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A Call for Change as Queerphobia Runs Rampant in the US Prison System

by Finbarr Toesland

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday December 20, 2021
Originally published on November 3, 2021

A Call for Change as Queerphobia Runs Rampant in the US Prison System
  (Source:Getty Images)

As executive director of prison abolitionist organization, Black & Pink Massachusetts, Michael Cox has an almost unrivaled insight into the impact of incarceration on the LGBTQ+ community.

Like many other members of Black & Pink, Cox's connection with the organization started after being incarcerated. "As a queer person, my experiences in the system were rough," says Cox. "When I got out, I connected with Black & Pink — it just seemed like a perfect platform for me as someone who wanted to tell my story and the story of other people who I left behind."

Cox has experienced firsthand how prisons use solitary confinement as a tool to enact their homophobic attitudes against incarcerated people. When Cox gave his friend, who also was gay, a good-bye hug in the prison yard, guards immediately surrounded them.

"We were handcuffed, strip-searched and placed in solitary confinement — under the guise of a Prison Rape Elimination Act investigation. The homophobic guard twisted what was actually just a platonic act and sexualized it," says Cox.

This behavior is far from unusual. Cox points to another incident of a person touching someone else's head at a facility and then being thrown into solitary. "That would never happen to a heterosexual prisoner, but for LGBTQ+ people, it's just an additional thing we have to navigate."

Founded in 2005 by Jason Lydon, a Unitarian Universalist minister and prison abolitionist, Black and Pink began primarily as a pen pal program and developed to offer court accompaniment, prison abolitionist activism and educating incarcerated people on their rights. In 2020, Black and Pink Massachusetts became a fully independent and autonomous organization to more accurately reflect the geographic scope of its operations.

In recent years, the organization has worked on campaigns to improve access to hormones, create accountability for sexual violence in prisons, and advocate for the passing of Massachusetts' Criminal Justice Reform Act (2018), which includes provisions for placing trans prisoners in facilities that match their gender identity.

Rooted in the experiences of LGBTQ+ people and people living with HIV, Black & Pink Massachusetts also carries out its work through education, organizing and mutual aid. Cox points to dozens of incidents where prison authorities broke clearly defined laws and regulations on treating incarcerated people, particularly trans inmates.

One example Cox recalls as being particularly egregious was the case of a trans woman who claimed her medical care was being incentivized based on good behavior. "They wouldn't give her electrolysis unless she went without a disciplinary report for six months," adds Cox.

Black & Pink Massachusetts arranged a meeting with the Department of Corrections and brought an attorney to try and resolve the issue as quickly as possible. "Nobody would tell somebody, 'I'm only going to give you your heart medication if you're good.' It's almost that their healthcare is not seen as 'real medical care' — that's a problem we have always faced."

Cases like this illustrate the continued struggle of trans people in prisons. EDGE recently reported about the disparate ways trans prisoners, especially those of color, are treated. The death of 27-year-old transgender woman of color Layleen Polanco in Rikers Island solitary confinement on June 7, 2019, triggered several rallies calling for the disbandment of solitary confinement and restrictive housing units in New York state alongside other initiatives.

Several surveys and reports illustrate the bias and discrimination that contributes to high levels of incarceration among LGBTQ+ communities of color. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that 35% of Black transgender Americans believe they were incarcerated solely due to anti-trans bias, with only 4% of white transgender respondents attributing their incarceration to this factor.

Even though prison officers knew Polanco had epilepsy and had previously suffered multiple seizures, they placed her in solitary confinement. The Department of Correction's (DOC) policy to not place trans women alongside cisgender women in the general population of the women's facility played a role in placing Polanco in solitary confinement.

Despite DOC policy stating that inmates in solitary confinement need to be observed every 15 minutes, on the day of her death, Polanco was not checked for periods of 57 minutes, 47 minutes and 41 minutes. A video from the prison shows several staff members knocking on Polanco's cell door and showing her unresponsive. Officers are also shown laughing as Polanco lies unresponsive.

(Source: Getty Images)

America dominates the world when it comes to the number of incarcerated people in the country. At any given time, almost one in a hundred Americans is held in a federal or state prison or local jail, with one in five incarcerated people in the world located in the U.S.

The 2.3 million incarcerated Americans face different challenges as they navigate a complex and often unforgiving criminal justice system. Yet, for LGBTQ+ individuals, these obstacles are compounded by homophobic and transphobic attitudes and policies that result in an inherently harmful experience that can leave life-long trauma.

Many studies confirm the disproportionately high number of challenges members of the LGBTQ+ community encounter in the prison system. LGBTQ+ youth comprise 20% of the juvenile justice system, with research finding that LGBTQ+ people are incarcerated at three times the rate of heterosexuals. Additionally, sexual victimization rates are multiple times higher for queer people in prison than the general population.

Black & Pink Massachusetts executive director Michael Cox
Black & Pink Massachusetts executive director Michael Cox  (Source: Michael Cox)

COVID's Complicated Impact

As COVID rapidly spread through mainstream America, this infectious disease has also penetrated prisons with devastating consequences. Especially in the initial stages of the pandemic, access to personal protective equipment for staff and incarcerated people were minimal, despite the close containment that made social distancing virtually impossible.

According to a study published last July in the Journal of the American Medical Association, not only are people in prison infected by COVID at a rate more than five times higher than the national average, but they are also more likely to die from the highly transmissible disease. Inmates have a COVID death rate of 39 per 100,000, compared to the national rate of 29 deaths per 100,000.

According to Cox, prisons provide the ideal environment for COVID to foster and infect inmates, with often subpar medical care playing a part in the increased death rates. "COVID spread like wildfire in prisons," he says. "We fought hard to get the legislature to pass provisions that would encourage the department to release people to reduce the prison population, specifically for vulnerable folks."

With 177 of their members currently incarcerated, Black & Pink Massachusetts knew firsthand the challenges faced by LGBTQ+ people in prison during the pandemic. A major issue the organization found was a need for hygiene products. "We did several rounds of mutual aid — just dropping money on their books so they could buy what they needed."

It wasn't only the physical health of incarcerated people that suffered directly from COVID. The response from many prison administrators included locking down the whole facility, leading to mental health breakdowns.

"People were left in their cells in solitary-like conditions for very extended periods of time. It honestly seems like they're just being lazy and they don't want to reopen because other congregate care settings have relaxed a lot more, especially as vaccinations take hold," he adds.

(Source: Getty Images)

Sexual Violence Behinds Bars

Since the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 was introduced, several national surveys have been carried out as a requirement of this legislation that have provided researchers with a great deal of data to analyze. Instead of relying on official documents, like prison records, these surveys confidentially asked inmates to report if they were survivors of sexual violence.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, LGBTQ+ people are 10 times more likely to be sexually victimized by another incarcerated person and more than two and half times more likely to be victimized by staff than their heterosexual incarcerated peers.

In her 2014 American Journal of Public Health journal article, Lara Stemple, Assistant Dean for Graduate Studies and International Student Programs at UCLA School of Law, reexamined the prevailing notion that men rarely experience sexual victimization in prison.

When Stemple analyzed more recent statistics that directly asked inmates if they had experienced sexual violence, the gap between men and women shrunk to almost zero. The 2011 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) found that 1.27 million women and 1.26 million men reported nonconsensual sex in the previous 12 months.

For Stemple, moving past the reductive concept of the "male perpetrator and female victim" can open up the conversation and leave behind outdated ideas that male victims experience less harm and welcome all sex.

"In men's prisons, there is a norm among straight-identifying inmates, who still engage in same-sex conduct, to prefer being the person who is dominant who receives sexual favors," she explains. One of the most concerning dynamics in prisons that Stemple points to is men in prison who maintain their heterosexual identity by subjugating and even feminizing their victims.

"When an inmate presents as gay or feminine, this can make them a target for straight-identifying inmates who want to maintain their heterosexual identity by pursuing and abusing feminized inmates," she adds.

Many parts of American society view male-on-male sexual violence as a subject that is perfectly acceptable to make crude jokes about, with Stemple noting how late-night talk show hosts make fun of 'dropping the soap' and the launch of a prison-themed board game called Don't Drop the Soap, released in in 2008.

Created by art student John Sebelius, son of former Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and former U.S. Magistrate Judge K. Gary Sebelius, the game is notable for its controversial treatment of prison rape.

"It's informed by a bunch of different things — homophobia, a complete othering of inmates and an indifference towards male victimization. It speaks to people's discomfort with the topic — they can't handle it, so they have to joke about it," adds Stemple.

Black & Pink Massachusetts
Black & Pink Massachusetts  

Criminalization and the Road to New Beginnings

Formerly incarcerated individuals often find themselves dealing with the adverse effects of their convictions for many years after leaving prison. Pre-employment background checks are commonplace across industries, with companies rescinding job offers based on a conviction.

While working for a Native Hawaiian state agency as a policy advocate, Jenifer Jenkins worked on a bill that reduced the look-back period in Hawaii to seven years for felonies and five years for misdemeanors. Before this legislation, private employers could go as far back as ten years to search for a criminal record.

"The idea actually came because of my own incarceration, and what happened as a result just trying to find jobs," says Jenkins, who uses gender-neutral pronouns. "When I first got out, I had no clue about how my record would affect looking for a job. After I served time, I thought I would at least be given a fair chance, especially as I was qualified for jobs."

During their job search, Jenkins applied for hundreds of jobs, and when they were honest about their background, companies would often not call back or offer the job but then withdraw the offer. In one case, Jen lined up an ideal job but was rejected because of a misdemeanor that had not been expunged.

Jen Jenkins
Jen Jenkins  (Source: Jen Jenkins)

For many criminalized LGBTQ+ people, moving beyond this label can prove to be particularly difficult. "Your record sticks with you — once you're got it, it's really hard to get out of it and it becomes kind of like your way of life. If you don't have a good support system, it's just gonna be really challenging to break that cycle of being criminalized by the state," Jenkins adds.

Survey data from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that trans people of color are at a disproportionately high risk of being incarcerated. While one in six trans people have been incarcerated at some point in their lives, close to half (47%) of Black trans people report being previously incarcerated.

No single factor explains this high rate with a complex combination of issues, including over-policing, survival sex work, and systematic bias leading to these outcomes.

"The data shows that queer and trans youth are really heavily policed. We can get pushed out of our homes by families that do not accept us and then be less likely to receive housing because we're being actively discriminated against," explains Jenkins.

"A lot of queer and trans people will go into underground economies, whether that's drugs or the sex trade — whatever it is that we have to do to survive. As that is criminalized, you'll see us disproportionately represented in prisons and jails."

While Jenkins believes it can be easy to get discouraged by the slow movement on the federal and state level regarding defunding and prison industrial complex (PIC) abolition, the progress made by nonprofits and organizers across the U.S. is a source of hope. "If we stay on our demands and keep pushing forward, I think that some of these campaigns are winnable," they add.

Growing campaigns to remove police from schools, limit sentencing to 10 years across the board for crimes and shutting down prisons are some of the causes that Jenkins believes will combat mass incarceration.

"We're just building power," concludes Jenkins. "I'm seeing a lot of growth of on-the-ground organizations that I've honestly never seen before — it's just very inspiring for me to see."

Finbarr Toesland is an award-winning journalist who is committed to illuminating vital LGBTQ+ stories and underreported issues. His journalism has been published by NBC News, BBC, Reuters, VICE, HuffPost, and The Telegraph.