LGBT Behind Bars: Removal From General Population Causing Problems

In jails and prisons, LGBT inmates are often deprived of basic rights and services, such as religious services, and educational and vocational training, advocates say.
In jails and prisons, LGBT inmates are often deprived of basic rights and services, such as religious services, and educational and vocational training, advocates say. | Photo: sean hobson/Flickr/Creative Commons License

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In America's jails and prisons, LGBT inmates are often housed in separate units apart from the general population. Some inmates and advocates support the use of these prisons-within-prisons because research has shown that LGBT inmates are at a higher risk of sexual assault and violence. For example, one study showed that LGBT inmates are ten times more likely to be sexually abused than heterosexual inmates.

But advocates caution that inmates housed in LGBT units may be deprived of basic rights granted to other inmates, such as educational, vocational, medical, and rehabilitative services. This could mean longer sentences and more difficult transitions after release. Advocates also contend that LGBT inmates in these units are frequently confined to their cells for up to 22 hours a day -- far longer than other prisoners.

Though each jail or prison has its own protocol for housing LGBT inmates, advocates believe these practices are widespread in urban jails and prisons. California prisons such as Santa Ana, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Riverside all have LGBT-specific units.

A recent federal lawsuit alleges that "GBT" inmates at one of the largest county jails in California -- the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga -- were deprived of many of these basic rights. The suit, brought in late October by the American Civil Liberties Union and the law firm Kaye, McLean, Bednarski & Litt, claims inmates were confined to their cells 23 hours a day, given too little yard time and denied vital services because of their sexual orientation. The unit houses gay males, bisexual males, and transgender women.

To better understand what life behind bars is like for LGBT inmates, Agenda spoke with ACLU senior staff attorney Melissa Goodman and Jennifer Orthwein, pro bono attorney at the Transgender Law Center.

(The San Bernardino County Sherriff's Department responded to requests for comment by saying that the department had not been served with the suit.)

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KCET: Do you believe that LGBT inmates face discrimination in California? If so, what is it?

Jennifer Orthwein: Right now, inmates are being transferred from institutions they've been housed in for a very long time to institutions that the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation has recently designated for GBT inmates.

That's definitely causing a lot of distress from what (inmates) we are receiving letters from say. Many of them have already been established in previous institutions. They've had programs and jobs, and close relationships, and now they are being moved to other institutions, so that's causing a lot of trans women a lot of distress.

KCET: Has any legislation been passed to protect LGBT inmates?

Jennifer Orthwein: In 2003, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which created standards for prisons on how to keep inmates safe from sexual assault. The act involved comprehensive research which identified that LGBT inmates were more likely to be sexually assaulted than other inmates.

In 2011, the Department of Justice created guidelines to better protect LGBT inmates. Some of the guidelines were specific to transgender inmates.

Currently, only federal facilities are required to follow the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Right now, there is a bill that passed a federal congressional committee to reduce the enforcement mechanism in PREA. California also passed the Sexual Abuse in Detention Elimination Act (SADEA) in 2005 which is similar to PREA and focuses on guidelines regarding sexual abuse in California's prisons.

KCET: As an LGBT rights advocate, do you believe that housing LGBT inmates separately in San Bernardino County jails is the best course of action?

Jennifer Orthwein: From what I understand, the main issues with equal protection. The inmates in the Alternative Lifestyle unit are not getting access to the same activities and services that other inmates in the general population get. They are denied these rights based on their identification and status. It's a violation of PREA, in that San Bernardino County only uses sexual preference and gender to make housing determinations. That concerns me.

In San Bernardino, the GBT-specific units are involuntary, so inmates are forced to be housed in that situation. But perhaps having voluntary units might not be as dangerous
as long as inmates have equal access to all programming and recreational activities.

KCET: There have been reports of correctional officers abusing and harassing LGBT inmates. Advocates have called for sensitivity training in jails. Is that working, and what else could be done?

Jennifer Orthwein: There isn't a lot of cultural sensitivity instruction or training in the CDCR. I actually went through their training process in 2008 and was appalled. I haven't heard of training being implemented to address the bias toward transgender inmates. For many LGBT inmates, reporting a sexual assault can result in solitary confinement for their own safety, and that's not appealing. I often hear inmates say that they reported an assault and were told that it was their fault because they are transgender. The perception of a lot of officers is that transgender inmates somehow deserved to be victimized, and that they played a role in this victimization.

KCET: What needs to happen at the policy level?

Jennifer Orthwein: One thing we think is important but hasn't been incorporated in policy and law is accountability. Inmates who have been wronged by prison officials have limited ability to bring lawsuits. That allows these institutions to get away with quite a bit of mistreatment toward various populations. It would be nice to see legislation and policy that addresses that problem.

KCET: Can you tell us more about the lawsuit you filed last month against the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department?

Melissa Goodman: This is an equality case. It's about particular challenges faced by gay, bisexual, and transgender people who are housed in a particular unit at the West Valley Detention Center.

Basically the authorities subject LGBT inmates who are incarcerated in this unfortunately titled "Alternative Lifestyle Unit" to what is essentially a two-tier system of punishment. They are put into this unit because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and as a result they are forced to serve longer sentences without the ability to rehabilitate.

We filed this lawsuit on their behalf because I think that's fundamentally inconsistent with the notions of equality that exist in our Constitution. In the U.S., we don't punish people because of who they are. We punish them for the crimes they commit. People are getting an extra layer of punishment because of who they are -- that is illegal and unconstitutional.

KCET: How does the denial of rehabilitation services affect inmates?

Melissa Goodman: It denies people important tools and skills to succeed on the outside. Unfortunately the gay, bisexual, and transgender people leaving this unit are leaving not only after serving longer sentences, but they are less equipped to reenter the community.

KCET: Are there psychological repercussions to housing GBT inmates separate from the general prison population?

Melissa Goodman: Certainly. Being locked up in your cell for most of your day, not having opportunities to go outside or interact with more than one person can absolutely have negative psychological effects.

KCET: What do you hope will come out of this lawsuit?

Melissa Goodman: I hope it sparks a conversation about the unequal treatment that LGBT people experience in the criminal justice system. But more generally, what we hope to get out of this case is hopefully a ruling or precedent that not only fixes things for this unit and to make sure that equality is possible, but also we get a ruling that can help people in other facilities.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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