crime committed when he was 14. He welcomes comments from readers.

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