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Queer Injustice: The Widespread Sexual Abuse LGBT People Face in Prison

While sexual violence is part of the daily prison experience for many inmates, LGBT people are disproportionately targeted by staff and prisoners.

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Consequently, transgender women and men who are or perceived to be gay or effeminate find themselves at the bottom of the prison hierarchy, and as such become the targets of sexual abuse. According to Bella Christina Borrell, a transgender woman, “Female transgender prisoners are the ultimate target for sexual assault and rape. In this hyper-masculine world, inmates who project feminine characteristics attract unwanted attention and exploitation by others seeking to build up their masculinity by dominating and controlling women.”

As Alexander Lee, Donaldson, Ristroph, and others suggest, the way to maintain one’s “manhood” in prison is to dominate weaker, less powerful prisoners. Consequently, many prisoners, including some who are openly gay or gender nonconforming, may engage in ruthless acts of sexual or physical violence in order to avoid becoming victims of violence themselves. Femininity is not solely ascribed, and punished, based on sexual orientation or gender nonconformity in male institutions; it can also be associated with youthful age, diminutive size, lack of prior prison experience, and the nonviolent nature of one’s offense, rendering other “gender-nonconforming” prisoners likely targets for sexual abuse and victimization.

The case of Roderick Johnson highlights ways in which penal officials often are complicit and collaborate in sexual violence against prisoners, particularly LGBT prisoners. In some instances, guards promote and foster sexual violence between inmates in order to regulate the prison environment. This creates a system where prison staff are gatekeepers, all too often using sexual violence as a management tool by either allowing or prohibiting it as they wish.

For instance, according to TGJIP executive director Miss Major, who was incarcerated in a state facility in the late 1970s, transgender women were classified as mentally ill and therefore generally housed in the prison infirmary. Prison officials would at times take them, highly medicated with psychotropic drugs, and place them in cells with violent or troubled male inmates for the night. According to Lee, “A Louisiana prison guard described the situation inside as ‘sex and bodies become the coin of the realm,’ where prison staff trade sexual access to some prisoners for favors from other prisoners.” Guards may also promote coercive sex to recruit informants, in exchange for payoffs, or to destroy the leadership of an articulate prisoner.

The sexual assault and abuse of women, including lesbians and gender-nonconforming individuals, in women’s institutions has not prompted the same degree of attention and outrage as sexual violence in men’s prisons. Yet “sexual abuse and assault of prisoners by prison staff is commonplace and pervasive.” It appears that, compared to male prisoners, incarcerated women are more likely to be sexually abused by staff than by other prisoners. One study completed by sociologists Cindy and David Struckman-Johnson found that “41 percent of women prisoners, compared to 8 percent of the men who responded to surveys were victimized by prison staff.” Amnesty reports that “lesbians and other women who are seen to transgress gender boundaries are often at heightened risk of torture and ill- treatment” and that “perceived or actual sexual orientation” is “one of four categories that make a female prisoner a more likely target for sexual abuse.”

Furthermore, women, including transgender women, suffer from additional forms of sexual degradation and harassment from penal officials who routinely subject them to excessive, abusive, and invasive searches, groping their breasts, buttocks, or genitalia, repeatedly leering at them while they shower, disrobe, or use the bathroom, and generally, in the words of Human Rights Watch (HRW), creating an environment that is “highly sexualized and excessively hostile.” Vicki, a transgender woman, informed SRLP that prison guards “frisk as [a] means of harassment, with all their friends watching. After frisking me they say, ‘I need a cigarette now.’” Some transgender women reported being subjected to strip searches and frisks four to five times a day.

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