Sentenced to rape

LGBT inmates face unusually high risk of sexual assault in prison
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It's been 60 years since the United Nations General Assembly issued the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, affirming the inherent dignity and inalienable rights of all people. Yet prisoners are often denied the most basic protections of the law. Rape is still a brutal reality in prison, a problem that disproportionately affects LGBT inmates.

In 2003, Congress unanimously passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), creating federal mandates to fight sexual assault in prisons. But its implementation has been slow. This year, the Bureau of Justice Statistics conducted the first national survey of violence in the corrections system. It found sexual orientation to be the single greatest determinant for sexual abuse in prisons — 18.5 percent of homosexual inmates reported sexual assault, compared to 2.7 percent of heterosexual prisoners. Though PREA aims to reduce these figures, prisoners and their advocates have been waiting on its official guidelines, which are set for release in 2009.

In an attempt to address California's challenges in protecting LGBT inmates, California Sen. Gloria Romero held an informational meeting Dec. 11 in San Francisco, bringing together former LGBT prisoners, advocates, experts, and representatives from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

"Nobody has it easy in prisons, and LGBT persons in particular experience unique kinds of harassment, discrimination, and violence when incarcerated," said Masen Davis, executive director of the Transgender Law Center.

Inherent flaws in our social institutions result in a disproportionate number of LGBT prisoners. Discrimination in employment, housing, and healthcare often force members of the LGBT community, particularly transgender individuals, to turn to the street economy to support themselves. A survey by the Transgender Law Center found that fewer than half of transgender adults held a full-time job, and one in five have experienced homelessness since becoming transgender (see "Transjobless," 3/15/06). These factors greatly increase the instance of criminal activity in the LGBT community. The Center for Health Justice reports that more than two-thirds of male-to-female transgender San Franciscans have been incarcerated; in six other major urban areas, one in four gay men had been incarcerated.

Once LGBT individuals enter the California prison system, says Linda McFarlane, deputy executive director of Just Detention International, they are 15 times more likely to experience sexual assault than the general population. In addition, she said, prison staff more often fail to protect these inmates than others, and are more likely to believe that assaults are consensual.

"There seems to be a belief among some corrections officers that rape is unavoidable in prison," McFarlane said. "It's been asked more than once in training sessions that if transgender inmates are at such risk, why are they still allowed to be transgender within the prison environment?"

Alex Lee, a co-director of the Transgender, Gender Variant, and Intersex Justice Project, read a statement from Bella Christina Borrell, a 56-year-old transgender inmate: "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."

Of course, there are policies in place that should protect inmates from each other. PREA stipulates that sexual assault during incarceration can constitute a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution, and mandates that facilities employ a zero-tolerance policy toward abuse.

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