Queer Injustice: The Widespread Sexual Abuse LGBT People Face in Prison
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The following is an excerpt from Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States, edited by Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock (Beacon Press, 2011).
Since sexual violence is one of the principal weapons of policing and punishing perceived sexual deviance and gender nonconformity on the outside, it may come as no surprise that it’s wielded to even greater effect in the highly controlled and violent environment of modern prisons. Roderick Johnson’s case and similarly horrifying experiences of countless other incarcerated queers illustrate the ways in which sexual violence allows prison authorities to control the queered prison environment as a whole.
Studies indicate that as many as one in four female prisoners and one in five male prisoners are subjected to some form of sexual violence at the hands of prison staff and other prisoners. Numbers vary depending on the methodology used in a study or survey, and many victims do not report instances of sexual violence they endure be- cause they fear retaliation, stigmatization, and isolation. Others fail to report assaults because they have become inured to it after years of abuse and forced sexual encounters. Consequently, reported instances of sexual violence represent only the tip of the iceberg. The most recent surveys completed by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) extrapolated that 60,500 incarcerated adults or 4.5 percent of the prison population were sexually abused in 2007 alone, while 3,220 or 12 percent of youth incarcerated in juvenile detention centers were sexually violated by a staff member (10.3 percent) or another youth within the first twelve months of their admission.
While sexual violence is, in many respects, part of the daily prison experience for many inmates–whether they are victims, perpetrators, or forced observers—LGBT people are disproportionately targeted by staff and prisoners. It is now generally accepted by prison officials, experts, sociologists, and prison advocates that prisoners and detainees who are, or perceived to be, gay, transgender, or gender nonconforming are more likely to be sexually assaulted, coerced, and harassed than their heterosexual and gender-conforming counterparts. One study of six male prisons in California in 2007 found that 67 percent of the respondents who identified as LGBT reported having been sexually assaulted by another inmate during their imprisonment, a rate that was fifteen times higher than the rest of the prison population.
The first national survey of violence in the penal system, conducted by the BJS in 2003, found that sexual orientation was the single greatest determinant of sexual abuse in prisons, with 18.5 percent of homosexual inmates reporting they were sexually assaulted, compared to 2.7 percent of heterosexual prisoners. Additionally, it appears that rape victims of all sexualities are subsequently framed as gay and thereby become targets for further violence. According to Bryson Martel, imprisoned in an Arkansas prison for a narcotics-related offense, “You get labeled as a faggot if you get raped. If it gets out and then people know you have been raped, that opens the door for a lot of other predators. Anywhere I was, everybody looked at me like I was a target.”
Sexual violence is often used as a tool by staff and prisoners to enforce gender roles and conformity. A male prisoner’s rank in the hierarchical world of prisons is measured by traits stereotypically associated with masculinity, including physical strength and physique, ability to commit acts of violence and self-defense, and the nature of the offense that led to incarceration. As in larger society, masculinity is privileged while traits stereotypically associated with femininity, synonymous with weakness, are devalued. According to Donaldson, “The prison subculture fuses sexual and social roles and assigns prisoners accordingly . . . in my experience confinement institutions are the most sexist (as well as racist) environment in the country, bar none.”
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.
Often such searches are conducted merely to satisfy a guard or medical staff’s curiosity regarding a person’s genitalia, but ostensibly justified as necessary for determination of appropriate placement in sex-segregated facilities. Victoria Schneider, a transgender woman arrested for prostitution in 1996, was subjected to an un- necessary and degrading strip search in the San Francisco County Jail that included an inspection of her genitalia while she was forced to bend over and cough.
In 2002, a transgender woman of color held at the same facility was ordered by a sheriff to “strip naked, masturbate, and show him her body and dance for his arousal.” According to Judy Greenspan, cofounder of Trans/Gender Variant Prison Committee (TIP) in California, transgender men also “face a lot of oppression on the part of guards . . . When they’re strip-searched, many FTMs [female to males] who have had their breasts removed or take hormones are put on display. It’s psychological brutality and they’re demonized.”
Beyond violent sexual assault, both men and women prisoners also must often submit to nonconsensual sex acts with guards or with other inmates for safety, to be free from disciplinary punishment or further harassment, or in return for drugs, commissary items, or other survival needs.40 For example, a gay inmate in a male institution who described himself as “a free-world homosexual that looks and acts like a female” reported to HRW that he had no choice but “to hook up with someone that could make them give me a little respect . . . All open Homosexuals are preyed upon and if they don’t choose up they get chosen.” As Sunny, a transgender woman in a male prison in New York, told advocates from SRLP, “If you’re not fucking somebody, you’re gonna get fucked by everybody.”
The response Roderick Johnson received to his repeated pleas for help illustrates how indifference to the plight of queer prisoners often shown by penal officials derives from beliefs that gay men and trans- gender women, particularly those of color, are sexually degraded, inviolable, and more likely to be sexual predators than victims. Ac- cording to Linda McFarlane, deputy director of JDI, “We’ve heard multiple times about officers openly expressing a belief that gay and transgender inmates cannot be raped, that they deserve to be raped due to their mere presence in the environment, or that if they are raped it’s simply not a concern.”
Carl Shepard, a gay Mississippi man serving time for larceny and a narcotics offense, who was anally raped by his cell mate during a prison lockdown, tried to report the rape to a unit administrator, a major, and a warden. “When those three were questioning me, they actually made fun of me. The major said that I was gay, the sex must have been consensual. He said I got what I deserved.”Shepard had previously been denied medical attention even though he was bleeding from his anus. Timothy Tucker, a gay HIV-positive man raped by another male inmate in a federal prison in Virginia, reported, “After I was raped they asked me if I had learned my lesson . . . [Guards] said that since I am gay I should have enjoyed it.” An inmate in Florida told HRW, “I have been sexually assaulted twice since being incarcerated. Both times the staff refused to do anything except to lock me up and make accusations that I’m homosexual.”
Prisoners and inmates who report sexual violence not only fail to receive protection, they are frequently subject to retaliation from penal officials and other inmates for reporting the abuse. For instance, LGBT victims of sexual violence are often written up for violating the rules banning consensual sex, which leads to disciplinary action. In many institutions, when a prisoner reports he or she was raped, they are placed in solitary confinement under the pretense that penal officials are providing them protection during the investigation. Instead, it sends a message to inmates that reporting the assault will only lead to further punishment. Inadequate grievance procedures also make LGBT prisoners who report the sexual violence vulnerable to future attacks.
Amnesty states that “very few [abuses] are reported because of the tremendous stigma involved and because the life expectancy of a ‘snitch’ behind bars is measured in minutes rather than days.” As one legal advocate informed SRLP, “My clients have been punched, choked, thrown against walls, threatened with murder, framed with contraband . . . and threatened with all of these acts in retaliation for receiving a letter or a visit from me or my colleagues or for filing a grievance.”
The grim reality is that even though prison policies prohibit all sexual activity and violence, in practice prison officials not only al- low and count on forcible sex, but use it to reinforce their own authority. Not only is forcible sex currency in prisons, but the prison system itself is predicated upon it. As a result, sexual violence is an entrenched and intractable feature of prison life. Defying efforts to suppress sexuality altogether, it serves the dual purpose of simultaneously queering prisons and punishing queerness and gender deviance. And because prisons are deemed to be queer spaces, it also serves to produce and strengthen queer criminal archetypes.
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