JDI IN THE NEWS - 2004

A Call for Change: Protecting the Rights of LGBT Inmates, GIC TIP Journal, Vol. 2, Issue 4 (Winter 2004).

In U.S. prisons and jails, gay, bisexual, and transgender inmates live dangerously. One study shows that more than four in ten LGBT inmates are sexually assaulted while behind bars. The gravity of the problem prompted SPR to host a Community Dialogue in Los Angeles in November, bringing together more than 40 human rights advocates, rape crisis counselors, gay rights activists, corrections officials, and politicians.

The goals of the Community Dialogue were to jump-start a frank discussion about the plight of LGBT prisoners and to rally community support behind a "Call for Change," a set of policy recommendations that, if fully implemented, would significantly decrease the frequency of sexual assault of LGBT inmates.

"Historically, gay rights groups and rape crisis centers have shied away from the issue of prisoner rape, perhaps feeling that it's marginal," explained Emily Frydrych, SPR's Policy Associate. "I think it became obvious to everyone in the room today that we are looking at a widespread human rights crisis, and that sexual abuse is never marginal."

Addressing the Community Dialogue, California State Assembly Member Jackie Goldberg concluded that a lack of popular demand for prison reform has kept legislators passive. "People still believe that there are prisoners and then there is everybody else, with no link between them. We need to start educating lawmakers about prisoner rape. Silence is death. We know that in the LGBT community."

T.J. Parsell, a gay prisoner rape survivor and member of SPR's Board of Directors, gave first-hand testimony at the Community Dialogue, describing how he was gang-raped on his first day in prison. "I was 17 and I weighed 158 pounds. Afterward, they flipped a coin to decide who would be my man," said Parsell. "I never reported the abuse because I was afraid. As a prisoner, you know that snitches die."

While LGBT prisoner rape remains widespread, some facilities go to great lengths to keep these inmates safe. Deputies Randy Bell and Bart Lanni, for example, head a special unit at Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles in which LGBT prisoners are housed, protected, and educated.

"Our philosophy is to have people help people," explained Deputy Bell. Since the creation of their program, the recidivism rate among participating inmates has dropped from a whopping 90 percent in 1998 to 30 percent in 2004. Though the results are striking, prison programs like the one at Men's Central Jail remain rare in the U.S.

The Community Dialogue ended with a passionate discussion about how community-based organizations and advocates could contribute to the fight against prisoner rape. In the coming months, SPR and allied groups will finalize the "Call for Change" document, before submitting it to prisons and jails.