JDI IN THE NEWS - 2008

Lovisa Stannow, In California and Beyond, LGBT Prison Inmates Have It Worst, Los Angeles Daily Journal, December 16, 2008

In 2006, Alexis Giraldo was repeatedly raped, assaulted, harassed and threatened in a California prison. A male-to-female transgender inmate in a men's prison, Giraldo was clearly at high risk for sexual abuse. Nonetheless, she was placed in a cell with a predatory male inmate - and then moved into another cell with her attacker's friend. Giraldo begged for help, reported the ongoing abuse and followed available protocols for requesting protection, but officials did nothing.

Sadly, Giraldo's experience is all too common. Sexual violence is pervasive throughout U.S. prisons - and no one is harder hit than lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inmates. In a recent academic study, funded by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and conducted at six California men's prisons, a shocking 65 percent of inmates who identified as LGBT reported having been sexually assaulted by another inmate during their incarceration - a rate that was 15 times higher than for the inmate population overall.

With little or no institutional protection, victims of sexual violence are left beaten and bloodied, contract HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases and suffer severe psychological harm. The initial assaults are often just the beginning of their ordeal. Survivors can be abused relentlessly - like Giraldo - for long periods of time, and marked as fair game for attacks by other detainees. In the worst cases, LGBT prisoners become sex slaves, are treated like the perpetrators' property, and are sold to others within the facility.

The trauma of a sexual assault is often heightened among LGBT inmates by the institutional apathy and homophobia they regularly face. Corrections staff tend to confuse homosexuality and transgender status with consent to rape, and trivialize the problem. LGBT inmates frequently describe officials ignoring or even laughing at their reports of sexual violence. To make matters worse, LGBT inmates who report abuse are often subjected to further attacks, humiliating strip searches and punitive segregation.

The homophobic culture of corrections is compounded by policies that do not take into account the specific safety concerns of the LGBT prison population. For example, transgender women are typically housed with men, in accordance with their birth gender, and are required to shower publicly and submit to strip searches in front of male officers and inmates. Some corrections departments have further entrenched institutional homophobia in newly developed policies aimed at combating sexual assault; policies that define all inmate sexual activity as sexual assault, regardless of consent or that prohibit "cross-gender appearance" serve no security-related purpose while further marginalizing LGBT inmates.

Simple measures to protect and respond to LGBT inmates are known, but rarely implemented. The unique safety concerns of LGBT individuals should be considered in housing and classification decisions, without relying on dangerous stereotypes or increasing punishment in the name of protection. LGBT inmates often seek protective custody because of their well-founded fear of sexual abuse, only to be placed in solitary confinement, locked in a cell for 23 hours a day, and losing access to programming and other services.

Corrections officials must take responsibility for these gaps, and be held accountable when they fail to protect vulnerable inmates in their charge. An appellate court in San Francisco recently affirmed that officials have a duty of care over inmates, rejecting the claims of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that it could not be held liable for Giraldo's assaults. Other lawsuits, most notably the U.S. Supreme Court case Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994), have held that failure to protect an LGBT inmate from sexual assault may violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Likewise, the California Legislature and the U.S. Congress have recognized the importance of holding officials accountable for failing to prevent or respond to such violence. In 2003, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which calls for a zero-tolerance approach to sexual abuse behind bars. Two years later, California became the first state to enact its own Prison Rape Elimination Act-type law: the Sexual Abuse in Detention Elimination Act, which requires the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations to adopt policies, practices and protocols to prevent and respond to sexual abuse in California prisons.

On Dec. 11, the California Senate Committee on Public Safety held a hearing focused on the unique needs of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender population in prison. Speakers discussed issues related to inmate classification systems, harassment and abuse, unequal access to health care, and difficulties facing prisoners when they re-enter society.

Sexual abuse is not an inevitable part of prison life. It is the result of ineffective policies, poor prison management, and dangerous misperceptions about who is vulnerable. California has the opportunity to be a leader in combating sexual violence behind bars, but only if California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials recognize, and take seriously, their responsibility to protect all inmates in their charge.

Lovisa Stannow is the executive director of Just Detention International, an international human rights organization dedicated to eliminating sexual violence in all forms of detention.