Megan Myhre, Sentenced to Rape, San Francisco Bay Guardian, December 24, 2008
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. However, like many things in life, the theory
and practice have little in common.
"We've heard multiple times about officers openly expressing a belief that gay and
transgender inmates cannot be raped, that they deserve to be raped due to their
mere presence in the environment, or that if they are raped it's simply not a concern,"
Joe Sullivan of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said
policy dictates that gay or transgender status alone does not warrant specific housing
arrangements. He said the department prefers to integrate inmates in a setting that
most closely resembles what they will be returning to after being paroled. When
they arrive in prison, inmates are evaluated using a system called Compass, which
is a set of guidelines to determine each person's specific needs. During this time,
inmates are able to state whether they feel they need special arrangements.
"It's a framework that is followed by the staff at institutions," Sullivan said.
"Some of the things I heard today suggest that how the framework is interpreted
is one of the issues we'll have to go look into and do some further training on."
It has been suggested that the previously used designations Category B and SOR (sexual
orientation), which include guidelines for "effeminately homosexual" men, might
aid CDCR in their classification process. However, as Sullivan stated, the prison
system's evaluation procedure largely ignores these special circumstances.
"The classification process is gender-neutral," Sullivan said. "We try to address
the individual's specific needs, as opposed to having a policy for a group or a
class of people. We really don't distinguish between transgender and non-transgender
While this policy is certainly egalitarian, it ignores the extreme vulnerability
of LGBT inmates, something many prisoners don't realize until after they've been
victimized. Then, all too often, they are placed in isolation cells usually reserved
as punitive measures.
"If they have been a victim of a sexual assault, they can be and will be single-celled,
at least for the period of time that we go through investigating the allegations,"
Sullivan said. "We try to do it in an expedient manner, so that the victim is not
the one sitting in administrative segregation."
The panelists all agreed that eliminating sexual violence against the LGBT community
requires some of our most precious resources: time, energy, and money. In the past,
the general rule has been to increase spending for prisons while simultaneously
reducing funds for social programs like housing, employment, and health care, which
all have a lot do to with the amount of crime in the first place.
Advocates recommend that an effective classification system must be implemented.
First, corrections officials have to acknowledge that factors like an inmate's sexual
orientation or transgender status put them at an exceptionally high risk for violence.
Second, steps must be taken to reduce the instances of harassment, abuse, and sexual
assault suffered by inmates. Female transgender inmates must be issued sports bras
and should be allowed to shower separately from the general population to curb humiliation
and predation. If an assault occurs, victims should not be placed in punitive custody,
the complaint must remain confidential, and assailants cannot be allowed the opportunity
to retaliate. Finally, corrections officers should have to participate in an extensive
training program to help them deal with these factors.
Bambi Salcedo, a transgender ex-convict who now works with transgender youth at
Children's Hospital Los Angeles put it simply: "We have to realize that homosexual
and transgender inmates must be treated with dignity in the correctional system."