By Carimah Townes with Think Progress
Thanks to the growing visibility of trans women in pop culture and the media, the country is learning more about the unique challenges that trans people face every day — including those behind bars. In general, LGBT people in the criminal justice system are stripped of their basic human rights and experience daily violence. In Orange Is the New Black, Laverne Cox’s character is verbally harassed by other prisoners, beaten up, and thrown into solitary confinement under the guise of keeping her safe — and that is par for the course for many trans and gender non-conforming people behind bars in real life. Many are raped and denied basic necessities and medical care.
In 2014, the LGBTQ advocacy organization Black & Pink conducted the largest LGBTQ prisoner survey to date, to assess their treatment behind bars. With the help of inmates who drafted many of the questions, 1,118 prisoners in state and federal facilities responded to the 133-question survey.
According to the organization’s final report, which was released last Friday, LGBTQ inmates are discriminated against en masse. Here are some of the most egregious findings:
LGBT people face discrimination in court — even from their own attorneys.
From the time they enter the criminal justice system to the time they attempt to re-enter society, people are treated differently for their race, gender and sexual identity. More than 50 percent of trans women and people whose gender is nonbinary felt discriminated against by their defense attorneys. Similarly, 49 percent of two-spirit prisoners who identify with culturally-specific gender distinctions felt discriminated against by their attorneys. Among cis men, 39 percent of those who identify as gay reported discrimination for their attorneys, as well as 41 percent of bi and queer respondents. Likewise, more than 40 percent of black, Latino/Hispanic, and mixed respondents claimed their attorneys discriminated against them for their race or ethnicity, as did half of Native Americans.
The vast majority are in jail because they cannot pay bail.
Out of 1,099 people who responded to pretrial detention questions, nearly 75 percent of the people surveyed were kept in jail because they could not pay their bail. Among them, 51 percent spent more than a year behind bars awaiting trial and 6 percent were detained for at least three years.
Prison staff routinely harass, beat and rape inmates because they are LGBT.
Out of 1,090 respondents, 70 percent said they have been verbally harassed by staff. Thirty-five percent of 1,084 respondents were physically assaulted. Far fewer reported sexual assault or unwanted touching, but people who did say they were touched, assaulted, or raped pointed to invasive pat-downs by prison officials. Several people detailed encounters with guards who rubbed their breasts or genitals without consent.
“When these officers knows you are LGBTQ, they purposely began to harass us,” one prisoner explained. “They’ll subject us to a strip‐search & make us bend over & open our butts until they can see our anus or they’ll pat search us and they’ll either rub their filthy hands on our butts, nuts, or jack our pants in the crack of our butts.”
Moreover, 76 percent of guards put prisoners in danger of sexual assault from other prisoners.
Nearly all of them have been put in solitary confinement, often for years.
When all of the time prisoners have spent in solitary confinement — widely considered a form of torture — is added up, it amounts to 5,110 years. Eighty-five percent of all respondents have been put in solitary at some point, and half of that group has spent at least two years in isolation. More than half of respondents doing time in solitary are people of color, and unlike white prisoners, most of them are put there against their will. Among all respondents who have been held in isolation, 87 percent have been diagnosed with a mental illness.
Many are told by prison officials that they are being put in isolation, or “protective custody,” because it is safer for them to be separated from other inmates. However, many LGBTQ inmates are forced into solitary because they are viewed as disruptions and a threat to the social fabric of the prisons. Inmates also say they are put in solitary so they do not have sex with other inmates.
Most have been diagnosed with a mental illness.
Close to 70 percent of respondents have a diagnosed mental illness, and 46 percent do not receive therapy. More than one-third of all people diagnosed with a mental illness have no access to medication and 30 percent have been forced to take medication.