For 10 years, prison abolition group Black and Pink has been advocating for LGBTQ people who are in prison in the United States. They link up non-incarcerated people with pen pals and campaign on specific cases on injustice. Now, Black and Pink has released the largest survey of America’s LGBTQIA prison population. The survey of 950 incarcerated queer people reveals some tragic realities about how our prison system functions.
One of the scariest parts of the study is how common it is for prison staff to discriminate against and physically abuse prisoners. Seventy percent of LGBT people surveyed said that they had faced discrimination from staff and 12 percent said they were sexually assaulted or raped by staff. “A female [Corrections Officer] kept patting me down and stripping me,” wrote one prisoner in the study. “I asked her why. She said because I can. She would call other staff to strip me and she would watch and then comment on my body parts. I also had a mental health doctor touch me and try to assault me saying ‘Who will they believe, me or you?’”
Incarcerated LGBT people also face extremely high rates of assault from other prisoners: 31 percent of people surveyed said they had been sexually assaulted or raped by another prisoner. When LGBT people face attacks and abuse, the prisons often transfer them to solitary confinement to keep them isolated from the attacker. Some of these people wind up being housed in solitary confinement for years. The use of solitary confinement on anyone is inhumane, and the report shows that LGBTQ people in prison are even more likely to be sent to solitary than the general population. Bureau of Justice statistics show that 20 percent of the general prison population spends some time in “restrictive housing” while 85 percent of the LGBT people surveyed said they had been put in solitary at some point.
“While it may be difficult to imagine a person choosing to be housed in ‘the prison within a prison,’ prisoners are often forced to decide between the torture of sensory deprivation and constant violence from other prisoners in the general population,” explains the study. The idea that solitary confinement is the “safer” option for LGBT people in prison shows how screwed up the prison system is—instead of being able to protect their safety, prisons isolate the victims of assault and harassment. The survey also showed that LGBT people in prison are six times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the general prison population. The answer to that kind of widespread violence should certainly not be to punish the most marginalized people by putting them in solitary. Black and Pink advocates for several solutions: ending solitary confinement, housing LGBTQ prisoners together, and making sure that all prisoners can make free, unrecorded calls to report sexual assault.