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